As many as 2000 people spent the final day of 2018 rekindling family ties and competing in sporting challenges such as bareback horse races on the beach and an Iron Man run through thigh-deep mud.

The United Marae Sports Day, held in remote Pawarenga every December 31, started as a fundraiser for the North Hokianga settlement's three marae but has morphed into a reunion for the hapū Te Uri o Tai. Descendants travel from around Australasia, some from even further away, to take part.

Sporting challenges, all sponsored by local families, include horse races along the beach, woodchopping, a volleyball tournament, Iron Man and Iron Woman races, tug 'o war and kids' running races.

Tangaroa Herbert, 14, from Pawarenga, emerges from the mud at the end of the gruelling Iron Man race. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Tangaroa Herbert, 14, from Pawarenga, emerges from the mud at the end of the gruelling Iron Man race. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The most anticipated event, however, is a gruelling cross-country horse race through rugged farmland, metal roads and a mangrove swamp. Most riders compete bareback to save weight.

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Sports day stalwart Frank Herbert, who at 79 still competes in the woodchopping ring, said it was primarily a fun day despite being the hapū's biggest fundraiser.

''I think everyone enjoys themselves immensely ... It's one day of the year when all our whānau that don't live in Pawarenga come back from Auckland, America, Canada, Australia to support their marae. It's a very special day not only for the ahi kā [those who keep the home fires burning] but also for those who come back and bring their families.''

The event raises up to $30,000 to pay for maintenance and insurance for Morehu, Ohaki and Taiao marae, with most of the money coming from sales of coveted sports day T-shirts. All $24,000 worth sold out within three hours on Monday.

Chelsea MacAlister of Okaihau takes an early lead on Done Deal in the Pawarenga Cup, one of many beach horse races held during Monday's United Marae Sports Day. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Chelsea MacAlister of Okaihau takes an early lead on Done Deal in the Pawarenga Cup, one of many beach horse races held during Monday's United Marae Sports Day. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Longtime volunteer Anna Pospisil, of Kaitaia, said the event started as a race day run by Pawarenga's nuns in the 1920s. It stopped for World War II and again in the 1950s due to Māori migration to the cities.

It was restarted in 1982 by Gloria Herbert and the Pawarenga Community Trust. It was small at first, raising around $1000, but now drew up to 2500 people during the course of the day.

The proceeds made sure the three marae were well maintained and equipped.

''I love it that it's family giving money. They save up and come from Australia to take part, and that's beautiful,'' she said.

The winner of the new cross-country course was 14-year-old Pouaka Skinner on a horse named Stunner. The Iron Man, which ended with a energy-sapping slog through thigh-deep Whangape Harbour mud, was won by Jesse Whitehead of Taranaki for the fourth year in a row.

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In November 2018 Pawarenga's United Mare Sports Day won the outstanding marae award in the Tai Tokerau Māori Sports Awards.