An ''absolute icon'' of the north who mentored thousands of young Ngāpuhi will be laid to rest at his marae near Ōkaihau.

Wiremu Wiremu, one of Northland's most respected and recognisable kaumātua, died suddenly on Thursday aged 80.

A former soldier and kaihautu (captain) of the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, Wiremu — also known affectionately as Matua Wiremu, Uncle Bill and even Handlebars on account of his impressive moustache — was a central figure in almost every event around the Mid North, in particular Waitangi Day waka displays and pōwhiri at the Treaty Grounds and Te Tii Marae.

Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu speaks during the release of toutouwai (North Island robins) in Puketi Forest in 2010. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu speaks during the release of toutouwai (North Island robins) in Puketi Forest in 2010. Photo / Peter de Graaf

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He was taken yesterday to Te Korowai, the Treaty Grounds waka shelter, so he and Ngātokimatawhaorua could farewell each other, and from there to Tou Rangatira, the carved pou next to Te Tii Marae.

He was then due to be taken to his home at Moerewa before a hui mate, or tangi, at Piki Te Aroha Marae in Rahiri.

The details of his hui mate, and the logistics of how to hold it amid Covid-19 alert level 2 restrictions, were still being worked out yesterday.

Ngāti Hine leader Pita Tipene said Wiremu was known throughout the country for his strong involvement in waka and tikanga Māori.

''He was an absolute central character in the landscape of the whole of the north. He's always been central, and he's always been a face and a voice. He was an absolute icon in our community and a strong icon too. He had strong beliefs, he had strong positions, but he contributed so much to our community.''

Wiremu was a kaumātua who rubbed shoulders with other kaumatua, but it was young people who would really miss him.

''He mentored a lot of people. His contribution and his legacy will remain here in the north forever,'' Tipene said.

Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu escorts 92-year-old Eru Patuone Heperi ashore on Waitangi Day this year after his journey in the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua. Photo / John Stone
Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu escorts 92-year-old Eru Patuone Heperi ashore on Waitangi Day this year after his journey in the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua. Photo / John Stone

Treaty Grounds cultural manager Mori Rapana said Wiremu's contribution to Waitangi, and to kaupapa waka, had been enormous.

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''He was always open and honest, always conducted himself with integrity, and was always available to us for advice and guidance.''

''He was the waka and the waka was him. He was one of the last repositories of waka knowledge of his generation. It's only appropriate that we bring him [to the waka shelter] as part of his final journey before he is laid to rest in the bosom of Papatūānuku.''

Wiremu had visited the Treaty Grounds just hours before he died to share his ideas for the new museum.

''It's a huge loss. Waitangi will never be the same without him,'' Rapana said.

Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds waka shelter in 2004. Photo / Tania Webb
Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds waka shelter in 2004. Photo / Tania Webb

Joe Conrad, current captain of Ngātokimatawhaorua, said ''Uncle Bill'' was instrumental in getting him involved with the great waka.

He was the go-to man if anything needed to be done at Waitangi and, with his military background, he instilled discipline in the waka crews he taught.

He was also a great personal support and the first to arrive anytime something happened in the Conrad family.

''I'll miss him big time. I'll always owe him for what he's done for me and my brother Stan and for kaupapa waka.''

Wiremu's involvement at Waitangi was interrupted only when he was gravely ill several years ago. He went to stay with family in Taranaki but made a remarkable recovery and returned to his old role as mentor to young kaihoe (paddlers).

He was also closely involved with a carving school for young men in Moerewa, the development of Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail, the restoration of Puketi Forest and many other projects.

His extravagant, almost Victorian whiskers made him instantly recognisable yet he was humble and avoided the limelight. He disliked photos and interviews, preferring to get on with the mahi at hand.

■ Wiremu Wiremu was to have celebrated his 80th birthday at Bay of Islands College on March 21 but the event was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. An earlier version of the story stated he was 70. That information was supplied and published in good faith. The Advocate apologises for the error.