Kirsten Warner: Northland trail an uphill climb

One of the many cattle stops on the Pou Herenga Tai - Twin Coast cycle trail that runs from Okaihau to Kaikohe on the old rail lin. Photo / Greg Bowker
One of the many cattle stops on the Pou Herenga Tai - Twin Coast cycle trail that runs from Okaihau to Kaikohe on the old rail lin. Photo / Greg Bowker

Three days a week (or so) Mita Harris manages four Historic Places Trust Northland properties. The other two days a week (or so) he is the Far North District Council's cycle trail man on the Hokianga.

I expected someone more outdoorsy, or more bookish and older. At 40, he's tall, handsome, and naturally stylish. There's nothing expensive about what he's wearing - jeans, T-shirt, leather slip-on sandals and corduroy jacket - but he still looks designed.

We meet at Mangungu mission house, which he manages. It stands elevated on wide lawns overlooking the harbour which, 5km west of Horeke, is more like a big, slow river. There is a colonial caretaker's cottage, monument, chapel and portaloo, but the only other sign of human occupation is distant farmland.

Mangungu is not a place name most people are familiar with, but in 1827 it was one of the first places of European settlement and intersection with Maori.

It is at one end of the projected 85km Pou Herenga Tai-Twin Coast Cycle Trail, the other end being Opua in the Bay of Islands.

Mita Harris is a man of under-statement, but even he says getting agreement and access over private land for this part of the trail has been difficult. "We're probably looking at 300 metres of structure, fencing and some board walk. That's the easy bit."

Is the cycle trail controversial?

"It is. It's new, it's big, it's one of the bigger projects in this part of the north. The last one would have been the formation of State Highway 1."

The first option was to drop the trail here down the rail corridor built between Okaihau and Rangiahua but abandoned in the 1930s, in part because of landslips and difficult terrain, and most of the railway land sold.

Consent in principle had been obtained when the council put forward its proposal to the Government. When the cycle trail was given the go-ahead, two landowners who saw the benefits of the cycle trail had, at their own expense, swapped land to provide an access road. But there was opposition about stock movement and safety concerns with the track alongside State Highway 1, and discussion ground to a halt.

"It's the dynamics of a community," says Harris. "It's like this in rural New Zealand, almost a little bit of separation between different peoples. Some are all for it. Some can see vision. And some are very closed off. I guess they are happy with the same old, same old, everyday slog ... they never really had a forecast in their mind about where we're going socially and economically in this little area of Okaihau, Waihou Valley.

"We need work, we need an economy base - whether they are oblivious to it, I wouldn't have a clue. I've found that quite hard, to try and make people meet up."

Is that a Maori-Pakeha divide? He's a bit hesitant. "I've felt there's still a lot of work to do, put it that way."

Do people get heated? "They do, they get very heated, I'm lucky it's only one or two. You feel everything's warming up. I just breathe slowly and let it out, and it goes away. I don't take it personally. I'll listen. Listen and analyse and think about it later on."

Are you popular around the district? "I hope so."

Earlier this month consensus was reached on an alternative - and less costly - route from Okaihau across private land linking two rural roads. "I've got three landowners on board to start talking and negotiating about what a lease agreement is going to look like for them and for the council," says Harris.

Again, that was the easy part of the job. Progressing along Horeke Rd through the Utakura Valley means reaching agreement with hundreds of Maori land owners.

If anyone can align Maori land ownership with a national goal, it will be someone who can span both sets of values. Mita Harris is quietly confident. "We'll be up and running in 12 months," he says.

Slowly, through public meetings and private conversations, the two worlds are coming together. He has attended a lot of hui and talked to a lot of kuia and kaumatua. "This weekend we've got a meeting on the marae, not about this specifically but I am going to jump on board; it will have a lot of landowners there.

"I've been looking on the computers at Maori Land Court records. The number of landowners is just phenomenal. It's hard work tracking these people down. We're not talking one or two ... I think they're up into the hundreds. Not everyone is going to be spoken to but there needs to be some consensus.

"The ones who live up here are supportive, but a lot of landowners moved away many years ago and there are surnames I've never heard of."

For the six titles in question, spanning about 4km of trail, he has come cross only one trust board. There are different family names, legal entities and ownership structures. If it gets too complicated, he says, the alternative is to bypass the Maori land altogether and detour cyclists on to the road.

But he has whakapapa ties here, he's local and he already has established relationships with many of the Maori and European landowners, one of the reasons he was hired for the job.

His home is about 12km east of here, at Puketotara between Kerikeri and Puketi Forest, a settlement not even on the Wises map. His English wife Rachael is an early childhood teacher. James (16) and Hana (14) are at school in Kerikeri.

They live not far from Harris Rd, Rahiri, where he grew up. Rahiri is one of the defining mountains of Ngapuhi. His parents Pouri and Laura still live there.

The Harrises and the Tokis (his mother's maiden name) are big families in this part of Northland. Pouri Harris, a forestry worker, taught his kids about the bush and Mita and his four siblings would ride their horses there.

After schooling at Okaihau, Mita Harris worked in forestry, then joined the Department of Conservation for 15 years, working as biodiversity programme manager in the Puketi Forest near where he grew up.

A year ago he joined Historic Places Trust. Then in March 2011 he took up the cycle trail offer from the Far North District Council.

Harris' city-boy looks and sideburns are somewhat deceptive; apart from some DoC training he has never lived or worked in a city. Children and whanau keep him home: "My hapu is just over there, I chair our marae, I like to be quite close." (Piki Te Aroha Marae is on Harris Rd.)

He is heartland Maori conservative - a candidate for the National Party for Te Tai Tokerau in 2002 at the age of 30; New Lynn in 2005 (coming second to Labour's David Cunliffe); Mangere in 2008; this year putting himself forward (unsuccessfully) for the hotly contested Northland candidacy.

His grandfather served in the Pioneer Battalion in France in World War I; his dad did a stint in the army. Mita Harris was in the Territorial Army for 15 years and is now an officer in the Army Cadet Corps. This evening he will take his son James into Kerikeri for training.

Harris inhabits this quite rugged landscape as if he carries an internal map signposted by family, ancestry, stories and his own life. At one stage he opens his desk diary and shows me his whakapapa - ancestry going back to Kupe, the first great Maori voyager who made landfall at the Hokianga.

When he talks about "this end of town", he means the upper Hokianga - the other end is Rawene, Opononi and Omapere. He mentions small places names with the same ease Aucklanders mention suburbs.

This is where he was born, bred and spent his career working.

In the front room of the mission house are portraits of two of his direct ancestors through his mother's line - the prominent chiefs Tamati Waka Nene and Patuone who took charge of the Wesleyan missionaries after things turned sour at Kaeo and brought them to Mangungu. Mita looks remarkably like Patuone but without full moko.

Below his ancestors' portraits is a facsimile of the Treaty of Waitangi on the actual table on which the third and biggest signing of the Treaty took place here in February 1840.

Seventy two chiefs signed and 2000 to 3000 Maori arrived for the ceremony, with a feast the next day - including rice, sugar and meat - at Horeke where New Zealand's first pub was already in business.

We head for Horeke to see progress on the cycle trail.

To an outsider Horeke looks wrecked, but Harris doesn't see it like that and would be quite happy living here. He spent a lot of time here as a child with his grandmother who lived just before the pub.

We stop at the disused rural fire brigade, a half round building which looks neglected but is structurally sound and provides a headquarters for cycle trail works. It is on the mangroves at the edge of a salt marsh which the cycle trail will cross for about a kilometre.

East, the swamp was previously drained and the diggings provide a ready-made base for the cycle trail. We walk where eight unemployed youth have been levelling the reclamation by hand under a Community Max scheme.

The surface will be planted with tough kikuyu grass and mown flat rather than topped with gravel so there's no run-off.

In the other direction, exploratory probes hit a potential obstacle - previous occupation, either Maori or the old timber mill. Historic Places Trust archaeologists and the Far North District Council have to undertake a dig before any further works.

The solution may be about 140 metres of boardwalk sitting on the surface and secured on to sections where it is safe to sink foundations. So the cycleway progresses.

Harris will go on to meet engineers at Okaihau, where backblocks Hokianga suddenly collides with the traffic of State Highway 1. They will spend the afternoon on site discussing costs and construction alternatives.

You get the sense of the inexorable progress of the great cycle trail Northland campaign.

"Somehow from Mangungu or Horeke we have to send them (the cyclists) out down to the rest of the brothers and sisters on the Hokianga who of course have arms wide open waiting for this thing to happen."

On the web
Pou Herenga Tai-Twin Coast Cycle Trail

- NZ Herald

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