Canoe carvers


David Whitley meets the men trying to keep an ancient culture alive in the Cook Islands


The country’s main ceremonial building looks rather like a cross between a school assembly hall and a small capacity basketball stadium, but we’re all invited in. A group sits cross-legged on the floor with sashes draped across them, while the rest of us perch on chairs to watch. After the pastor finishes his chanting (and, boy, does he like chanting), the chap on the chair in front gets up. It turns out that he’s the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.


This is one of the joys of being on Rarotonga – it’s so small. The island has a population of approximately 9,000, it takes less than an hour to drive around and even a national festival has the feel of a tight knit community giving up the time and mucking in. The chaps with the sashes are all wood workers, some experienced pros and some apprentices, just beginning to learn the ropes. They all take a drink of kava from a wooden bowl. Then after the PM’s speech and more chanting from the pastor, Te Mire Tarai Vaka is officially underway.


For those not fully conversant in Cook Islands Maori, this is a festival that is designed to bring back the almost extinct craft of canoe carving on the islands. Over a period of two weeks, on the foreshore of Avarua Harbour, teams from ten of the fifteen islands will create a canoe – or vaka - from a big tree trunk. Each will be made according to the traditional style of the individual island. Sadly, on most of the islands, the traditional methods and designs have died out. The last Manihiki vaka went to a museum in New Zealand in 1906, while Penrhyn hasn’t made one for 150 years. The festival is about reviving them, and the smaller islands are being assisted by master-carvers from Rarotonga that still have the knowledge and techniques.


It’s difficult to overstate the importance the vaka to the Cook Islanders (and, indeed to the rest of Polynesia). It was what got them to the islands in the first place and for a very long time was the only mode of transport between the islands. It is also thought that it was a party from Rarotonga that took off (in their canoes, of course) and found New Zealand. The canoes were also a creative outlet, as Ngametua Papatua explains. Ngametua is a pastor on the Southern island of Mangaia, but learned to carve canoes when he was 20. He’s found himself designated as the island’s master carver.


“We want to keep the culture alive,” he says whilst working on the repe, or tailpiece. “There’s a big difference between the designs for each island. Everything has a different meaning. “People in the old days would see something they liked and carve it – pig’s teeth, shark’s teeth, a taro plant. And this,” he says, referring to the work in progress, “feels unique to Mangaia.” There’s also the difference in usage. Some islands have reefs and surf, some have gentle seas. Some have big natural harbours, others have narrow channels. What works for one could be disastrous in another.


At the harbour, the teams are sweating away in the sun, with the buzz of chainsaws creating an inescapable racket. It could easily be done in workshops, but there is a point to constructing the canoes in public – tourists can view the works in progress, while locals have their attention drawn to the ancient craft. Hopefully some will be inspired to take it up. It’s all being overseen by Mike Tavioni, who is an absolute giant of a man, coated liberally in sweat and sawdust. He’s Rarotonga’s master carver, and realistically the only man who possesses the knowledge to help some of the amateurs from the outer islands through the process.


He’s a little unhappy that some of the participants are more interested in island pride than education, however. “If they keep going at that pace, they’ll be finished two days into a two week festival,” he grunts in the direction of an ever-swelling team of enthusiasts. “It’s not a competition; not a race.”


He’s right. It’s neither. It’s an attempt to keep culture alive.


More photos here