Papanui Inlet waka recovery

Department of Conservation —  20/10/2014

By Sharleen (Shar) Briden, Technical Advisor (Historic and Cultural)

A few months ago, an eroding length of timber—visible just above the sand on the foreshore of the Papanui Inlet, on the Otago Peninsula—attracted the attention of Jim Fyfe, Kuini Scott and I.

Looking north from near Cape Saunders past the mouth of Papanui Inlet to Victory Beach. Photo: Urlich Lange | CC BY-SA 3.0.

The mouth of Papanui Inlet

We suspected this timber was significant, and not just an old fence post, so we started digging.

As we dug down the sides of the exposed wood, we found it kept going into the sand, and was starting to curve inward.

I freaked out, thinking, crikey, it’s a waka!

In order to recover the waka we needed to get consent from Heritage New Zealand. This is required to modify any pre-1900 archaeological site.

Consent to recover the waka was applied for and granted to DOC—with myself as the named archaeologist tasked with the project.

The Papanui Inlet waka being recovered from the inlet.

Auckland University Conservator, Dilys Johns, inspects
the waka at Papanui Inlet

A team comprising conservators, archaeologists, rūnanga members and their families, University of Otago students, and volunteers, dug out the sand to expose the over six-metre-long waka over one weekend.

We refloated the waka using pontoons and moved it across the estuary at high tide to where it could be retrieved.

We could see that the waka was carved from a single trunk of totara and would have been suitable for fishing within the estuary.

A team of helpers getting ready to lift the waka to float down the inlet on pontoons.

About to lift the waka to float down the inlet on pontoons

A significant quantity of plaited plant fibre was found lying in the hull and we are currently trying to determine which plants these fibres came from.

It is too early to say what would happen to the waka, but it could end up in a museum.

5 responses to Papanui Inlet waka recovery


    Dear Shar,

    I’m very excited by this! My name is Jonathan West, and I’m currently writing a history of the Otago Peninsula, based on my Phd. Your dissertation on Sandfly Bay midden was very helpful! I’m really hoping you could be helpful again – I’d be keen to make email contact, as I want to get my facts straight when I write up some text on the waka, and I’d definitely want a photo of it in the book if possible.


    Thanks interesting article!

    Is there any idea of date or age of the waka?

    Which Maori tribe would it have belonged too?



      Shar Briden 23/10/2014 at 8:57 am

      The waka could have belonged to Ngāti Mamoe and there is a remote possibility that, if it is older, it could be associated to Waitaha. It’s more likely to be Mamoe given the oral traditions of their association to that part of the Peninsula (Edward Ellison pers comm).

      We are awaiting radiocarbon dates to place an age on the waka. Myself or Dilys Johns shall post that once it comes through.

    HB12, Clearview Primary 20/10/2014 at 2:39 pm

    You must be excited. We would love to know if there are any legends about waka.
    by desiree and reagan

      Shar Briden 23/10/2014 at 9:01 am

      Yes I am very excited by the find. I personally do not know of legends about waka in New Zealand, but libraries and online resources should contain legends about waka if you have the time to search those out.