Waka workout for Prince Harry

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Prince Harry charmed his way up the mighty Whanganui River, in New Zealand, immersed himself in Māori culture and paddled his waka – a journey that made for a spectacular arrival in the riverside city.

On his recent first visit to New Zealand, the Prince was welcomed on to the historic Pūtiki Marae – his first time on a traditional Māori meeting ground. Wearing a feather cloak, Prince Harry impressed his hosts with a speech in te reo – the Māori language, and his understanding of the culture.

The welcome was a formal occasion but it was also a family event with all ages – from babies to schoolchildren and elders – represented on the marae to welcome Prince Harry.

Pūtiki – the original Māori settlement on the Whanganui river mouth – is known as a gathering place for all the people of the region. The pretty marae grounds include the finely carved meeting house or wharenui which was built in 1877.

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Once the formalities were over, Prince Harry spent some time mingling with his hosts before heading off down to the waterside for his river journey.

This was no easy ride. The Prince had been presented with his new carved hoe (working paddle) and the 30-minute journey upstream in a good current was a bit of a workout. “Well, that’s my exercise done for the day, he later commented.

The Prince took his place at the back of the carved waka as one of 11 paddlers under local Māori leader Ned Tapa who guided the Prince through his first waka ama experience.

Ned was also the creator of the Prince’s personal paddle which he had carved out of “an old rimu fence post” that had been found – fittingly – in the river.

The 1.2-metre hoe represented a fish with a tail-carved handle, and a swirling design on the blade symbolised the flow of the river from the mountain to the sea.

The Māori people of the Whanganui region, who belong to the Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi iwi or tribe, have a saying: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – ‘I am the river, the river is me’ – which refers to the spiritual connection they have with the river. Prince Harry’s outing on their awa (river) was a significant occasion.

Prince Harry said it was “an extraordinary privilege travelling on the awa.”

Prince Harry and the waka crew paddle upstream in a traditional  Maori waka on the Whanganui River; PC-Hagen Hopkins

About The Whanganui River

Whanganui – sometimes spelled Wanganui – is one of New Zealand’s oldest cities and has a population of about 43,000 people.

Whanganui, which means ‘big bay’ or ‘big harbour’, is also the name of the great river that flows through it.

The deep flowing Whanganui River is the heart of this region. The longest navigable river in the country, it was an important transport route for early Maori and European settlers.

The river passes through a relatively untouched natural environment that is a safe haven for rare New Zealand wildlife.

The Whanganui National Park is a place of river adventures navigable by jet boat or on the historic PS Waimarie – a restored paddle steamer from 1899 which runs regular short cruises from Whanganui city. The Whanganui Journey is a wilderness kayanking experience through remote bush-clad hill country and long narrow gorges. Visitors can also take a jet boat tour to the remote Bridge to Nowhere – built in 1936 for early pioneering farmers and abandoned in 1942.

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Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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