Thirty years ago, a crew of rangatahi led by Hekenukumai Busby embarked on a daring journey of rediscovery to Rarotonga and back, rekindling knowledge that had been lost, while proving a point.
They set out from Te Tai Tokerau on a double-hulled canoe named Te Aurere, a 60-foot waka hourua made of kauri logs tied together with a tall mast protruding from the center.
The Aurere voyage followed a wero laid down by Sir James Henare in 1985, said voyage captain Stan Conrad, 30 years after the epic adventure. A similar waka hourua – Hōkūle’a – had arrived from Hawai’i, rebuilt by navigators there.
“That was pretty much the platform for us to go on,” Conrad said. “That Pa Henare kōrero saying it’s the best day of his life, against all those critics who said it was never done.”
“It was the platform, but it was also the wero for Hector.”
Tā Hek spent years consulting across the Pacific to refine the model of waka hourua he would build.
He then spent time working with tohunga to relearn celestial navigation.
“[The knowledge] was totally lost,” Conrad said. “We could only look at it in the books. For all of us it was all new, it was just a small part of what we had to learn.”
Combining all of this, Tā Hek then searched across the motu for a crew of rangatahi, all of whom swore to pass it on to themselves.
“If one starts to run out, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of the crew, so you have to make sure your choice of crew has to be the right one,” Tā Hek told RNZ in 1992.
Jack Thatcher and Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp were among the crew he chose, and they all had something to prove.
The Maori did not arrive here by accident, caught in a drift or stranded by chance. They followed a mātauranga who saw them deliberately navigate through the largest ocean in the world.
“I remember when they brought the Endeavor Bicentenary to Gisborne in 1969 and I was a schoolboy at the time,” recalls Nepia-Clamp.
“In school we were taught that the greatest sailor, the greatest navigator was Cook and that our ancestors were just accidental wanderers.”
“Luckily I came home in the evening and mum was like, ‘Oh, what did you learn in school today, son,’ and I told her and she was like, ‘No, that’s not is not true. You come from a proud line of travelers.”
Thus, in 1992, they set off on the Te Aurere, orienting themselves only with the stars, the swell and the birds. It was the first waka hourua trip in centuries, with Maori returning to their ancestral roots at Te Moana Nui-a-Kiwa.
They endured rogue waves, nearly wiped out by a freighter and a four-day cyclone. But they did.
“You trusted your waka and our waka got us through this,” Conrad said. “Too bad we broke our mast but we still go through with our waka, our waka brought us home.”
And they did. They sailed to Rarotonga, then returned to Aotearoa. As Te Aurere hit the sand in 1992, Hekenukumai Busby told RNZ’s Henare Te Ua, “the trip proved they did it and they must have done it.”
“We arrived in Rarotonga and also came back. We really proved that the double hull canoe can withstand almost any type of sea.”
Hekenukumai Busby passed away in 2019. But that was after a lifetime of building many more waka and embarking on many more journeys, completing a triangle that saw him sail to Hawai’i and Rapa Nui.
On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary, Conrad, Thatcher and Nepia-Clamp were all part of the original crew of Te Aurere who gathered in Wellington this week, aboard another waka of Tā Hek, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti .
Three decades later, they are all teaching waka hurua and navigation to hundreds of rangatahi across the country. And they set the record straight on what the tūpuna were capable of and did.
“You think about what he did and what we three did, just the three of us over those 30 years, we did a lot,” Conrad said.
“When we set out on that 1992 journey, we just didn’t know where it was going to take us. You look around now and you see the momentum of our people.”
Nepia-Clamp added, “And get the story straight.”