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Transformational work in Rarotonga earns Gisborne-born Navy Commander second honour

When Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) Lieutenant Commander Makoare (Mark) Kohupara Te Kani posted to the Cook Islands in January 2020 as a Maritime Surveillance Adviser, he expected to travel. Weeks into posting, lockdowns isolated Rarotonga from the world.

30 December, 2023

“The whole world closed down,” Lieutenant Commander Te Kani  said.

“But I must say, if you are locked down, Rarotonga is the place to be. They didn’t have Covid-19.”

With no means of travel, he poured his time, resources and years of experience with the RNZN into enhancing the Cook Islands Police’s maritime capability, as well as numerous other projects on the ground.

That work has seen him awarded the Distinguished Service Decoration in the New Year Honours list.

Lieutenant Commander Te Kani showed great leadership and dedication throughout his posting, according to his citation.

“He has been an inspiration to the local populace, enhancing the reputation of New Zealand as a strong Pacific partner who unreservedly support the people of the Cook Islands.”

His brief was to lead the Cook Islands Police maritime security capability in their replacement of their aging Pacific-class patrol boat Te Kukupa, to a more modern equivalent donated by the Australian Government. 

The new vessel is used to provide maritime security to the 15 islands and two million square kilometres of ocean that make up the sovereign territory, and is one of 22 built and gifted to Pacific nations by Australia.

On realising there weren’t enough sailors to crew the new patrol boat, Lieutenant Commander Te Kani oversaw a recruitment drive which nearly doubled the number of maritime police staff from 13 to 25.

He’s especially proud of those training programmes as well as the hard work put in by the local maritime police.

“We decommissioned the old Te Kukupa, then the crew flew to Perth for three months of transition training. There have been 14 patrol boats handed to the Pacific, and our crew were reported as the most efficient crew that has ever gone through the handover of a vessel.”

In addition to the patrol boat replacement, Lieutenant Commander Te Kani also led a significant project to upgrade the Cook Islands Police Maritime Surveillance Centre to ensure there was a fit-for-purpose support facility.

These were multi-million dollar projects and the largest ever completed in the Cook Islands under the New Zealand and Australian Defence Cooperation Programme.

Lieutenant Commander Te Kani also provided support to both the New Zealand and Australian High Commissions and Cook Islands ministries and agencies, observed emergency exercises, contributed to emergency management planning and served on local committees including the Cook Islands RSA.

He also found the time to coach the premier, U19 and junior grade teams of the Arorangi Bears Rugby and Rugby League Club.

He said it had definitely been one of his more memorable postings since he joined the RNZN in 1973.

“It’s just the ability to make a meaningful and significant contribution, that’s important to me. I feel like I made a worthwhile contribution to the Cook Islands, providing as much help as I could, and I’d do it again given the opportunity.”

This DSD is the second national honour Lieutenant Commander Te Kani has received. He was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 1998 for his role as chair of Te Runanga o Te Iwi Heramana, which oversaw the introduction and development of Tikanga Māori within the RNZN and the later construction of the RNZN Marae, Te Taua Moana o Aotearoa Marae.

Born in Gisborne, Lieutenant Commander Te Kani is of Ngati Porou, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki and Te Whakatōhea descent. He also traces his whakapapa to Mauke in the Cook Islands through Kautia o te Rangi (Paikea).

He said it was hard for his family to say goodbye to the Cook Islands, when his posting ended in January 2023.

“But we’re here in Rarotonga now for Christmas and New Year, which means we heard the announcement of the award here, which is fitting for us.”