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Matariki Harbour Challenge showcases mixed culture and sport

This weekend Wellington’s waterfront will be awash with canoeists and paddlers from all over the country to compete for a number of prestigious titles in the Capital’s premier Waka Ama race – The Matariki Harbour Challenge.

Hosted by Hikoikoi Waka Ama Club, the highly competitive two-day event will be a part of the Capital’s Matariki celebrations on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 June 2019.

Waka Ama has grown in popularity since the resurgence of kaupapa waka in the 1980s. Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr of Tainui was one of a small number of people who brought waka ama back to Aotearoa. He is patron of the event and the competition’s junior trophy is named after him.

He believes that waka ama is not just important for young people to learn, but important for everyone, for all the other cultural aspects that it brings to the sport. “Waka ama becomes culturally effective if the clubs they are working with, or paddling with, act in a culturally-appropriate manner like a whānau or an iwi,” he said. “Not just paying and training, but also helping out with the maintenance of waka.”

Culture is at the core of this increasingly popular competition making it more than just a water sport event. Aotearoa celestial navigator Piripi Smith believes it provides an opportunity for New Zealanders to get involved in celebrating Matariki. “None of us would be here as Māori or as Pacific Islanders if it wasn’t for voyaging waka and the mātauranga (knowledge) around navigating them through the Pacific,” said Smith.

“Matariki is a time for sharing knowledge and there are a lot more people celebrating it, whereas 20 years ago it wasn’t a very big thing and it’s good to see it becoming known by the general public.”

Smith said the practise and mātauranga about ocean voyaging and the stories of the whetū (stars) were lost for Māori for about three to four hundred years. “We lost the practice of it, but it was always there in karakia and waiata about various whetū and voyaging. Because we lost that for so long a time, we don’t want to lose it again and it’s very important that we pass that down to the next generation.”

Crafted by Takiri Cotterill, Kairaranga Te Rōpū Raranga o Manaia, the trophies or Kohatu are replicas of punga waka (canoe anchors) traditionally used for smaller waka and represent a number of highly significant cultural themes (see editors notes below).

Participants see the competition as a great lead into other events given that the winter season provides for fewer race opportunities. New Zealand representative Joern Scherzer has paddled for over 30 years and has been a sprint specialist for the last six years. He won the New Zealand Aito in 2013 and consistently places within the top three of his races.

Scherzer is hoping the event will let him know where he is at in terms of fitness and speed as he works towards competing in the IVF World Distance Championships in Australia this August. “As we head into the winter season with fewer races on the calendar, and those races that are on it tend be relatively short distances, this is a welcome opportunity to mix it up and get some training in. It’s only about two months until the World Champs in August,” he said.

Spectators will enjoy seeing a number of local paddlers, including Marianna Hodges who also paddles for New Zealand. Matariki Harbour Challenge event organiser and Race Director, Chris Fox, is delighted with this year’s entries. “Hikoikoi Waka ama is delighted to have these world class paddlers compete in our Matariki event. Both Marianna and Joern contribute a huge amount to our waka ama community, sharing their knowledge and experiences on a regular basis.

“Waka ama has come a long way over the last two decades and its profile continues to grow each year. We are looking forward to an exciting weekend of racing as the waka ama journey continues to gather momentum,” added Fox.

This unmissable showcase of Māori culture and sport will be based on the waterfront at Te Raukura – Te Wharewaka o Pōneke and sees some of the country’s best paddlers coming together to tackle the testing locations of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour). Team canoes compete Saturday and singles on Sunday.

Find out more on Hikoikoi Waka Ama Club's website and Facebook.

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