Voyage To Rapanui: 5,000 Miles Down With No GPS, Maps Or Compass

How would you feel about sailing 10,000 nautical miles from Auckland, New Zealand, to Easter Island and back on a double-hulled canoe with no GPS or navigational equipment? In August, after reading a story my colleague wrote on the Waku Tapu Voyage to Rapanui Expedition, I resolved to check back on these intrepid explorers to see if they made it to Rapanui (Easter Island) in one piece.

I’m happy to report that 22 male and female New Zealanders did indeed complete the first half of their epic journey, arriving in Rapanui safe and sound on December 5. Traveling on two traditional waka (double-hulled sailing canoes) they retraced a historic route across the Pacific Ocean using only the stars, sun, moon, ocean currents, birds and other marine life to guide them, just as their Maori ancestors did. They are now en route back to New Zealand and are due to arrive home in late March. The goal of the journey was to “close the final corner of the Polynesian Triangle defined by Hawaii in the North, New Zealand in the South and Rapanui in the East.”
I caught up with Karl Johnstone, Director of the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, which organized the expedition, to find out more about this remarkable journey.

Tell us a little about this historic voyage?

It landed on the 5th of December in Rapanui (Easter Island) and they left Auckland on the 17th of August. There were two stopovers, one in Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia, and then one in Mangareva, to the east of French Polynesia. We had about 22 people on board at any one time, 11 per waka (canoe). These are traditional double-hulled sailing canoes.

The two traditional elements of the voyage are the waka themselves, which are made of indigenous trees from New Zealand and have traditional composition modern rigging and traditional, non-instrument navigation, using environmental tools, habits of the sun, moon and stars and so on.

So there was no GPS or other type of navigational equipment used?

That’s right. This hasn’t been done in modern day times. There are GPS locators on board, and they had a satellite phone, which emits a GPS signal every half an hour back to our waka tracker, so we knew where they were at all times. And we looked at where they were all the time versus their sail plan and the navigators were never really more than 50 nautical miles off the course line they had set. They did really, really well.

You say this hasn’t been done. Has anyone tried it?

It’s never been tried in modern times.

What were some of the hardships the crew faced along the way?

The weather, number one. We had significant storms on our way out to Tubuai, four of them in fact. A lot of the crew, 50% at least were new to open-ocean voyaging, so they had to develop a trust in their vessel. Sickness as well. We had two cases of hypothermia – that’s to be expected when you’re out at the tail end of winter here. Some got boils as well, which is also common. They have to be treated seriously. A few guys had toothaches, infections.

A couple guys had to be taken off because of coral cuts because we couldn’t risk them getting infections out on the open ocean. Another one got burnt – most of the injuries happened on land, not out on the ocean. But we had a well-stocked medicine cabinet, so everyone was treated quite quickly.

Did everyone who started finish?

One had to come off as a result of an injury in Mangareva, but we took him to be there when the waka arrived in Rapanui because he’d made it through the hardest part of the voyage and we couldn’t bear for him not to be there at the end.

Tell me about the crewmembers. Did they all take time off from careers to do this?

We had teachers, people with Ph.D.’s, engineers, people who work for their tribes. It was a broad range of professions, in most cases, they had to walk away from their employment to do this voyage. Some were very senior; one in particular was a very senior official in the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand. A lot of these people walked away from everything you’d consider mandatory in the modern day world to undertake this voyage with no guarantee of success.

And the voyage was unpaid. They got some support along the way but we didn’t pay them or help with their mortgages or anything else, so they had to have a real commitment to this project.

How were they selected for this voyage?

It was through a training program, and they had to volunteer. We had a nine-month training program. There was some natural attrition, we had about 50 who volunteered, and the cream rose to the top.

[Photo credit: Waka Tapu]

Kiwi Cool: Shopping For New Zealand-Made Souvenirs

When you go to the other side of the world, you want to bring back a few things to show for your trouble. Visiting New Zealand with my 1-year-old daughter, and with nephews at home in America, I became obsessed with finding them something actually made in the country. A stuffed kiwi bird or lamb toy, a merino wool baby blanket, or a fun T-shirt would do nicely, and I wouldn’t mind some jewelry or something small for our apartment either. In all of the cities I visited in New Zealand, I was impressed to find stylish, playful and innovative boutiques and vendors creating beautiful and unique home design, fashion and other Kiwiana. There’s enough Kiwi cool shopping that you might end up wishing you had a bigger suitcase.


Flotsam & Jetsam (Auckland) – A cross between an antique store and a hipster Restoration Hardware, this collection of colorful and covetable home items will make you contemplate a move to Auckland. Visitors from farther away might find interesting vintage, repurposed and retro home wares from New Zealand and all over the world. Check their Facebook page for details on the latest stock.Nelson Saturday market (Nelson, South Island) – New York City has street fairs and markets pretty much every day of the year if you look hard enough, but all too often, you find the same cheap tube socks, fried cheese and dough concoctions, and hodgepodge of junk. My expectations weren’t high for the weekly market in the arty town of Nelson on the top of the South Island, but after a quick walk through, I was glad I didn’t have too much cash to spend, as there was so much to buy. On a given weekend, you might find model airplanes crafted from soda cans, gourmet gluten-free tacos, and more knitwear than you can shake a sheep at. Local band performances, cooking demonstrations, or even a flash mob add to the festive atmosphere.

Pauanesia (Auckland) – This small shop is loaded to the gills with all things antipodean (a Brit term for a place on the other side of the world), with an emphasis on home textiles such as Polynesian-print tablecloths. If you have a little one to shop for (or just enjoy stuffed animals), consider one of the charming Kiwi “chaps” made from vintage and salvaged fabrics and send them a photo of your bird out in the world. You can also find a nice assortment of Paua shell jewelry, key chains, and other odds and ends much more thoughtfully and well-made than your average gift shop.

Iko Iko (Auckland and Wellington) – What drew me into the Wellington store was a window display of Dear Colleen‘s cheeky “Dishes I’d rather be doing” tea towels with “dishes” like Ryan Gosling and Mr. Darcy-era Colin Firth (get it?). I could have easily spent hours inside poring over the whimsical items, like a kiwi bird cookie cutter, Buzzy Bee cufflinks, or a CD from the Wellington Ukulele Orchestra. It’s full of things you don’t really need but really want, plus fun takes on everyday items.

Abstract Designs (Wellington) – You might call these artisanal cardboard cutouts. Abstract Designs makes creative sculptures and jewelry with a very local flavor. Perhaps you’ll pick up a 747 plane kit for the airplane nerd in your life, a pop-up building replica to remind you of your stay in Wellington, or a cruelty-free moose trophy head for your wall. Their designs are sold in many museum gift shops as well, but there’s a full selection at their Wellington studio and online.

Hapa (Christchurch) – Pop-up businesses have become the foundation for the new Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake. The Re:START mall is the best example, built out of shipping containers and housing a mix of “old” Christchurch shops in temporary digs and new shops. There are several stores in the mall selling New Zealand goods, but Hapa stands out for their many beautiful and clever items, like a bear bean bag chair or a knitted “fox stole” scarf. Best of all, many goods are made or designed in Christchurch, so you can feel good about supporting the local economy.

Texan Art Schools (multiple stores in Auckland) – Don’t be confused by the name, it’s a play on the fact that it carries work from graduates of “tech(nical)s” and art schools. Texan Art Schools acts as one-stop shopping for dozens of Kiwi artists and designers, with an eclectic mix of home items, fashion and jewelry. You’re sure to find something unusual and authentic here like a set of Maori nesting dolls or a retro camper wall clock.

Photo from Auckland’s Queen Street shopping arcade. More “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Unadventurous” to come.

Video: Maori Creation Story Told In Sand Art

One of the great things about exploring other cultures is hearing their stories. The world is filled with myths, legends, fables, anecdotes, histories, jokes and all sorts of other oral traditions. Some traditional storytellers keep to the old ways, while others, like this sand artist, have taken on new methods to tell age-old tales.

Marcus Winter is a Maori artist who opened up the 2010 Original Art Sale in New Zealand by retelling a traditional Maori creation story. Through his work we see the world being formed when the children of Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, separate their parents and set off a chain reaction that creates the world and, of course, New Zealand.

Stories are living things. They take on new forms to adapt to the times and perpetuate themselves through the ages. I’m glad that artists like Winter are taking their ancient tales and giving them a modern twist.

Video: ‘No Kitchen Required’ In New Zealand, ‘When Maori Attack’

Here at Gadling, we’ve been keeping tabs on the new BBC America reality show “No Kitchen Required,” which is taking cooking competitions to new highs (and lows). Battling for fame and glory are award-winning chef Michael Psilakis of New York’s Fish Tag and Kefi; private executive chef Kayne Raymond; and former “Chopped” champ Madison Cowan.

The chefs hunt and gather ingredients to prepare regional cuisine in various locations, including Dominica, Belize, Fiji, Thailand, South Africa, Hawaii, New Mexico and Louisiana. The show is a cross between “Survivor” and “Top Chef,” with a dash of over-the-top, Bear Grylls-style drama thrown in, but it’s all in good fun and provides a fascinating cultural and culinary tour of little known destinations and cuisines.

Here, we have a teaser clip from New Zealand that features the chefs watching a haka, or traditional Maori warrior dance, prior to having the local community judge their respective meals. Here’s hoping they didn’t give anyone food poisoning.

New Zealand’s King Country: Historically off limits, still beautifully empty

It isn’t often you are able to pet a stingray while firmly standing on land.

Somehow, however, this is exactly what I found myself doing while watching the sunset in New Zealand’s Aotea Harbor. A little visited eco-outpost on the west coast of the North Island, the coastal estuary, which creeps inland, has created a sheltered harbor reputed to be the final resting place of a waka, or canoe, which originally transported the first Maori settlers to New Zealand around 1150.

The area, I would soon find out, is steeped in far greater history than just that of the canoe.

Standing on the rocks of the estuary while cooking a dinner of quinoa and vegetables, which is the type of dinner you frequently eat when you live in a campervan with no refrigeration, a large stingray decided to come up and rub his belly on the very rock I was standing on. After examining the flimsy critter for a number of minutes, there really was nothing left to do but bend down and run a hand along its slimy black wing.

“Last week we had the orcas in here,” came a voice from behind me.

Spinning around to find the voice, I found an aging Maori gentleman who had decided to accompany me along the rocks.

“Had the big bull one with that tall dorsal fin leading the others right through this harbor. Get them every few weeks or so,” he explained.

With the fading sunlight illuminating the coastal sand dunes, the image of a pod of powerful orca plying the waters of this hidden harbor was an image I desperately hoped to see. These waters are also home to Maui’s dolphin, the most critically endangered dolphin species in New Zealand whose numbers are thought to have fewer than 150 left in the wild.

You would think that a place such as Aotea, which offers stunning eco-diversity, calming views, and natural hot springs right on the beach, would be a tourist magnet that everyone had heard of. Yet strangely there is nobody here.The same went for nearby Bridal Veil Falls, a cascading 180 foot waterfall, which plunges through dripping green rainforest. Arguably the most perfect waterfall I’ve ever seen, there was nobody there to enjoy it with me.

The dirt roads were all empty, the surrounding hills were silent, and you got the feeling that tourists simply just don’t ever come here. It’s like I had stumbled into a zone where mainstream tourists simply don’t bother to go.

After further research, I learned that’s exactly what I had done. This area here is the King Country, and it’s been like this for quite some time.

With British settlers populating New Zealand en masse throughout the 1850s, inevitably, there were bound to be skirmishes with the local Maori iwi (tribes) who had been populating the land for hundreds of years. One such altercation came in the Waikato region of the North Island in 1863, where, after a decisive loss, a Maori chief by the name of King Tawhiao retreated into the heavily forested hinterlands to reassemble.

Fortifying the area with heavily armed pa sites, for nearly two decades skirmishes between Maori and pakeha (white settlers) dotted the outskirts of this semi-independent area, which would soon be known as the “King Country” for those loyal to Tawhiao. Rugged country with infertile soil not suited for farming, it was understood amongst British settlers that this was a no-man’s land for people of their kind.

One of the final holdouts of the native Maori, formal boundaries were actually drawn in 1884 delineating an area of 7,000 square miles of land loyal to King Tawhiao, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium or New Jersey. During this time the King Country even published its own regional newspaper with a printing press acquired from missionaries who abandoned it due to the threat of impending war.

Finally, however, with an increasing amount of western settlers encircling the rugged outpost, an informal treaty was negotiated at the town of Raglan where agreements were made for gradually assimilating the land and the Maori population into the local economic and political landscape.

Over 130 years later, the place still has the feel as if nothing was ever signed at all. Local marae (ceremonial meeting places) seem to be clustered more densely here than in other parts of the country, and the population density of Maori is evident in the few passerby you do actually encounter on the roads and small towns.

Standing in an isolated cave set an hour away from the more popular Waitomo Caves, it’s easy to understand why King Tawhiao chose this rolling hinterland for the ultimate hideout of his people. In the silence afforded in the valley of ferns, I remind myself that the history of this region, and this country, is still in its adolescence in comparison to other nations around the world. Did King Tawhiao once stand and ruminate on the King Country, his country, from here in this very cave only a few generations before?

Though the King Country may not be at the top, or rather, far from the top of virtually all tourist itineraries and guidebooks, there are few sites in Aotearoa which offer such a strong semblance of the past — sloping hills and dense forests where history can still be felt in the present moment.

For 2 months, Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.