Public access to an iconic Northland surf beach has been secured after a massive fundraising drive saved the land from falling into developers' hands.
Elliot Bay, on the east coast between Russell and Oakura, is surrounded by private land but the Elliot family have allowed the public to cross their property to the beach since the 1930s.
The beach is prized by surfers and families who have camped there every summer for generations.
However, with owners John and Christine Elliot keen to retire, their 710ha farm risked being bought by developers and carved up for top-end holiday homes - an outcome which could have locked the public out forever.
In a bid to safeguard public access a newly formed group, the Ipipiri Nature Conservancy Trust, embarked on an ambitious fundraising effort to buy the $8 million property.
The trust's purchase went unconditional last week.
Trust chairman Geoff Ricketts said the group had managed to raise more than $6m despite the Covid-19 crisis during the final months of fundraising.
It still had to raise another $2m but had negotiated a 24-month extension for the final payment.
"We're overjoyed with the outcome, and hugely appreciative of the support we have had from the Elliot family, philanthropists, local hapū, government, local bodies and the community to save this exceptional part of Northland, in the most challenging circumstances, in the middle of a pandemic," Ricketts said.
The purchase not only preserves public access to the coast, it also opens up new possibilities for active recreation, conservation and jobs.
Elliot Farm's location between Cape Brett and Russell State Forest means the trust will be able to develop a multi-day track opening up a swathe of Northland's scenic east coast to walkers.
"By linking the existing Cape Brett and Whangamumu tracks through the Elliot Bay property to Russell Forest tracks and Te Araroa, it could become one of New Zealand's Great Walks, rivalling the Milford and Routeburn tracks," Ricketts said.
"As well as the obvious conservation benefits, it will create jobs and support walking and nature tourism. New Zealanders will be able to experience this unique part of their backyard and, when the time is right and our borders are open, we can welcome overseas visitors too."
Ricketts said hapū could take comfort that the land was now in safe hands.
"The area holds significant heritage and nature values for Māori, and bringing it all together is a testament of collaboration."
The Ipipiri Trust's vision is to respect the land's history and Māori heritage, protect and enhance biodiversity, maintain public access to the beach and camping ground, and develop a walkway linking up with other tracks in the area.
The area is home to endangered species such as kiwi and dotterel, along with centuries-old kauri, totara and rimu.
Ricketts said the purchase was only the start of the journey and the trustees couldn't wait to start work on protecting an important slice of Northland.
The property has been in the Elliot Family for more than 90 years. It comprises 500ha of native forest and 200ha of farmland.
It has been on the market since 2015 with the Elliots turning down higher offers because they wanted to see the land preserved.
Under trust ownership access to the beach will continue under the same rules set by the Elliots many decades ago – no dogs, alcohol or cars.
Trustee Robert Willoughby (Ngāti Kuta) earlier told the Northern Advocate the walkway would join up isolated settlements and create jobs in track building, pest control, hut servicing, guiding and food and accommodation.
It could also serve as a model of collaboration between Māori and private landowners and agencies such as the Department of Conservation.
John Elliot, who is in his 80s, said he wanted to see the land retained for the public with camping and a mix of farming and conservation.
Christine Elliot said they backed the walkway proposal and wanted to "leave the land with somebody who is going to preserve and conserve".
The money was raised by grants and donations from a variety of organisations and individuals.
The cornerstone grant came from Next Foundation, which was set up by Kerikeri couple Neal and Annette Plowman to fund conservation projects around New Zealand.
In 2009 a nearby coastal property, at Helena Bay, was bought for $15m by a Russian oligarch. He has since built a mansion on the property at an estimated cost of $50m.
In 2016 a Givealittle campaign raised just over $2.2m to buy a bay at the top of the South Island and save it from development. Awaroa Bay is now part of Abel Tasman National Park.