When a coveted private island in the Far North went on sale for $22 million last year, real estate agents billed it as the "ultimate island lifestyle" opportunity for wealthy buyers.
Motukawaiti Island, one of the largest of the Cavalli Islands, boasted a luxury home with a commercial kitchen, huge wine cellar, and extensive massage facilities, according to the listing.
It offered access to whale watching and game fishing, and was just a short helicopter ride to one of the world's best golf courses. Marketing for the island pitched its 38 hectares as ripe for development.
"For the price of a small mansion, you could ascend the throne to become the king and rule this island," said a promotional video uploaded to YouTube in August.
But the luxury buildings on the island have been trashed while its owner is overseas, the New Zealand Herald has learned.
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When a reporter visited the island, its main house was open to the elements, doors ajar and windows smashed. In one bedroom, a fan had come down with a collapsed ceiling. Garden furniture floated in a fetid swimming pool.
Property records list Jun Zhang, a Chinese businessman, as the last registered owner of the island. One real estate listing last year said the "current owner has moved overseas for several years". Attempts to reach his representatives in New Zealand were unsuccessful.
Police told the Herald there have been no complaints of a break-in. Officers are trying to contact Zhang. It is unknown if the absent owner is aware that it has been damaged.
In nearby Matauri Bay, around 3km away, Motukawaiti is never far from the minds of the Ngati Kura hapu, no matter whose name appeared on the title documents.
Kaumatua Nau Epiha, 78, said: "There were no owners, as far as I'm concerned, other than Ngati Kura. If anybody else thinks he owns it, he's dreaming."
Epiha has seen the title change hands many times since he was born in 1942. It was then in the ownership of settler and farmer George Hows, whose name featured on the first title document.
There is a move among Ngati Kura to have its name take the place of Zhang's on the ownership papers. A claim was filed with the Waitangi Tribunal, detailing the hapu's ancestral connection to the island.
That connection saw traditions from ancient days maintained to modern times. As a child, Epiha slept under the harakeke, rising at 4.30am to go fishing with his father, Hohepa Te Waiuku Epiha Netana.
"My mother [Te Rau Miro Epiha] used to point out there," he told the Herald, gesturing across Te Oneroa Au Matauri, Matauri Bay's long white beach, "and she would say 'there's your island about to sink if you don't go out and find it again".
The story of the island is one retold across the country, said historian Anthony Patete, who wrote a history of Matauri Bay and the alienation of its land from Ngati Kura.
Land was sold out of communal ownership, often without community approval. When settler and farmer George Hows took ownership of the island in 1912, it wasn't a deal that went before all of Ngati Kura. Patete's history recorded unsuccessful attempts to overturn the sale in the Native Land Court.
"The whole idea of the Native Land Court system was to break down tribal hierarchy and communal ownership of land," said Patete. "The Native Land Court introduced [to New Zealand] the idea of individualised land ownership."
In Epiha's view, there was a lease to Hows in 1911 but never a sale. "I don't know where the money [for a sale] went. It didn't come to me or our people."
Dover Samuels, a Ngati Kura elder and former MP with a home in nearby Matauri Bay, said a Waitangi Tribunal claim has been lodged which asked, among other things, for the Crown to buy Motukawaiti and return it to the hapu.
"Motukawaiti is an integral part of the cultural dimension for my people," Samuels said.
When the Herald visited Motukawaiti, one of the first sights on approaching the island was a torched 12-tonne digger on a beach. A jetty damaged during a storm a few years earlier had not been repaired.
Approaching the main house, it was apparent it had been broken into.
Beyond the open doors, bedding and other debris was strewn around and wires hung loose. Televisions were missing from wall brackets and other entertainment equipment had wires dangling loose.
In one bathroom, a smashed mirror lay in a bathtub, surrounded by blood spatters. Toilets around the property had been used but not flushed. Outside, the lawns were overgrown. A ride-on mower in a maintenance shed had been smashed. A door to a diesel generator had been partially ripped off.
Motukawaiti's descent into disrepair comes after a decade in which there were questions about its ownership, a lengthy investigation by the Overseas Investment Office, and several apparently unsuccessful attempts to find a new buyer.
In 2010, Wenning Han, a real estate agent, bought the island for $12 million. According to the OIO, there were two competing accounts of the transaction. In Han's version of events, he bought the island with a loan from Zhang and later surrendered ownership to Zhang when he couldn't repay the debt.
The OIO considered whether Han was acting as a front for Zhang, who was a Chinese citizen at the time and someone who would need government approval to buy the island. After four years of investigation, the OIO said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute with a reasonable prospect of conviction.
The island went up for sale in 2017 with an asking price of around $16 million. It was put up for sale again early last year by the agency James Law, according to property listings. This time the asking price was $22 million.
"Whether it is to build an absolutely private sanctuary for the ultimate lifestyle, or to develop this into a popular destination resort, this island has massive potential yearning to be explored," said one listing.
However, it appears that the island was withdrawn from the market in November. The owner's plans for the property are unknown. James Law did not return calls seeking comment.
Samuels, the former MP, told the Herald that Motukawaiti is papakainga, the ancestral seat of the hapu. Bones from neighbouring Motukawanui have been dated to 1100AD, underlining Ngati Kura's roots to Matauri Bay and the surrounding islands.
"It is wahi tapu. I've asked in my claim for the Crown to buy it and return it to the hapu. We've got no problem with [the Department of Conservation] being a part of the management."
That would not only return the land to Ngati Kura, but mean that all of the Cavalli Islands were open to the public.
At his dining table, looking out over Matauri Bay and the Cavalli Islands, Epiha described himself as caretaker of all he surveyed.
"The more people who go out there to exercise their love of the sea, the more I appreciate them," he said.
"But not when they come to me and say, 'matua, you can't go on that island. It's mine'."