A huge crowd is gathering in Kaikohe as the biggest protest the North has seen in years prepares to march on Far North District Council headquarters.
Organisers of today's hīkoi against council plans to declare large swathes of the Far North as Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) – which Māori have described as a "land grab" because they believe it will strip their rights to use the land – had hoped for 1000 people.
With people streaming to the assembly point at the former RSA at the top of Broadway, the number could even be surpassed.
Leading the hīkoi will be Hinerangi Cooper-Puru, daughter of Dame Whina Cooper who led the 1975 Land March from the Far North to the steps of Parliament and who famously declared that ''not one more acre'' of Māori land should be lost.
The hīkoi began with about 20 people at Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) on Thursday morning.
After spending the night at Manukau Marae in Herekino they were welcomed at Waipuna Marae in Panguru before dawn today.
There they paid their respects at a statue of Dame Whina, which was dedicated just last year, then headed for the Hokianga ferry, which had to put on an extra sailing.
Numbers swelled along the route with a large queue of vehicles waiting at the Rawene crossroads, with a police escort, to join the convoy.
Meanwhile, people are streaming into Kaikohe from every direction.
Many are Māori upset at what they see as a breach of their rights as landowners and a lack of consultation, but they are being joined by significant numbers of Pākehā farmers and property owners.
The march was due to start at 11am. Mass haka are planned outside the courthouse and the council offices.
Cooper-Puru, who is 84, a few years old than her mother in 1975, said the rest of the country was watching to see how the Far North challenged the council and the government over SNAs.
If her mother was alive today she would say: "Just get on with the job''.
"She sent everyone home from Parliament and said, 'Go home to your land and be watchdogs, because a lot is going to happen in your areas', and she was right.''
''We've protected the land all the time, it's the Crown and councils that have come along and disturbed the whenua and caused pollution,'' she said.
Cooper-Puru said the SNA controversy was also an unwelcome distraction from other work Māori were engaged in, such as the new Māori Health Authority and Māori wards.
Hīkoi co-ordinator Rueben Taipari said he hoped the ''Stealing Native Areas'' march would ''make the government actually listen to the people who live on the land''.
Rules could not be imposed by people sitting in an office hundreds of kilometres away, he said.
''We're passionate about our whenua and our moana, it's part of our legacy. If someone comes in and imposes their authority on top of ours, that's colonisation all over again.''
The revolt over SNAs is unusual in the way it has united Northlanders of wildly different backgrounds.
Taipari said while the bond Māori had with the whenua was unique, all opponents were united by a love of the land.
''So let's all work together,'' he said.
The furore started last month when the Far North District Council sent 8000 letters to property owners identifying potential SNAs on their land. The SNAs cover 42 per cent of the district, with about half of that being conservation land.
While SNAs have existed since the early 1990s, the government's National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity — due to be passed by Parliament later this year — is expected to give them more teeth, for example by requiring landowners to seek consent for a wide range of activities.
The aim is to protect native biodiversity, particularly on private land.
After the initial outcry the council extended the deadline for submissions until today.
Public meetings around the district have drawn as many as 500 people almost unanimously opposed to the SNA proposal.
The accuracy of the designation process — which was carried out by consultants identifying native vegetation on aerial photos — has also been questioned, with farmers telling the Advocate paddocks of gorse had been labelled as SNAs.
The reaction has prompted council backpedalling in recent days.
Mayor John Carter said the degree of opposition to SNAs had taken everybody by surprise.
''Nobody understood the volume of the reaction, not Parliament, Northland Regional Council or Far North District Council.''
On Wednesday he ordered the process be paused but at least one councillor is calling for it to be scrapped altogether. Others want a different approach to protecting indigenous biodiversity.
Dame Whina's Land March was a watershed moment in the Māori renaissance of the 1970s and focused wider public attention on the loss of Māori land.
A photo of Dame Whina holding her mokopuna's hand as she set off on a dusty road from Te Hapua, near Cape Rēinga, has become one of the iconic images of modern New Zealand history.