Canoes to relive Pacific migration voyages

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The Independent Travel

A fleet of traditionally-designed Polynesian voyaging canoes will leave New Zealand next week for a journey through the Pacific, reliving the epic migrations of the past.

The four double-hulled canoes will set out from Auckland on Wednesday to sail 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) to French Polynesia, reversing the route New Zealand's first settlers are believed to have taken.

There they will be joined by a Tahitian crew for a 1,200-kilometre voyage to the Cook Islands before returning to their home ports.

French Polynesia is thought by many to have been the departure point for the last great Polynesian migrations to New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island around 700 to 1,000 years ago.

"It will be the first time since the great migration that a fleet of canoes has sailed from (the French Polynesian island) Raiatea to Rarotonga on that sacred route down to New Zealand," said Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp, who managed the project to build a total of seven voyaging canoes, or vaka.

"It's going to be a very historical happening and its going to be an exciting time for the revival of our ancestral crafts and traditions and skills," he told AFP.

The canoes, 22 metres (72 feet) long with twin 13-metre masts, were built over the last year and combine the traditional and the hi-tech, with the fibreglass hulls lashed together using wooden beams and rope.

Crews from New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and another made up of sailors from Samoa, Vanuatu, and Tonga will be joined by a Tahitian crew in French Polynesia.

Nepia-Clamp, who is acting president of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, is setting up a South Pacific network of traditional voyagers to help revive Polynesian sailing skills, which included navigating without instruments or maps.

"The real value of this for me is for the societies to get back into re-teaching and reliving the traditional voyaging skills," he said.

The trip to Tahiti is expected to take three weeks with the return journey - via the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji - likely to last around two months.

Next year all seven canoes are scheduled to sail from Auckland to Hawaii, via French Polynesia.

Around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, the Lapita people - believed to have first migrated from southern China before spreading through Southeast Asia - started settling the islands of Melanesia and western Polynesia.

About 1,000 years later their descendents started spreading to islands in eastern Polynesia, finally reaching the Pacific outposts of Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.

The great voyaging had declined by 1500 and by the time the first European explorers visited the Pacific in the 17th and 18th centuries, the large ocean-going sailing canoes were only found in a few regions.

The project to build the canoes and carry out the voyages is being funded by Okeanos, a German-based foundation which aims to protect oceans and marine life.

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