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David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ stories: East Cape locals' fight for centre a name-changer

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.
Ani Huriwai didn't give up after losing the first round. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ani Huriwai didn't give up after losing the first round. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hicks Bay community's battle led to Horseshoe Bay taking back its Maori title and bach owners moving out

Day 14: Onopoto Bay

Follow the tarmac under the trees and the road snakes around the cliffs away from Hicks Bay to a secret and special hidden beach.

The road to the beach is called Onepoto Beach Rd. Like many roads carrying Maori place names, the destination to which it leads carries a Pakeha name. In this case, it was Horseshoe Bay for a long time.

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Well, it doesn't carry that name any longer. Ani Pahuru Huriwai has a story about that - the great battle for Te Puna Manaaki a Ruataupare Community Centre and the "Great White Flight" of 2005.

It's been Onepoto Beach since then - the beach matching the road again for the first time in decades.

What's in a name? It might seem a small thing here, at the furthest reaches of East Cape, but it came to be the difference between a vision for change and what stood in its way.

And this is how it happened.

Ani was married here, age 27, under the pohutukawa at the end of Onepoto Beach. She dressed for the wedding at a friend's parents' home and came down to the beach on a horse-drawn cart, passing a backpacker hostel at which tourists leaned over the veranda and took photographs.

Her husband-to-be, Pirika Huriwai, rode with his groomsmen on horses down the beach to where they exchanged vows. That was 1997 and the community was one mainly of holiday homes and retirees from other places.

Horseshoe Bay, as it was then, "wasn't a place that we came to. It wasn't a place the Maori kids would come. They felt there was a bit of a wall up."

It all began to change in 2002. "My husband died that year," she says. They had two boys when epilepsy took him - 2 and 2 months.

When she lost Pirika "I put my energy into this place".

The community at Hicks Bay (Wharekahika) wanted a community centre. There were already projects and plans in progress: "We were operating a lot of programmes out of my parents' home."

Winz and Housing NZ understood the desire to make a difference. A researcher was sent to East Cape, and the vision was clear enough to be shared and to win the support of government agencies.

The ambition was for the people of Hicks Bay - it was obvious there wasn't empire-building under way. Housing NZ was shown a few possible properties - but not the former backpackers because it was considered out of the price range.

But the building was the answer, and once purchased all it needed was a change in its legal definition for the centre's destiny to be fulfilled.

That's when the people of Hicks Bay learned a few things about their neighbours in Horseshoe Bay.

"There were a lot of holiday houses and there were a lot of dissenters. The people who had holiday properties down here, they wanted to retire ... we never begrudged them that.

"But when we wanted this place, they all sort of went against us."

At one meeting leading up to consent hearings, one resident said: "Ani, it's not you. It's the undesirables who might come down to Horseshoe Bay."

She replied: "That's interesting. A lot of those 'undesirables' are my relations."

There's not much in the way of infrastructure at East Cape. Meetings were held at the local motel. More than 100 people turned up that day - schools, kohanga reo, community groups, from small children to kaumatua - to support the application to change zoning and establish the centre. Their presence had little impact without formal submissions.

Those equipped to do battle were the opposition from Horseshoe Bay, who came with white collar backgrounds or money for lawyers. "All the people who did talk were the holidaymakers and those who had made a living off us, like commercial fishermen," she recalls.

The opposition spelled out in the black-and-white of submissions from those residents was profoundly upsetting. Those wanting to establish the centre were "horrified" to find what their neighbours and people who they considered friends thought of them. Opposition was founded on fear - fear of burglary, fear of traffic, fear of unwanted intruders to the beach, fear of a closer connection to things Maori.

"The scaremongers said we were going to bring in lots of young people, that their houses would be devalued.

"My response at the hearing was, 'my people have been here for 1000 years and they will be here for 1000 years more. This land is not real estate - we are here as guardians'."

That didn't work. "We lost that case."

When the news came through, Ani was in Wellington with a group of young people. "They rang me and told me we lost. I had to tell the kids. They asked 'why don't they want us Aunty'? That just broke my heart - and then they got angry."

They had to give it another go, and they did.

The hearing this time was in Gisborne, in the council chambers. The distance - three hours by car - and space in the hearing room meant the same level of whanau support wasn't available. But the case itself was more focused - and successful. They were backed by Housing NZ. In other places, the state housing provider catches a lot of criticism. At Onepoto "we are forever grateful to community housing for sticking by us".

"Housing New Zealand brought in all their big guns to support our arguments and shut down all the arguments against us."

It wasn't support popular among those in opposition. At the second hearing, one opponent came up to Ani and shook her hand. "He said 'it's hard to fight bottomless pits of money'," as if she didn't know.

That's something everybody in Hicks Bay (Wharekahika) knows.

After they won the case, and the resource consent was granted, the "for sale" signs went up across the bay. It was like a Mexican wave by real estate agents - the "Great White Flight" of 2005.

"Lots of people sold and left. There's a couple still living here who, at the time, were convinced they should be opposed. Now, they're like 'I don't know what everyone was worried about'."

The community centre gave a point of focus for the community. It also serves as the northern office of Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou and provides greater access to services and training than was previously possible.

In 2007, the community centre became a private training establishment. As well as a strong kura kaupapa and marae-based studies (graduate and post graduate) through Te Wananga Raukawa, it has brought the sort of education to East Cape which Ani once left to find elsewhere.

Collectively, it has changed a mindset - children know how important it is to be educated. "Our kids are still going to go away - but it should be a choice, not a 'have to'.

"If we don't want to leave we don't have to leave because there are high quality opportunities here."

Locally, there is intergenerational benefit dependency. In some cases, Ani says, that's up to the fourth generation. The stretch running from the main road through Hicks Bay had 42 homes of which 27 relied on government support.

"What we've seen is an intergenerational difference - grandmothers graduating alongside their grandchildren, an intellectual philosophy in many of our people, from despondency to determination."

And the community centre, and all it brings, was one important step among many in making it happen.

"We've always called it Onepoto," says Ani of the place where she married, 16 years ago. "They called it Horseshoe Bay."

Now "they" are gone. "So now it's just called Onepoto Bay."

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