Paddling Bay of Islands in a Maori war canoe: What could possibly go wrong?

I'm often drawn to canoeing and kayaking when perusing a ship's shore excursion menu, despite evidence confirming I have no ability.

Who wouldn't get excited about dolphin kayaking at Byron Bay or paddling through the Aurlandsfjord in Flam, Norway?

Yes, enormously enticing but both epic fails.

With that kind of brutal experience under my life-vest, I do dither over a morning trip on a Maori war canoe or waka. Sounds good but could I bear the humiliation?

Never having been to the Bay of Islands, I feel a water-based activity is needed, even though I've been cruising on Viking Sun without touching land for six days.

The excursion is billed as "demanding" but I'm not too daunted. Let's face it, we're a shipload of mature mariners and the excursion team likes to err on the side of caution in case people with dicky knees and dodgy tickers sign up.

I bite the bullet.

Surprisingly, 37 of us report for duty, meeting Judy Mihaka, co-owner of Taiamai Tours, and her little dog. When she says we can store our bags in a van that will be guarded by the vigilant terrier, our hearts melt and we look forward to fun.

Four tattooed and dreadlocked "warriors" – Robert Hohepa and his son Rangiwhenua, and Dean and Wade (who will man the rudders) - greet us on the banks of the Waitangi River.


I say rudders as this waka is twin-hulled and each of the canoes carries about 20 people.

Forming two lines we practise paddling on dry land, saying "hee" and then "haa", which is good for keeping time. We will dip our paddles in and row on "hee" and rest them on the side of the waka making a clunk at "haa". Once in the water, it all goes quite well and I'm amazed how easy it is to stay in unison.

The rhythmic chanting, a little like the song of rowers on a Viking long-ship I fantasise, is the key and I close my eyes as we slip along. The only warlike occurrence takes place when following Robert's instructions we all pull a Maori tongue-out scary face as we pass several kayakers.

Along the way, Robert regales us with tales of Maori traditions and his tribe's history – all peppered with politics. He also thanks us for coming as we cruise passengers are now the mainstay of the business.

At a waterfall there's time for a dip; Rangiwhenua climbs up to the top off a cliff and dives in – just for show. As I'm not swimsuit-clad I miss out, but it is fortuitous as the swimmers need an almighty effort to to pull themselves back into the canoe. It's tougher than the rowing.

I look forward to paddling back to shore, but as we've gone over time, the boys hit the engines.

I head to the town of Paihia for lunch and make a quick dash to the famous Waitangi Treaty Grounds. There I see the world's longest waka, a 35-metre ceremonial war canoe built in 1940 for the centenary of the treaty signing. It weighs six tonnes when dry, 12 tonnes wet and needs a minimum of 76 rowers. Phew ... glad that wasn't on the agenda.




Viking Cruises visits the Bay of Islands on the 245-day Ultimate World Cruise departing London August 31, 2019. A tour is included in each port. Waka trip costs about $US130. See

Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Viking Cruises.