An everlasting link

More than 360 years after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to set eyes on New Zealand, a new link has been forged between the two nations.

On October 18, 2010, a fully carved waka taua [Māori ceremonial canoe] named Te Hono ki Aotearoa — The Link to New Zealand — was handed over to a Dutch museum as thousands of spectators crowded the banks of an inner-city canal.

The handover ceremony involved paddlers from both countries, ambassadors, a 30-strong Māori delegation, and even a member of the Dutch royal family.

Te Hono ki Aotearoa is on permanent loan to the Museum Volkenkunde [Ethnology] in Leiden, a city midway between Amsterdam and The Hague, but will remain the property of arts organisation Toi Māori.

The waka will form a living exhibit and, it is hoped, an ever-lasting link between the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The 18-man canoe was made by Far North master waka builder Hekenukmai (“Hec”) Busby at his workshop in Doubtless Bay.

It was one of two carved from a single kauri and is Mr Busby’s 27th, which includes ten he built in Hawaii. Te Hono, however, will be his first permanently stationed outside the Pacific.

The carvings were made by a team led by Takirirangi Smith of Porirua. Four carvers also spent a month in Holland carving a whare waka [canoe shelter] for the museum grounds.

Te Hono ki Aotearoa takes to the water for the first time on the Awapoko River, Aurere. 

The waka was launched and put through its paces for the first time on June 26, 2010, after a naming ceremony and a dedicated haka [ceremonial dance] performed by Whakatane cultural group Toi o Mataatua.

Among those paddling on the new waka’s maiden outing was Robert Gabel of Kawakawa, chairman of Ngā Waka Federation.

“She goes like the clappers,” he said, putting its speed down to a hull design which Mr Busby had refined over many years.

Te Hono was also adapted for Dutch conditions with a lowered taurapa [sternpost] to fit under low bridges and a hull designed to “turn on a dime” so it could manoeuvre on narrow canals.

Mr Gabel said waka had been to Europe before but Te Hono would be the first permanently based on the continent.

“Originally the museum wanted to buy a waka and that would have been the end of it. We felt it was better to lend it and build up a relationship with the Dutch people — so we’ll have a whanaungatanga [relationship] with Holland that’s ongoing, that’s forever,” he said.

The plan is to keep the relationship alive — and the Dutch trained in waka protocols — by sending a few kaihoe [paddlers] to Holland every year, with the Dutch reciprocating by sending some of their paddlers to New Zealand for Waitangi Day celebrations every February 6.

Master waka builder Hekenukumai Busby and kaihautū [captain] Chappy Harrison.
Kaitaia’s Chappy Harrison, whose first experience of waka was as a bailer at the tender age of five, captained Te Hono on its first outing and trained a “really sharp crew” to travel to Leiden for the handover.

The crew in turn trained members of Leiden University’s Njord Rowing Club in waka drills, customs and maintenance. Club members will help paddle Te Hono at cultural events around Europe.

Volkenkunde Museum spokeswoman Geke Vinke said the waka handover also marked the opening of a major exhibition simply called Māori.

The exhibition featured taonga [treasures] from the museum’s collection — such as a hoeroa [ceremonial whalebone weapon] which had belonged to the great Ngāpuhi chief Tamati Waka Nene — and objects on loan from museums in the UK and Germany.

Visitors could also take part in workshops on carving and the haka, see contemporary Maori art, and learn about Māori mythology and the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the Maori chiefs and Britain in 1840.

Ms Vinke said the seeds of the exhibition were planted in 2005 when museum staff returned a 19th century preserved Māori head to Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington.

An exhibition the following year on Leiden-born photographer Ans Westra, best known for her portraits of 1960s Māori, led to more contacts with New Zealand and the idea of “ordering” a waka.

A grant of €425,000 (NZ$760,000) from BankGiro Loterij, the Dutch lottery grants organisation, meant the museum could expand its wish-list to include a fibreglass-hulled training waka and a carved whare waka for the museum grounds, due to be completed in 2011.

Ms Vinke said the project had sparked strong interest in Holland and the “spectacular” handover ceremony received wide TV and newspaper coverage.

As for the waka master, Mr Busby said the short timeframe made building Te Hono especially demanding. Two weeks before the launch it was still a bare hull, he said.

Although 78 at the time, he had no plans to put his feet up. As Te Hono was being tested he was already planning his next waka, which would be carved in Rotorua and gifted to China.

“One of the reasons I’m still doing it is that I’m hoping it will carry on when I’m gone. It was waka that brought us here in the first place, so we should nuture our culture,” he said.

The 14-metre, 955-kilogram Te Hono ki Aotearoa was transported by container ship from the port of Tauranga to Antwerp in Belgium, then trucked to Leiden for the official handover.

First published in Mana magazine, October 2010. 

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited New Zealand in 1642 while searching for a mythical southern continent. His first encounter with Māori ended badly, with three of his crew and at least one Māori killed. He left several place names — including the country’s name, which is derived from Zeeland, a Dutch province — but never set foot on New Zealand soil.

My father, John (Jan) de Graaf, was born in Leiden in 1931, with a whakapapa [family tree] in the city going back many centuries. He came to Aotearoa [New Zealand] in 1961 on the SS Waterman, a World War II troop carrier converted to a migrant ship.


In the June 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours, master waka builder Hekenukmai Busby was named a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit,  one of the country’s highest honours, for services to Māori. “Sir Hec” dedicated his knighthood to his wife Hilda, who died 22 years earlier.

· · · · ·

The next story was a follow-up report about four Dutch paddlers who took part in the 2011 Waitangi Day celebrations, published in the Northern Advocate, February 7, 2011.


Dutch paddlers hooked on waka

A young Dutchman taking part in Waitangi Day celebrations as a waka paddler says it is one of the greatest experiences of his life.

Koos Wabeke, 23, from the city of Leiden, was one of four Dutch students to visit Northland in the first year of an exchange between New Zealand and the Netherlands.

The relationship began last year with the handover of a fully carved, Northland-made waka to the Volkenkunde ethnology museum in Leiden.

Among the conditions of the waka’s permanent loan to the museum are that a Dutch crew is fully trained in waka protocols, and that some of the paddlers travel to New Zealand for Waitangi Day celebrations each year to enhance their knowledge.

Dutch paddlers Koos Wabeke and Pieter Roorda.

The Dutch kaihoe [paddlers] belong to the Njord Royal Rowing Club, the Netherlands’ oldest student rowing club.

Mr Wabeke said members of arts organisation Toi Māori travelled to Holland last year to check them out and learn about the club, which was founded in 1874 and received its ‘royal’ title to honour club members’ part in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

The Dutch kaihoe spent many hours practising paddle drills and had to learn the haka.

“Some of it was pretty new to us, but because we are used to discipline and rhythm, we picked it up pretty fast.”

Their first time in the waka Te Hono ki Aotearoa [The Link to New Zealand] was “pretty special”, he said.

“It’s such an important waka to them, we have to be respectful and very understanding with it.”

When the time came for the handover last October — on a city canal in front of thousands of people, including diplomats and a member of the Dutch royal family — Mr Wabeke, as club president, was chosen as kaihautū [captain].

“It was amazing, but it was nerve-wracking. I had to learn all the Māori commands and lead the haka.”

As well as taking part in the Waitangi Day waka pageant, the Dutch paddlers visited waka master Hec Busby’s workshop in Doubtless Bay, where the Dutch waka was built, and had the “great honour” of crewing the 36-metre waka Ngātokimatawhaorua.

“The Māori culture has grabbed us pretty hard,” Mr Wabeke said.

“They are trusting and give us a lot of responsibility, they are open and honest, they tell great stories and then listen to our stories. We are hooked on it. It’s an absolutely amazing country, and this is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”

The paddlers already have a rigorous training schedule planned when they return to Holland — but any practice in the waka will have to wait until the frozen canals thaw.

Also taking part in the waka pageant were Pieter Roorda, 22, Peerke van der List, 20, and Annerie van Dalsen, 24. They were accompanied by Farideh Fekrsanati, objects conservator at the Volkenkunde Museum.

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