Story: Canoeing and rafting

Page 1. Early canoeing

All images & media in this story

Canoes, kayaks (covered canoes) and rafts are all simple boats propelled by paddles. They are an ideal way to explore New Zealand’s scenic waterways. The sheltered coastal waters, inland lakes and rivers offer a range of experiences, from placid drifting to thrilling white-water runs.

Māori canoes and rafts

In the past, Māori used open canoes (waka) made of hollowed-out logs, and rafts (mōkihi) made of flax, wood and other materials, mainly for transport and fishing.

Early European explorers, missionaries and settlers explored parts of New Zealand in mōkihi and waka that were usually crewed by Māori. But there was always time for play. The sport of racing waka appealed to both Māori and Pākēha. A regatta organised by Whanganui settlers on 27 February 1843 featured waka races in which Māori and Europeans competed. Waka are still raced in regattas.

On the Whanganui River

Recreational canoeing by European settlers began on the Whanganui River in the 1840s, first with waka and then with canoes of European design. Canoeists ventured upriver from Whanganui to Taumarunui, camping at Māori villages on the way.

After John T. Stewart surveyed the Whanganui River in a waka in 1885, some channels were cleared and deepened, allowing large vessels to pass. These improvements further encouraged canoeists. Trips downriver from Taumarunui, first in square-built rowboats and later in open Canadian canoes, started in 1889. They became more frequent from 1892 when the Whanganui River Trust published a guide to the river, with the rapids named and numbered.

The joys of canoeing

In the early 1840s Edward Jerningham Wakefield was a passenger in a waka paddled by a Māori crew. He described the idyllic journey up the Whanganui River: ‘Reclining on a platform covered with soft mats just forward of my steersman, under the shade of a broad-brimmed Panama hat, now smoking, now sketching … and then seizing a paddle or a pole and raising a canoe-song to encourage my crew, as some old acquaintance came up alongside and challenged me for a race, I entered heartily into the spirit of our expedition.’ 1

Around Cook Strait

The first New Zealand canoe club – Wellington’s Tainui Canoe Club – was an offshoot of the Star Regatta Club. Formed in 1870, it was affiliated to the Royal Canoe Club in England in 1882. Members went on regular canoeing holidays in the Marlborough Sounds and took part in the Picton regatta.

Europeans first canoed across Cook Strait’s wild waters, between the North and South islands, in the 1890s. Two Hokitika canoeists, George and James Parkes, crossed from north to south on 23 February 1890 and continued down the coast to Dunedin. In 1895 W. and G. FitzGerald crossed both ways, and in 1896 the first solo crossing was made by H. V. Shearman. Their craft were based on English Rob Roy canoes. Over four metres long, these were built of planks and decked over except for a small central cockpit. They could be rigged with masts and sails for sea voyages, and were still popular in the 1920s.

  1. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, edited by Joan Stevens. Auckland: Viking, 1975, p. 175. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Canoeing and rafting - Early canoeing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 18 Jul 2016