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Kuranui waka, ready for its helicopter ride (Photo: Te Kaahui o Rauru)
Kuranui waka, ready for its helicopter ride (Photo: Te Kaahui o Rauru)

ĀteaJune 20, 2023

The incredible recovery of a Taranaki waka, brought to light after 150 years

Kuranui waka, ready for its helicopter ride (Photo: Te Kaahui o Rauru)
Kuranui waka, ready for its helicopter ride (Photo: Te Kaahui o Rauru)

The remains of a waka connected to a significant conflict in the New Zealand Wars, which lay hidden in the Pātea River for more than 150 years, have been recovered. Airana Ngarewa was there.

A waka believed to be at least 154 years old has been discovered and recovered in the Pātea River in Taranaki. What remains of the waka, one-half to two-thirds of its hull, rested on a bend in the river. Seven to eight metres in length and estimated to be anywhere between 300 and 500kg, the waka was found by chance.

Local iwi gather at the recovery site; Airana Ngarewa with the waka on the banks of the Pātea River (Photos: Te Kaahui o Rauru; supplied)

After 20 dead eels had washed ashore at Pātea Beach towards the end of May, Manawa Energy, which owns the Pātea hydroelectric scheme further up the river, had commissioned two contractors, Bart Jansma of Riverwise Consulting and Andrew Briggs of 4sight, to monitor the health of eels in the river. It is on this journey that something like a waka was first spotted and iwi were notified. In the end, it was my own father, Darren Ngarewa, an iwi historian, who verified it was indeed a waka, removing the mud on its surface and determining by the red colour underneath that it was made from tōtara. Because of its make, the area where it was found, the adze marks on the hull and the lashing holes, it is believed to be at least 154 years old. 

four people on a river bank, digging a waka out of mud
The waka was secured before being dug out of the mud on the banks of the Pātea River (Photo: Te Kaahui o Rauru)

That was the last time this area was occupied by Māori. After the conclusion of Tītokowaru’s campaign against the Crown in 1869, many members of Te Pakakohi, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru took refuge at Kuranui Pā, an area that could only be accessed by the river. The colonial forces pursued this group and on June 13 of the same year, despite the warning by resident magistrate James Booth that he could not enforce a surrender, Major Noake approached the pā by canoe. When the colonial forces landed, the men of Kuranui raised their guns but Ngawaka Taurua, one of three chiefs occupying the pā, laid his down at his feet and his men followed suit. One hundred and twenty three men, women and children, everyone at Kuranui except a few who had managed to flee, was arrested and on the following day, in 17 of their own waka, they made their way down the Pātea River where Ngawaka would again be responsible for negotiating the surrender of others who were implicated in fighting alongside Tītokowaru. The men, recorded as Te Pakakohi, were later sent to Wellington where 74 were convicted to be hanged and quartered for being in open rebellion against the Crown, the sentence later being reduced to between three and seven years of hard labour in Otago. As a result of the conditions they were kept in and the labour they were made to complete, 18 of the men would die there from a variety of diseases.

Two side by side photos, the first of a helicopter with a waka secured underneath, the second a close-up of the waka hanging from ropes
After being dug out of the mud, the waka was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby track (Photo: Airana Ngarewa)

Given the make and the proximity of the discovered waka to Kuranui Pā, only metres from one of its banks over a narrow part of the river, it seems likely that this is its origin, perhaps left behind by those of Kuranui after their arrest or destroyed by the colonial forces. The scorched earth policy originally implemented in the area by General Chute meant anything seen to be useful to Māori would be destroyed including kāinga and crops, a policy that led directly to Tītokowaru’s campaign against the Crown. 

The name Kuranui is said to be a reference to a species of moa that was once abundant in the area. In wānanga, the night before the recovery, this was the name given to the waka, acknowledging its connection to Kuranui Pā and referencing the waka as a great treasure to all who whakapapa to the men, women and children who were arrested there. 

The waka is secured to a trailer to be taken to a secure location to be preserved (Photo: Airana Ngarewa)

One hundred and fifty four years later to the day the men, women and children of Kuranui departed the papakāinga in their 17 waka, the waka Kuranui was removed from the bank. The waka was first secured, dug out of the mud, and then placed onto a cradle where it would then be lifted onto a nearby track by helicopter. Suzanne Rawson of Heritage Preservation Field Support Solutions, who helped lead the recovery alongside iwi, the Pātea Historical Society and Manatū Taonga, reported that this is the first time a waka of this era has been airlifted by a helicopter. From there, Kuranui was placed on a trailer and taken to a secure location to be placed in a large tank of water to be preserved. Given the size of the waka, the preservation process is anticipated to take two to three years.  

All those involved on the day of the recovery, around 50 people in total, hope that when the time is right the waka Kuranui will return to Pātea where it can stand as a memorial to all those who lived, loved and laid down their guns at Kuranui Pā. 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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