For many Bay residents, seeing Mauao - Mount Maunganui - from land, sea or air is a sign we're home. The extinct volcanic dome is more than a landmark, it's a place of historical, environmental and emotional significance.
But Mauao's new proposed management plan is drawing fire from those who risk losing access. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken untangles facts and myths surrounding a beloved icon.
IT'S mid-morning Friday as a line of runners plod, circle back and advance to the top of Mauao.
About two dozen women are about to celebrate a milestone - for most, their first continuous summit slog.
It's part of a 10-week beginners' course held twice yearly by Mount Maunganui Runners and Walkers.
Coach Kelly Taylor says some participants in her group had never run before, so the thought of tackling the summit is daunting.
"Everyone always feels it's an unachievable outcome and I try and explain to them we have a proven process in place ... that means we will achieve it.''
Taylor says one woman has travelled twice weekly from Matamata with five-month-old twins to train for this day; another makes the trip from Morrinsville.
"The few days preceding the summit run are very emotional. I get lots of messages and people calling me, saying, 'Am I really gonna do this'?''
Mount Maunganui Runners and Walkers is one of many local clubs using Mauao for recreation.
Tauranga City Council staff say about a million people walk up and around Mount Maunganui each year, making it the largest natural fitness and leisure centre in the Bay of Plenty.
New Zealand's Parliament in 2008 adopted legislation providing for ownership transfer of Mount Maunganui from the Crown to the Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngati Ranginui and Ngati Pukenga iwi.
Title of the Mauao Historic Reserve in 2012 was officially passed from the Crown to iwi of Tauranga Moana in addition to Waitaha of Te Arawa iwi.
Maori representatives say central government's decision to hand over Mauao ended a more than century-old grievance.
"It helps alleviate some of the substantial hurt that has been riding with us for nearly 140 years in relation to the unlawful taking of land," said Te Runanganui chairman Colin Bidois during a 2011 interview with the Bay of Plenty Times.
The Mauao draft management plan says the three iwi of Tauranga Moana and the iwi Waitaha all acknowledge "exceptional cultural importance" of Mauao, and tangata whenua (indigenous people of New Zealand) have inhabited Mauao for centuries.
The document states Maori ancestors planted on the mountain's slopes and established a pa.
"In recognition of the significance and connection of Mauao to the three iwi of Tauranga Moana, the ownership rights to the Mauao Historic Reserve were vested in the three iwi under the Mauao Trust in 2008," states the draft plan.
The archaeological landscape within the reserve represents about 600 years of human occupation.
The document also describes how Crown confiscation of the mountain in 1865 led to European settlement and establishment of the first permanent pilot and harbourmaster station.
"Colonel Whitmore's troops are believed to have been located in a military camp on the lower slopes of Mauao at the time of the land confiscations.
"Parts of Mauao have been grazed since 1935.
"In 1918 a stone cairn was built on top of Mauao to celebrate the end of World War I."
Three campgrounds were established by 1935. Cable cars were mooted in the 1960s but never materialised.
The shortened version of the Maori legend of Mauao explains its name, meaning 'caught in the light of the day', [or 'caught by the dawn'].
Mauao was once a nameless mountain, spurned in love by the beautiful mountain Puwhenua. One night he begged fairy-like creatures of the forest to drag him into the ocean and end his misery.
But the creatures fled as the morning sun's rays struck, and he was transfixed on the spot at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour (source: www.teara.govt.nz).
Though the Mauao Historic Reserve is private land owned by the Mauao Trust, it remains a free, public space ratepayers maintain via Tauranga City Council's general fund.
The mountain is managed jointly by the council and the trust through a board called Ngā Poutiriao o Mauao.
The board's draft plan makes provision for continued public access to the Mount, but locals disagree about how the iconic dome should be used.
The Mauao Reserve Management Plan is designed to protect historical, cultural, economic and recreational values of the Mount. Proposals include a waka launch site and marae atea at the summit; protection of wahi tapu sites and sites of historic significance; a prohibition on ash scattering and establishment of new memorial seats or plaques; and bans on rock climbing in the current location and drones.
The Mauao Trust and Tauranga City Council received more than a hundred online and emailed submissions about the draft plan. Dozens of climbers weighed in to protest the potential rock climbing ban.
Some said climbing had been happening since 1980, did not disturb native plants or tapu (something sacred) and routes were well-established and monitored.
Michael Donovan of the NZ Alpine Club said Mauao provided the only outdoor climbing site in Tauranga and Mount Maunganui.
"To close Mauao to climbers would do a significant disservice to the climbers of the Bay of Plenty and wider region."
Submitter Lindsay Barr disagreed, writing, "I support the ban on rock climbing on Mauao. I often walk and run the north track and often am stopped by climbers spread out over the path with their gear. I fear any gear being dropped while they are climbing... "
Panel member Jack Thatcher said during a October 31 hearing the issue of rock climbing came down to public safety because anything could happen when climbers were above the track. "We have to make sure everyone on the maunga is safe."
Other submitters objected to the ban on ash scattering (some favoured it) and a broad range of individuals and those representing groups asked for better pest management; volunteer litter patrol, improved signage; limited vehicle access to bring visitors to the summit; a funicular or gondola; continued use of the mountain to fly gliders and drones; removal of sheep (the draft plan calls for allowing sheep to continue grazing as it controls weeds); protection of snails; the reinstatement of a marine VHF radio transmitter for the Tauranga Volunteer Coastguard; predator-proof fencing and CCTV cameras at both entrances leading on to Mauao.
Objections have also been raised to the proposal to investigate "cultural gateways" such as a marae atea (ceremonial space).
Angela Neville wrote, "Building a marae on the summit would disturb the land and create destruction of both tracks and land with the materials in transit and construction.
This land is significant to many cultures and not just Maori, and should remain welcoming and inclusive for all, not favouring one culture over another for a ceremonial site."
Former Tauranga city councillor Bob Tulloch told the panel a Maori cultural centre would be better sited within the planned visitor information centre in Salisbury Ave.
"From a commercial point of view, the more visitors the better."
Several attempts to reach chairman of the Ngā Poutiri Ao o Mauao, Dean Flavell, via phone and email were unsuccessful this week, but he earlier told the Bay of Plenty Times a proposed marea atea at the Mount's summit could be a courtyard or open area where formal occasions of welcome can take place.
"It doesn't include a meeting house or building," he said.
Mauao trustee Buddy Mikaere earlier told the Bay of Plenty Times the marae atea suggested was a flat platform intended for anyone to use in the same ways people currently enjoy the summit.
"You only have to go up there to see how people sit around and talk to each other up there."
He says it could also have specific cultural uses.
Julia Graham of the Western Bay Wildlife Trust commented the plan must include an efficient pest control programme and provision for a ranger available 24 hours. She said the current system of using council officers during the day and security firms at night wasn't working.
"It takes well over an hour, and in some cases up to three hours for security firms or rangers to arrive and usually by that time the offenders (dog walkers, campers, cyclists, etc) have long gone ..."
Graham suggested rangers have the power to write and issue fines on the spot for issues such as dog control, littering, illegal camping, fires, smoking and cycling.
Tauranga landscape architect Richard Hart presented diagrams including a plan to restore severed links between Mauao and the grassy reserves fronting Pilot Bay and Mount Main Beach. His vision included making the track a full loop by redeveloping the foot path along Adams Ave.
"It may require leadership for some of these things to happen," he told the panel taking public submissions.
The consultation period for the draft management plan has closed. The panel will consider public submissions on the management plan December 5.
While iwi own the mountain, local ratepayers fund maintenance.
At least one submitter, Ngāti Ranginui environmental manager Carlton Bidois, asked whether council could use a "targeted rate" or similar mechanism for maintenance such as fixing slips.
In April, ex-cyclone Debbie swept through Tauranga and caused significant damage to the Pilot Bay side of the mountain, destroying part of the base track. Cost for repairs was estimated at more than $2 million.
Tauranga city councillor Steve Morris sits on the joint panel considering Mauao's draft management plan.
He told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend to ensure free public access, council must continue funding Mauao's maintenance through the general fund comprising $200 million for capital works and another $200m for operational expenses.
"We've got the ability to handle it, so there are no worries there."
Morris says under the Reserve Management Act, the Mauao Trust could charge for public access in exchange for maintenance.
"What is foolish is for people to say, 'Mauao Trust, you own it, you should pay for track repairs for the general public.' If that happens, they would have rights under the law to charge for access."
As for some submitters who claim the draft plan emphasised Maori over Pakeha, Morris says, "The previous Labour Government returned ownership of Mauao to tangata whenua. That's a fact. Facts don't care about your feelings ... if people don't like it they should take it up with central government politicians. We live in this reality and we've got to get on with the job."
Morris says Mauao's owners have rights under law to undertake limited commercial activity such as guiding, but a gondola is "totally out of the question ... the owners don't want it."
As for his own Mount memories, Morris says he first summited at age 2 with his grandfather, and 34 years later still walks regularly to the top.
"I think there are a lot of people in the community who say, 'I would not be fit and healthy if not for that mountain."'
Stuart Crosby, who served four terms as Tauranga's mayor, says how the trust chooses to raise revenue in relation to the mountain is up to it, but he wouldn't support a targeted rate or user-pays scheme.
"I think the current funding arrangement is fine. Historically, it was revenue from the camping ground at the base of the Mount; those profits generally funded Mauao."
Crosby and others say the Mount is important to Maori and non-Maori alike.
"Overall, it's getting the balance right between protecting Mauao which is quite a fragile environment - we've had fires, slips, rock falls ... but also managing that protection with public access and public activity."
Crosby said he used to walk up or around the Mount nearly five times each week during the year he had an apartment near the base.
"Every time you walk around it or up, it's different. To me, a special place is just looking by the harbour entrance towards Matakana Island, watching the surf breaks."
Telling the Story
Local author, Bay of Plenty Times columnist and head of Te Tuinga Whanau Trust Tommy Wilson says he's been writing a book about Mauao for about a decade.
Wilson says he's walked the Mount with about 5000 school kids during 100 trips and enjoys recounting the icon's history and legends.
"It's such an opportunity to have Maori tell that story ... Who better to tell the story than us? Tangata whenua ... I think we're missing it here. Walking tours are the fastest-growing tour offered globally.
"We need to start an initiative here, and being a storyteller all my life, I would like to be involved in it."
Wilson says he has a space on Mauao where he writes; he worked at the motor camp three years; planted trees for council; helped in his family takeaway business opposite the hot pools and sold papers in Mauao's shadow for three years.
"I've got a huge attachment to it, and that's part of the book."
Wilson says he hopes to publish his Mauao account, "... before I become part of the morning light".
That's also the working title of his book, Caught by the Morning Light.
Shortly after 10am Friday, the beginner group from Mount Runners strides the final few metres to the top.
Lined up on either side of the path near the trig station, veteran club members wearing bright blue singlets clap and cheer each newbie's achievement. The ritual finishes with joyful tears, more cheers and certificates of achievement.
Beginners coach Kelly Taylor says Mauao is a visual prompt about meeting challenges and overcoming fear.
"Whether it's something you've conquered or something you're about to conquer, you think, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.'
"It's a good reminder of where you're going and where you've been."
Mauao draft management plan: www.tauranga.govt.nz/Portals/0/data/community/consultation/files/mauao_rmp_draft.pdf
Mauao Draft Plan Key Points
- There is potential for the development of new walkways, or reinstatement of old ones
- Waka launching site and marae atea at the summit
- Protects wahi tapu sites and sites of historic significance
- No scattering of ashes on Mauao; no new memorial seats or plaques
- Rock climbers will not be permitted to use Mauao for climbing, unless suitable climbing sites can be found.
- Drones will not be permitted on Mauao.
Note: Dawn Picken is a member of the Mount Maunganui Runners and Walkers.