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As New Zealand and the world watched the Cook Islands flagship Te Au O Tonga glide majestically into Poverty Bay on the millennium dawn, they were reminded of a time when Polynesians left their ancient homelands for Aotearoa.

By Florence Syme-Buchanan

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (January 13, 2000 – Cook Islands News)---It has been the most outstanding performance yet by Te Au O Tonga, and a credit to her captain Paiau Pirake and the Cook Islands crew who have been onboard the vessel since September last year.

It was the 72-foot Te Au O Tonga that led the fleet of vessels into Gisborne’s millennium celebrations.

"We are told that as Te Au O Tonga came towards the beach it was as if the ‘vaka’ was emerging out of the sunrise. Te Au O Tonga was silhouetted against the dawn and people listening to Kiri te Kanawa left their seats to watch us approach," reports crew member Mike Mitchell.

"Te Au O Tonga was queen of the fleet. By her sheer size, she dominated the fleet and was escorted by the ‘vaka taua’ (50 foot New Zealand Maori war canoes) to the beach where warriors awaited to perform the challenge of the tangata whenua," says Mitchell.

"The ‘vaka,’ with sails unfurled and a very gentle breeze, was able to provide a stunning backdrop to the event on the beach."

The time trials which Te Au O Tonga crew did before January 1 paid off. The ‘vaka’ had to be at a certain point at precisely 5:46 a.m. when the sun rose.

"We were the Vikings of the sunrise. There was almost an eerie moment as we silently drifted across the water. The crew were all quiet and we did feel that we were part of a very special occasion," added Mitchell.

Included in the fleet was the New Zealand canoe, Te Aurere, two paddling war canoes, three outriggers from the Marshall Islands, an outrigger from Hawai‘i and a flotilla of smaller outriggers from Gisborne paddling clubs. Two tall ships, the Soren Larsen and Spirit of New Zealand, completed the fleet.

"When the first sun rises on New Year’s Day, a karanga will launch this ancient fleet beginning what will be a spiritual journey into the new millennium," reported the Gisborne Herald.

Thousands of people lined the beaches of Poverty Bay for Gisborne’s Ruamano 2000 celebrations, which were held in three phases, beginning with the arrival of the fleet.

President of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society Sir Thomas Davis was present for the arrival of Te Au O Tonga in Gisborne. Sir Thomas, who is responsible for reviving traditional voyaging in this country, told New Zealand media, "Te Au O Tonga was an important emblem symbolizing and bringing together the Pacific Island nations."

Sir Thomas was quoted in the Herald saying that the big voyaging canoe is a replica of the vessels that were abundant in the Pacific at the time of the great migration and as such, was the best taonga (treasure) that could be put forward to honor the ancestors.

"We are one people, with one tradition, one blood and one goal, which will grow stronger," Sir Thomas was reported saying.

Each of the Pacific Island ‘vaka’ carried a ‘toka mauri’ (sacred life-force stone), which were laid to rest in Hei Pipi Park in a traditional Maori ceremony that attracted a large gathering of people. The ‘toka mauri’ were blessed and placed on specially made plinths, which surround the large ‘tauihu’ (canoe prow) carved by Maori artist Te Aturangi Nepia Clamp. Clamp has been to Rarotonga several times, crewing on Te Au O Tonga, and his stone carvings can be seen at the Cultural Centre here.

The stone from the Cook Islands was taken from Taputapuatea Marae, another from Mt. Ikurangi is to be placed on Mt. Hikurangi in New Zealand.

"The placement of the stones forms a spiritual bond between the three local iwi (Gisborne tribes) and the peoples of the Pacific," wrote Helen Jones in The Herald.

Chairman of the Turanganui a Kiwa Voyaging Trust Owen Lloyd said there are plans to build a voyaging canoe in Gisborne. It will be used to teach younger New Zealand Maori the art of traditional voyaging.

"The vessel will be used to help empower our young people and teach that life is an adventure," said Lloyd in the Herald.

Building a voyaging ‘vaka’ for Gisborne will be the realization of a long-term ambition of Te Aturangi Nepia Clamp, whose carvings also adorn the hulls of Te Au O Tonga.

The Cook Islands crew have been joined by Takitumu paramount chief Pa Ariki. Mike Mitchell reports the hospitality of the Gisborne Maori "has been simply overwhelming."

The ‘vaka’ sails for Tokomaru Bay where she will be put on the slip for an overhaul of her hulls, which have done over 25,000 nautical miles around the Pacific.

"The boys have been onboard since the beginning of the journey, which started in September, and while we are very proud to represent the Cook Islands on such an pre-eminent position in the whole millennium event, they are homesick," says Mitchell.

Te Au O Tonga is expected home sometime next month.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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