The Homecoming

A Short Story by Bob Collins, assisted and advised by Mr P Iraia, Elder of the Ngati-whare.

A project began in 1979, when the community of Pahiatua got behind an initiative of a group of young Maori enthusiasts, to build a great double-hulled ocean going canoe, to sail it to Tahiti via Rarotonga, and then back to New Zealand, so retracing the course taken by the canoes of the great Polynesian migration.

The purpose of the project was to give the Maori youth of Pahiatua a purposeful and adventurous activity of a cultural nature and to prove by example that the traditional navigational methods were of sufficient standard to confirm the migration was a planned voyage and not a haphazard drift with a landfall achieved by chance.

The success of the project depended on the location of two available Totara logs, four feet in diameter at the top of a sixty-four foot length, mighty logs indeed. These were needed to carve the two main hulls of the canoe. Eventually the search for these narrowed to the podocarp forest called “Whirinaki” which stands on the western ramparts of the Urewera tract in the Bay of Plenty hinterland.

Late in 1979 a group of people representing the project came to the Whirinaki Forest to negotiate with the Forest Service for the release of two trees, sufficient to build the canoe. This was a straight forward transaction, but protocol had to be observed. Irrespective of legal land tenure, Whirinaki Forest lies within the tribal influence of Tuhoe, the people of the Urewera.

The small hapu (clan) of the Tuhoe who dwell in the Whirinaki river valley are known as the Ngati-whare. It is this hapu, who, though small in numbers and humble in outlook are the traditional and prideful custodians of the Forest. The visitors stayed on the Ngati-whare marae, accepted their hospitality and slept within the house of their ancestor. Following traditional custom, at a meeting within that ancient house of “Wharepakau” they asked the hosts to support the project by granting the release of two trees from the forest, sufficient to build the canoe.

After much debate and deliberation the Ngati-whare gave their blessing to the project as described, and granted the release of the trees. The next day, visitors and hosts as a group entered the sombre forest, and by religious ceremony, appeased the God of the Forests, Tane Mahuta, and blessed the Totara trees selected to drive away unwelcome spirits. On that day the trees were felled by hand methods, and at a later date the logs transported to Pahiatua.

The job was achieved without incident or accident which signified the God of the Forest smiled his approval at the taking of his children, the trees, for this purpose. A crosscut saw, used in the felling was presented to the Ngati-whare people and now hangs in pride of place within the house of “Wharepakau”.

It was at Pahiatua, in 1980 the carving of the double canoe began, and for a time all went well. Eventually, friction developed between the keen impatient youthful carvers and their supporting communities. The senior kuia (female elder) of the Ngati-whare and her niece travelled to Pahiatua to confirm and reason the agreement by which the trees were given, but they met with hostility and their reasoning was ignored. As they left for home, frustrated and slighted, but with dignity intact, the kuia made a statement to one of her sympathisers, which eventually proved to be a prophesy.


She said, “In time to come, they will fail, but we will not, for our ideals remain the same.”


Eventually, breaking from the original concept of the project, the partly constructed canoe was shipped to Tahiti where building was completed. The canoe embarked on her voyage to New Zealand in October 1985, a voyage which took two months. Navigating by traditional methods, using only sun, moon, stars and sea condition, the crew made perfect landfall on the northernmost tip of the North Island. The mariners then sailed down the east coast of Northland intent on making a ceremonial landing at Okahu Bay on the Auckland waterfront, to a traditional Polynesian welcome held at the Orakiei Marae on Bastion Point.

Why make a ceremonial landing at Auckland? Why Orakiei, what had those people done to contribute to the enterprise? Had the great trees come from those lands? No! Had the people given time or finance or effort to the project No! True,Auckland may have the largest concentration of Polynesians in the world but what did they know of the project?

Perhaps it was the close proximity of TV cameras and other media which was the lure to make landfall at Auckland. Who knows? When the small community of Ngati-whare heard of the venue they again felt slighted. They had extended their hospitality, it had only been through them and the God of the Forest that the dream of the canoe had become a reality. The Ngati-whare believed the canoe should first return to, from whence it came, to the Bay of Plenty, perhaps to make landfall at Whakatane as did the famous canoe “Mataatua” which bore their ancestors to these shores during the great migration. The Ngati-whare would have accepted the landfall had it been made in Hawkes Bay, some port adjacent to Pahiatua. The area where the dream of the voyage began and became a reality would have had a just claim for the honour. Again the Ngati-whare felt slighted, but as always they held their peace with dignity – though it did hurt.

Oh! The arrogance of man!

The crew of the canoe had taken all credit for the fast voyage from Tahiti, to make that perfect landfall on Northland; they had proved the point that traditional skills of navigation and seamanship allowed such a voyage, but they forgot the spirits and Gods of their forefathers. The spirits of those two great Totara trees from Whirinaki Forest, now entrapped in the double canoe were going home, home to Whirinaki from whence they came, back to the forest of their father, Tane Mahuta, and the Gods of the Forest, the sky, the sea, the elements and of mother earth all watched with approval as they had pointed the sharp prows of the canoe straight and true for home, quite independent of traditional navigational skills.

The planned arrival of the canoe in Auckland was. for Boxing Day 1985, but as the ship approached the Waitemata harbour the spirits began to wrest control of the canoe from the mariners, for they were going home, and home was not Auckland. Tane Mahuta watched from afar and wept for the anguish of his children. His tears fell over much of the land but mostly over Whirinaki Forest where they drained into the Whirinaki river, usually so placid, turning it into a raging torrent roaring its way to the coast where in the Bay of Plenty the tears dissipated and were lost in the broad Pacific Ocean.

The other gods noted the anguish of Tane Mahuta, so assisted the spirits of the canoe in their homecoming. A storm whipped up on the ocean, the fair wind for Auckland turned away, the currents of the sea changed and the tears of Tane Mahuta continued to fall, the rain. Wind, current and storm pushed the canoe far out to sea and off course, two hundred miles southward. There was nothing the mariners, who were mere mortals, could do to stop the southward charge. Skilled navigation and seamanship were of no avail, could not turn the ship into the sheltered waters of Auckland.

The canoe passed the waiting welcome so far out to sea, it drifted down the seaward side of the Coromandel Peninsula and across the broad mouth of the Bay of Plenty as far as East Cape. And so, the canoe clove the waters where the tears of Tane Mahuta mingled with the ocean, sailed the same water as did the ancient canoe “Mataatua”.

Eventually the mariners cried for assistance to stop the southward course, so the canoe was taken in tow, first to shelter and later to the mouth of the Whakatane river. By then the canoe had again become docile, obedient to the commands of mortals for now their course was that of the spirits.

So the canoe finally made landfall at Whakatane as had the great canoe “Mataatua”, the closest port to the homeland of the spirits, while the mariners suffered the indignity and humiliation of the untraditional stench of diesel exhaust in their nostrils as they were towed in.

The Ngati-whare community were quietly joyous at this turn of events, the slights against them had been appeased, the trees had come home, the landfall made at the correct place. The gods were also appeased because an hour after landfall the rain ceased, the wind shifted, the storm abated and the currents eased. The Ngati-whare remembered the words of the kuia so long ago, and in events saw the realisation of them. “In time to come, they will fail, but we will not for our ideals remain the same”.

Now a voyage to Auckland would not be difficult, for the spirits left the canoe at Whakatane to complete their homecoming back to Whirinaki Forest. They went by way of the River of Tears back to the forest where they took the form of two newly germinated Totara seedlings, beginning another six hundred year struggle to maturity when again man would stand in awe at their magnificence.

Such is the cycle of life, and in the forest, all is now well.


Utaina mai nga waka Let the canoes all land here
Nga waka o te motu The canoes of all the Land
Toia mai ra ki uta Haul them up on to the shore
Ki te takoto ranga To the proper resting place
Hiki nuku Hiki e Lift them, move them, lift them
Hiki rangi rangi e Lift them up, up to the skies
Tena, tena ra Greetings, greetings then
Koutou Katoa To all of you.