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Return of the Te Puke

from Solomons, inflight magazine of Solomon Airlines, June 1998, Issue #25, page 34 by Meph Wyeth

Thank God for your safe arrival here… Tears streamed as we sang the traditional song of welcome. It was September 12, 1997, the day everyone had been waiting for. It had been a long wait.


First the trees had to grow. Then the canoe-makers had to cut and shape them. Then came the work of making rope and dragging them down from the forest, of weaving sails, of lashing the parts together, of feeding the workers. Finally, there was the labour of preparing the launching itself, of growing, cooking, and serving food for guests, of decorating the village for them, and of rehearsing songs and dances with whice to welcome them. But at last we were ready!

Even the weather was ready. Gale-force winds that had pummelled the island for two weeks, ripping thatch from house walls like a nosey child, had subsided the day before. Rain had stopped sheeting down. Now, as the sun nodded approvingly, breeze and trees clapped hands, and out on the reef, the sea shouted for joy…

So did we. Ranged in our lines around the canoes, we stood silently while an Anglican bishop and a Hawaiian kumu hula performed traditional Christian and Polynesian blessings. Then came our turn. One hundred fifty dance fans smacked our palms, one hundred fifty pairs of feet drummed the sand, and one hundred fifty voices rose in an ancient hauling chant. Slowly at first, then gathering strength and speed, the great canoes awakened and rolled seaward. Hand made ropes snapped taut, and for the first time in a generation, three great lauhala sails opened their wings to the wind.

What had brought all of us, the 500 residents of remote Taumako Island, three honorary Taumako from Hawai’i, the Bishop, the kumu hula, and an assortment of other guests to Ngauta Beach that day was a dream and a memory. For decades old people had remembered and young people had dreamed of the tepuke (traditional voyaging canoes) that once strode proudly down the sea paths of Temotu Province. Yet the last of these magnificent stone-age vessels had broken up in the 1960’s, and gradually the people who still knew how to build and sail them were dying off. By the early 1990’s, it seemed that a line of knowledge centuries long was about to unravel.

Then help came. In 1993, Drs. David Lewis and Mimi George sailed from Kaua’i to Temotu to follow up on research that Lewis had done in 1968 on traditional navigational techniques. Stopping at Taumako, principal island of the Duff group, they learned that they were just about too late. The last men and women who knew how to build and sail tepuke were in their 70’s and 80’s. Because these people taught in the old Polynesian manner, orally and practically, they could not simply write down their techniques for students to read at their convenience. To teach canoe voyaging required a voyaging canoe. To build a voyaging canoe required money, and money was something Nga Taumako (the people of Taumako) did not have.

Neither did Dr. George. Yet, fired by the dreams and memories of navigator Kaveia Kruso, Paramount Chief of Duff Islands, she returned to Hawai’i and began looking for people who would help. From a small group of sailors, canoe paddlers, hula students, and others who recognised that the tiny Polynesian communities of Temotu harboured cultural knowledge long ago lost by larger ones in the eastern Pacific, she slowly gathered funds. Finally, on 2 January, 1997, Kaveia’s dream came noisily to life with the crash of a 25-metre tamanu tree to earth and the rattle of a hundred and sixty cheering voices.

From then until September, Taumako became a workshop. Everyone over age four and a few under it joined in. So excited did the people become, that by September they had built not only the original project canoe, Vaka Taumako (a canoe for Taumako), but two others, the Matalele (the jumping eye–a warrior skilled at dodging spears) and the Parangaina (You can’t do that, a jeer at those who called the building project an impossible dream).

Yet for a few anxious days before the celebration, it almost seemed like an impossible dream. Not only did the weather turn nasty, but the best laid plans of the launch organizing committee were going astray at every turn. Of three ships chartered to bring guests and supplies from Lata, the provincial capital, one developed mechanical trouble in late August and never even left Honiara. Then on 5 September the second ship hit a rock and sank. There being no other ship within 500 sea miles, this left the committee with 150 guests, 900 kg. of taro, kumara, and yam, 20 pigs, and one 20 metre long ship for the twelve hour crossing against gale- force winds and roaring seas. A few lucky passengers secured bunks, the rest slept on tables, huddled in gangways, or draped themselves over baskets of produce. Was it any wonder, then, that we cried when the guests arrived safely?

Those who toughed it out, however, pronounced the event worth the effort. Temotu Province President Ross Hepworth summed up what everyone else felt when he exclaimed, It’s a miracle, it’s just a miracle!

Yet, after the feast is finished, the last dance danced, the last song sung, and the guests sent home, what then? Then comes the real work, the years of relearning old sea lore, of teaching it to those who have sailed only dreams. Getting the canoes from the mountains to the beach was only the first step; now they must cross the reef to the open sea.

Chief Kaveia once observed, When you want to build a tepuke, the first thing you must do is plant a garden. That is, you must first nourish the canoe- makers. Sound advice. On 12 September we planted a garden at Ngauta Bay. We hope it will nourish canoe-makers and sailors everywhere.

Note: Vaka Taumako Project still needs funding for the important work of documenting the project’s sailing phase, of editing videotapes shot by team members during 1996-1997, and of organizing a cultural exchange between the people of Taumako and Hawai’i. Anyone wishing to make tax-deductible (in the USA) donations, please click here.  For more information about the project, please feel free to contact us.

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