Story: Waka – canoes

Page 3. Waka taua

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The largest waka

Waka taua were the biggest, ranging from 9 to over 30 metres long. Vessels holding up to 100 people were observed by James Cook during his voyages in the 18th century, while other commentators observed equally substantial waka in the 19th century.

Waka taua were also the most ornately adorned and carved. They were sometimes referred to as waka pītau, which describes the perforated, spiral carving that supports the carved figurehead in the tauihu (prow).

The historian Hoani Nahe recalled two Ngāti Maru waka taua – Otuiti and Okunui – in the late 1800s, which he described as the largest he had ever seen. They could hold five ranks of men from the bows to the stern where three men would sit, two of them alternating with paddlers as they became tired. Hulls often consisted of three sections held together by a haumi (mortise and tenon joint) and lashed in place.

Selecting the tree

Trees were chosen for their strength and length. A selected tree became taunahatia (bespoken for use) and a clearing was made around it. Such a tree might remain standing for years, and in some cases a karakia (incantation) would be said to prevent it being knocked over by Tāwhirimātea, the god of the winds.

Before felling, several aspects needed consideration – the location, the probable fall direction, any obstacles that could break the fall, and the practicality of moving the fallen tree. A tohunga would then say incantations to remove tapu (religious restriction) and propitiate Tāne, god of the forest. Once the tree was felled, tapu was reinstated.


At the beginning of the day the workers were placed under a tapu that was lifted at nightfall. They would roughly hollow out the tree close to where it fell, and then haul the roughed-out hiwi (hull) to a more convenient working place. Dressed and carved timber was also used for the rauawa (topstrakes), which added greater freeboard and improved seaworthiness. When the waka was ready, elaborately carved decorative pieces called tauihu (prow carvings) and the taurapa (sternpost) were attached to the ihu (bow) and the kei (stern). Then the kawa ceremony (tapu removal) was performed. A karakia was also said at the launching.

A vessel for war parties

Named for its use by taua (war parties), the canoe often transported warriors on military expeditions. It was therefore associated with the consequences of war – death and destruction. Waka taua sometimes returned the mortal remains of men slain in battle to their tribal home. This endowed the vessel with a spiritual status that endures to this day; many tribes have specific rituals to determine the use of their waka taua.

How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka – canoes - Waka taua', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 12 Jun 2006