An occupation is under way in the Far North where hapū are upset about a landowner's plans to put an access road through sand dunes they say are wāhi tapu.
The hapū scrambled into action after they were notified a bulldozer and police were due to arrive on Wednesday morning at Whatuwhiwhi Road, on the Karikari Peninsula about 40km northeast of Kaitāia.
The landowner has since put the work on hold but the occupation started regardless, with about 80 people taking part in a blessing and hīkoi at 11am before setting up a marquee, tents and a roadblock near the dunes.
Keringawai Evans, the vice-chairperson of nearby Haititaimarangai Marae, said a packed hui on Tuesday evening agreed unanimously on the noho whenua, or occupation, as a necessary course of action.
Ancestors had been buried in the dunes, known as Pātia o Matariki, and the hapū wanted them left in peace, Evans said.
Hapū first mobilised two months ago when a landowner neighbouring the marae tried to expand an access way across the dunes using a digger and a truckload of metal, she said.
Since then, Whānau Moana and Te Rorohuri hapū had made more than 300 submissions to the Far North District Council's incoming District Plan, calling for the dunes to be formally recorded as a wāhi tapu.
"We thought, what a huge achievement, our people have really stepped up and said, 'protect this wāhi tapu in the new plan' - but then police advise our kaumātua that the contractors are coming to carry on that work. We were horrified, we were angry, we needed to mobilise quickly," she said.
Evans welcomed the agreement to stop work, and said hapū were open to meeting the landowner and discussing a way forward.
"But we are really clear that we are about protecting this whenua. If the landowner had shown good faith, he would have listened when the issue came up in 2019 instead of carrying on."
There was no timeframe to the occupation, she said.
"We will stay here as long as it takes to make sure this wāhi tapu is protected. This isn't about protesting or about occupation - we are having a noho to learn more, to ensure we have a presence to protect this wāhi tapu. And in that process we will get more information and then we can make better decisions."
Landowner Peter Hay, of Whangārei, met the occupiers at his gate around noon for what turned out to be a robust but civil discussion.
That appeared to lead to a partial resolution with Hay telling hapū members he was happy for the second access way across the dunes to be blocked off and replanted.
"At 74, the last thing I want is a bloody big argument. We want to find a way forward," he said.
Hay said he had widened and put metal down on another access way, closer to the marae, so he could launch his boat.
He told the occupiers he was no longer a developer and had abandoned earlier plans to build a bach in the dunes.
Hay told RNZ he was keen to have a meeting with the Far North District Council, the marae committee and the marae trust lawyer, so the matter could be sorted out by the experts.
He was also keen for the facts to be put straight.
"There's a lot of hearsay, a lot of things said that aren't factual," Hay said.
Evans said the controversy at Whatuwhiwhi was part of a wider problem of desecration of sand dunes and sacred places, such as the maunga Puheke, on the Karikari Peninsula.
Problems included damage caused by four-wheel-drives and motorbikes and campers defecating in the dunes.
Evans said the Far North District Council's response had been disappointing.
That included the council's decision to grant Hay an easement for the access way without notifying hapū.
Councillor Hilda Halkyard-Harawira had, however, visited the hapū on site on Tuesday and returned on Wednesday afternoon accompanied by council staff.
The issue has been simmering for many years, starting with a previous landowner around 2007.
Tensions escalated in August this year when a marae gardener spotted a truck and digger entering the dunes, apparently to work on the second access way, and forced them to stop by putting herself in their path.
Hapū members blocked off the track and put up signs urging people to keep off the dunes.
Following the August incident, Heritage New Zealand's Northland manager Bill Edwards visited the dunes and found no trace of koiwi, or human bones.
He did, however, underscore the area's historical significance, both to Māori and to early European exploration.
He urged Hay to bring in a consultant archaeologist, which he did, and consult mana whenua before going ahead with his plans.
A council spokesperson said the property at Whatuwhiwhi was held in fee simple, meaning Hay had full ownership.
"Upon application by the landowner, council consented to the creation of rights of way over the privately owned land. Council understands that the Haititaimarangai Marae 339 Trust objects to the formation of the rights of way. Council is aware that the landowner and the Trust is meeting to discuss the matter and that works scheduled for October 18 have been suspended for now," the spokesperson said.