Horse riders, axemen and athletes are set to descend on an isolated west coast settlement today for one of Northland's great sporting spectacles.

Pawarenga United Marae Sports Day, held on December 31 every year, is a fundraiser for the three marae in the Pawarenga valley, next to the Whangape Harbour in North Hokianga.

As well as paying for marae upkeep, the event also serves as a reunion for local hapū Te Uri o Tai, with up to 2000 people travelling from as far away as Australia to take part.

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Sporting contests include wood chopping, volleyball, iron man and woman, and tug o' war — but the highlights are always the horse races along beach and a gruelling cross-country horse race over hills, through mangrove swamps and on metal roads.

The exact timing of the races will depend on the tide but the action generally gets under way around 10am and winds down by mid-afternoon.

Last year's cross-country winner was 14-year-old Pouaka Skinner on a horse named Stunner.

The event started as a race day run by Pawarenga's Catholic nuns in the 1920s. It stopped during World War II and again in the 1950s due to Māori migration to the cities.

The tradition was revived in 1982 by Gloria Herbert and the Pawarenga Community Trust.

All races are sponsored by local whānau — often in memory of deceased family members — but most of the money raised comes from the sale of sports day T-shirts.