Who are we really fighting for access to our beaches? The Weekend Herald takes to the road to find out

In a stuffy room in Auckland, a procession of New Zealanders stand up and argue for their rights to wet sand.

This is the select committee hearings on the Government's Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill.

Some say the law change granting Maori customary rights to the foreshore will make no difference.

Others, though, see it as an attack on a Kiwi's right to go to the beach.

One Pakeha middle-aged man says he's been a surfer for decades and the only trouble he's ever had is where there are "Maoris". If the bill is passed into law and Maori qualify for a form of ownership called customary marine title, he expects trouble, he says.

His view is representative of a good proportion of submitters. They're not quibbling about where the foreshore is, for most it just means the beach. The access threat to a national "birthright" is plain and obvious, they say.

However, Northland-raised MP Shane Jones, a member of the select committee, suggests there are spots of beach paradise where the only public access is across Maori-owned land.

Other picture-perfect bays stretching from Kerikeri north around to Matauri Bay - where land is nearly 100 per cent owned by private interests - are impossible to get to because of the ownership of wealthy foreigners.

Jones is talking about the beautiful Purerua Peninsula.

The notion that there is free and easy access for all has long been a dream in some areas.

So it's from a small industrial building in Penrose that the New Zealand Herald launches a "Please let me swim at your beach" road trip.

The plan is simple: to ask landowners if they mind letting us stroll through to their piece of paradise to dip our toes.


First stop, Taronui Bay. On the left hand side of the peninsula, it's a pretty east coast beach tucked in behind farmland. There's an electronic gate, which can be opened only by four households that live inside it.

Outsiders must leave their cars outside the gate and climb over the fence.

Then it's a 3.7km walk until you hit the 18ha Department of Conservation reserve. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to walk one way.

For the past 25 years David Ewings, a 65-year-old beef farmer, has owned property the pathway now cuts through. Before the track there was no legal access by land, he says.

He won't be drawn on why the need for an electric fence, but says he and his neighbours are private people. The public have been good about respecting it.

Taronui's swimmable but not really my cup of tea. Hiking then swimming before getting hot on the return trip isn't my idea of fun, and you wonder how many others can be bothered or even know about the beach.

* Can we swim here? Yes.

Just along the main road named for the peninsula, a sign points down to Te Tii, a little village where house doors are left open to a bay which hugs the Te Puna Inlet. There's a painted red sign, warning trespassers that this is Ngati Rehia customary land.

But visitors don't seem to worry Danny and Tuppy Kaiawe, the pair invite us up for a cold drink on a humid day. Their house is perched on a little rise overlooking the water, with a brand spanking new wrap-around deck.

It's a cheeky coaching spot. Mr Kaiawe yells out directions to boys who are training for the national waka ama championships. He's set out a course for them in the calm sheltered spot and the youngsters speed past a group of girls bobbing in the water gossiping. "We get people coming down taking pictures of our marae, they're good.

"Every now and again we get kayakers putting in. You'll go past each other [and say] 'morning'."

Kaumatua Tom Brown said he gets angry when he hears Maori are stopping access. Not in his backyard, he reckons.

"We're not stopping anyone from coming here at all - that is bloody bullshit. It's the blinkin' millionaires around here shutting up gates.

"We used to be free and easy around here but there are plenty of places closed off."

* Can we swim here? Yes.

Paoneone is a 600ha farm, owned by multimillionaire venture capitalist Bill Bernie.

On the day we visit there's a front-page business Herald story about difficulties he's facing - as a result, he's selling it by tender. Pundits estimate its value at $20 million.

Through the beautiful stone and steel security gate, which has a numbered keypad, there's a view out towards the Cavalli Islands.

We ring through to his office to see if we can get down for a swim.

We hit the answering machine and our message isn't returned.

Neighbours tell us later the beach is gorgeous.

* Can we swim here? No.

A security camera watches over this gated community which is set over 1133ha.

Developed during the middle of the decade, there are four private beaches and one of the largest lots sold for nearly $4 million in 2005.

But there are two special pockets of public access.

Developed by Bernie and solicitor Evan Williams, iwi have also been granted access to specific destinations on the property.

At the far end of the peninsula, an easy 10-minute downhill track through farm paddocks leads to the historic soft-shell Oihi Bay.

From the ridge, the imposing stone Marsden Cross peeks out. It commemorates the earliest-recorded Christian service, on Christmas Day 1814.

A cruise ship is tooting its way out from the Bay of Islands but after it's gone the only sound comes from the little swells breaking on the shore. I wish'd I'd bought food, it's a great picnic spot.

* Can we swim here? At one beach, not at others.

Another gated community where land is leased from hundreds of Maori shareholders.

June Heihei takes us down for a nosey and as we go through the gate she says the keypad number is changed regularly because of the ease with which the code makes its way further afield from the 51 homes.

Tapuaetahi's a big moon bay. Follow its curve north and there's Taronui, Elliots Beach, which has no public access except by walking around the coast, and Takou further on. A lack of respect closed the beach more than a decade ago, Ms Heihei says. There's also the fact that the public don't contribute to the upkeep of the road.

The last tidy up cost $70,000 and because the residents are paying good money to live at Tapuaetahi shareholders have a responsibility to them, she says.

"We have to look after them. We also have to take care of our resources, we're trying to retain our fisheries and to do that we need rules."

She takes us to meet her friend, Dianne Becroft, a long-time resident who says members of the public do come through from time to time. She agrees that if people don't contribute they shouldn't benefit. Tapuaetahi doesn't have the facilities to cater to them.

"One neighbour's dog had rolled in human faeces and traipsed them through the house. She was not happy."

There are plenty of other public beaches available in the north to cool off. "If they're desperate enough they can always make a friend down here."

* Can we swim here? Not unless you live here, or are mates with people who do.

At the top of a hill a sign warns that the road down to Wharengaere is private. We drive down it.

Aro Rihari, 66, lives at the papakainga, a collection of weatherboard homes some bordered by bright, flowering trees. They're built on Maori-owned land, which nestles against the water.

Wharengaere's a village where no one "keeps skinny", he reckons, the oysters, snapper and mullet are just too fat and delicious.

Ask him if you can go for a swim and he's chuffed. "Any time."

But "inconsiderates" who traipse their boats through the private papakainga annoy him.

"How would they like it if I turned up to their backyards and launched my boat without their permission? When they turn up I usually let them but I tell them 'don't do it again'."

* Can we swim here? Yes.

Another station with a gate.

* Can we swim here? No.

Evan Williams is developing this farm into a 25-lot subdivision. The Aucklander plans to provide public access to coastline that is currently inaccessible because of gorse and other noxious weeds. Two other beaches on the property will be for residents only.

Wiroa and Mountain Landing are paying for a proper road to Kaihiki Bay, which is next to Wharengere.

It's a fair trade-off, he believes.

"Public access is an issue, by and large, on the peninsula because there isn't access for people to go fishing or for people to go down to the beach. Let's say there are probably 15 pieces of beach and only three are capable of public access. Those three actually solve about 70 per cent of the demand. Solving the rest is not worth it."

* Can we swim here? Not yet, but soon.