Backgrounder: Waka – New Zealand’s first boat

Aotearoa New Zealand’s sailing heritage goes back far beyond the arrival of the first European settlers.

Some 800 years ago, New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people arrived on waka / canoes from far off islands of the South Pacific.

The ancestors of Māori were among the world’s greatest canoe builders, navigators and mariners.

Waka is the Māori word for canoe, but it can also be used to describe any vehicle of conveyance.

Traditional waka

Traditional waka are built from the trunks of hardwood forest trees.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, waka became predominantly single-hulled vessels, classified by their size, shape, adornment and use. This in turn was determined by the type and quantity of native trees.

The beam of a canoe from the Pacific Islands was limited by the narrow girth of the local trees. A builder would have to construct a narrow hull and build up the sides to raise the freeboard, which created instability. To compensate, he would attach an outrigger float with crossbeams to the hull.

When Māori arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, much of the land was covered in ancient native forests. This ready supply of wide-girthed trees, such as tōtara, allowed the construction of different waka types.

Māori developed a variety of vessels for coastal and inland waterways. Each had its special function, from the grand carved waka taua for war parties to handy rafts for fishing.

Waka taua

Waka taua are large war canoes up to 40m in length and are manned by as many as 80 paddlers. These large waka, which are usually elaborately carved and decorated, consist of a main hull formed from a single hollowed-out log, along with a carved upright head and tailboard.

For Māori, the waka is a powerful symbol of culture and heritage. Often large waka were ornately carved, visually retelling histories and stories important to the particular iwi / tribe making the waka.

Many Māori myths and legends are based around the seafaring vessels. One Māori legend tells how the ancient ancestor Maui fished from a waka that was the South Island hauling up his catch - the North Island - from the depths.

Experience waka today

Visitors to New Zealand can experience the on-the-water thrill of manning a traditional Māori waka or seeing one in action.

At Waitangi, the birthplace of the nation, Waka Taiamai Tours offer visitors the chance to paddle a waka and gain insight into the world of Ngapuhi, New Zealand's largest Māori tribe. The tribe’s ancient histories and stories are shared with paddlers aboard a 50ft waka taua / war canoe on the tidal estuaries of the Waitangi River.

Mitai Māori Village in the thermal wonderland of Rotorua is home to a hand carved waka, which was built by the Mitai family. Visitors see warriors by night in traditional dress traveling down the Wai-O-Whiro stream on the boat as it was done hundreds of years ago by ancestors of the Mitai whanau / family.

Modern waka

Kayaking is a great way to get out on the water and experience some of New Zealand’s stunning waterways and landscapes, and in some places visitors can experience a perfect mix of kayaking with Māori culture.

Te Ara Moana - ‘The Seagoing Pathway’, is a great way to see some of Auckland’s eastern coastline while following in the footsteps of the Māori ancestors. It is one of many routes traditionally paddled by Māori to travel between settlements, carry goods for trade and source food.

Learn about Lake Taupo’s volcanic history whilst kayaking across Lake Taupo to the Māori rock carvings. The Māori rock carvings are over 10 metres high and are only accessible by boat or kayak. Sea kayaking allows people to get up close to the carvings with plenty of time to study the detail.

The South Island has New Zealand’s most popular kayaking destination - Abel Tasman National Park, where paddlers are often joined by seals as they explore the forest clad coastline, golden sand bays and sculpted granite headlands.

Kayaking tours can be a few hours or several days, and there are boat trips and water taxis for visitors wanting to explore the park and beyond to the tranquil Marlborough Sounds.

More information

New Zealand’s sea-going love affair

New Zealand - a sailing nation