Clint Rameka dreams of a sanctuary built on a sanctuary, turning the resting place of a legendary waka into a kauri reserve by way of Shane Jones' provincial growth fund, writes David Fisher.

Clint Rameka is in the bush, head back and staring heavenward admiring kauri.

"I don't have the money. I have the dream," the 47-year-old says to the climbers, who scale the trees to the highest boughs on the ridge.

Rameka's dream is a kauri sanctuary in this remote Far North valley, which follows Tākou River down to the sea, past the resting place of the legendary waka Mātaatua.

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Those climbers reach the highest branches and pick the kauri seed pods. If Rameka's dream comes true, it will be like these tiny seeds growing to become an awesome thing.

Especially in a place such as this.

It is difficult to state the deep cultural and spiritual importance of this place.

Mātaatua was one of the great waka — a double-hulled sea-going vessel which brought from Hawaiki those whose children would become Ngāpuhi of Northland, and Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāi Te Rangi of the Bay of Plenty.

Beyond the cool, bush-shrouded tranquillity of Mātaatua's final berth is glorious Tākou Bay. The river spills to the sea, its flow dividing the open and wide white sand beach.

For Rameka, he looks at all this and sees with different eyes.

He sees 75,000 kauri along the valley and its ridges, down to the sea. He sees the trees planted in land free of the killer kauri dieback disease. He sees the trees grown from seeds harvested by the climbers hanging from ropes high above the bush floor.

Rameka certainly has the dream. It's Shane Jones who has the money.

Jones is Minister of Regional Economic Development. He has $3 billion to spend in three years from the Provincial Growth Fund created through NZ First's coalition deal with Labour to form a government. He's also a politician in a hurry. It's about 18 months until the next election and he explains to people: "It's a political fund."

This means politics could choke or end the flow of money. Rameka's project — really that of his Ngāti Rēhia hapū — has a hope of possibility through $288,000 from the fund. Most went to Scion, the Crown's research expert on trees.

Without doubt, more money will be needed. There are hundreds of thousands of seeds to sow, tiny trees to nurture and then plant.

Jones is on the road to Tākou Bay. It begins about 20 minutes north of Kerikeri, cutting away from State Highway 10 towards the coast.

Jones is in a hurry but taking it slow. Tarseal gives way to loose chip as the road cuts through farmland. Like any local, he knows kicking up a rooster tail of dust on a metal road is a sure way of upsetting people.

He has come to understand what benefits have come from money spent and what comes next, bringing officials to meet Ngāti Rēhia kuia Nora Rameka — Clint Rameka's mum — and others who carry the burden and privilege of guardianship of Mātaatua.

There are 166 grants which have been approved through the fund with $700m promised. There's another $500m promised for the One Billion Trees programme.

The $288,000 which has so far been spent has led to soil testing along the valley to confirm the absence of kauri dieback disease. There is some finesse needed to link this work to the national effort to preserve kauri, and to the eventual cultivation of collected seeds, then the planting of those seedlings in two years.

Clint Rameka pictured right next to his mother Nora Rameka and Shane Jones.
Clint Rameka pictured right next to his mother Nora Rameka and Shane Jones.

Ambition and vision need mastery of mundane bureaucracy to come to life — Jones has brought those who can guide Ngāti Rēhia to the next waypoint. The Provincial Growth Fund is aimed at places starved of cash, in a poverty of opportunity.

In these out-of-the-way places, government has only receded in recent history. Jones' officials are the advance party, drawing isolated communities closer in.

Then it's into four-wheel drives and down to the coast. The tide is out and the sea has revealed rocks at the mouth of the estuary.

They are the taniwha guarding the entrance to Tākou Bay and are an integral part of the story of Mātaatua.

And Mātaatua is an integral part of the story of New Zealand.

There were nine waka.

They arrived on these shores between 700 and 1000 years ago, although the exact time is as unclear as their point of departure, mythical Hawaiki.

For Māori, those waka link to that distant place, the source of life and the place where souls go to rest when life has gone.

Each of the nine were named and each suffered adventures of legend on their journey to Aotearoa.

Mātaatua is said to have been captained by Toroa, who sailed with brother Puhi and many others across the Pacific. Landfall was at Whakatāne, where Toroa — a tohunga — was called on to carry out sacred rites.

Clint Rameka dreams of a kauri plantation along a remote Far North valley which follows the Tākou River (above) down to the sea. The plantation would provide an income for Rameka's Ngāti Rēhia hapū and benefit the environment but would also, he says, be a repository of history for all New Zealanders.
Clint Rameka dreams of a kauri plantation along a remote Far North valley which follows the Tākou River (above) down to the sea. The plantation would provide an income for Rameka's Ngāti Rēhia hapū and benefit the environment but would also, he says, be a repository of history for all New Zealanders.

Puhi's envy of his brother's role led to conflict, according to Ngāti Rēhia's submission to the Historic Places Trust for wāhi tapu recognition, and he put Mātaatua to sea again with some of those who had travelled.

There are variations in the legend of Mātaatua with various iwi weaving its story with their own. Ngāti Rēhia's history to the Historic Places Trust tells of Puhi sailing north, naming many places along the way.

Its journey ended at Tākou, although stories tell of two different routes to its final destination. One, by land, saw the waka carried from the deepest inland reaches of the Hokianga Harbour, across the centre of the North Island and down Tākou River to where it rests.

The other has Mātaatua coming by sea, attempting to enter Tākou River during heavy weather. In an effort to appease the gods — or to lighten the load — a woman named Tawhiu Rau and her children were thrown overboard. It is also said her husband, Takiri Hau, with whom she was arguing, was also thrown into the water.

There, they turned to stone and remain today guarding the river mouth as kaitiaki taniwha of Tākou.

When Clint Rameka talks of the kauri sanctuary, he declares: "It's already a sanctuary."

Some may see only a beach. Others will see a sacred place with its roots reaching back to where it all began.

"Ehara i te mea poka hōu mai: nō Hawaiki mai anō — It is not a new thing done without proper cause: it has come to us all the way from Hawaiki."

There's often contention over access to Tākou Bay. It has, at times, been open to the public in return for a small koha.

The beach and the land around it is communally and wholly owned by Ngāti Rēhia, who act as guardians.

It means, at times, the gate through the community and down to the beach is closed. There was closure to allow pāua to recover after visitors attempted to leave with sacks of undersized, illegal shellfish. Currently it stands closed, with maintenance needed at beach facilities.

There's a generosity of spirit in sharing Tākou Bay with the community which is often overlooked by those frustrated at being unable to visit as and when they like.

This place of contradictions enjoys cultural, natural and spiritual riches yet there is often little else.

This is a place with "people whose whānau have the worst social and economic statistics".

The jarring discord between Tākou Bay and other Far North beaches is not lost on Jones. The Bay of Islands is close.

"All that land," he says. "All owned by people from overseas. Mega-wealthy and no access."

Imagine, he says, trying to get on those beaches.

Jones drives with an eye on places forests might grow. There's the 45 hectares of kauri which is planned and another 150 hectares of pine under discussion. The resulting carbon credits would provide an income for Ngāti Rēhia. There's schemes such as this across the country, down similar dusty metal roads. If a nation's roads are its lifeblood, then very little oxygen travels down tiny arterial routes such as that to Tākou Bay.

Yes, says Jones, he feels pressure to get the right investments into the right communities for the right reasons.

"I feel the pressure because on one level I have to be like Caesar's wife in stewardship of the fund."

That's to say Jones, like Julius Caesar's second wife Pompeia, must make decisions which not only avoid suspicion but are above suspicion.

The plan envisaged by Clint Rameka involves climbers scaling mighty kauri trees for the seed pods.
The plan envisaged by Clint Rameka involves climbers scaling mighty kauri trees for the seed pods.

"At the other level," he adds, "I'm a retail politician who has to take calculated risks."

Sure, it's possible to fund roads and infrastructure. There are other places, such as the large native plant nursery established in Minginui in Te Urewera.

"The fund did have in mind the Minginuis of this world, the Ngāti Rēhia of this world."

Jones sees Tākou Bay as a place which will bring benefits to the environment, to jobs and to heritage. These are benefits which may not clearly unfold across a balance sheet yet remain real.

There's been a lot of noise and scepticism from the National Party over the Provincial Growth Fund.

There's been accusations of loose decision-making, Jones buying votes through pork barrel politics, of haste in agreeing to some schemes. National's Paul Goldsmith was critical of the number of jobs which had resulted, even though money has barely hit the accounts of some whose plans were accepted.

For all that, Goldsmith said no National-led Government would axe the fund. "We will honour any contracts that are signed, into the future."

Outside this, the fund is $3b for three years so any extra money would be a call for the Government formed after next year's election.

Goldsmith argues the fund is a falsehood, to a degree — tricky budgeting which has seen a number of projects support by National pulled under Jones' umbrella and paid for from the fund.

Where's the accounting for the money spent? Where's the reports from projects detailing successes? It's easy to spend a billion dollars, says Goldsmith, but "it would be hard to spend $1b a year effectively".

"All we've really had for a year is a bunch of press statements and very little detail."

He also questions the need, saying the provinces have recorded strong growth in recent years. There are places, he names East Cape and Northland, which have "struggled to grow". "Good quality investment makes sense."

Clint Rameka stands at the edge of Tākou River and points across the way naming marae and urupā.

"There's 1000 years' history right there," he says.

"It's not just our history but is for all New Zealanders to know. I think there is an obligation for government to look after places like this."

He can't help think of the millions of dollars invested into the Stone Store in Kerikeri.

And here? Once built, it becomes a resource to the nation.

Children and adults would come to learn, not only about the kauri sanctuary but about Tākou Bay's sacred secret.

He's looking across the river to where Ngāti Rēhia originally settled, sketching out a plan as he sees it in his mind's eye.

A pou to warn off those who would treat Tākou Bay casually. Kānuka and mānuka to provide low cover in places covered by gorse and tobacco weed. A bulldozer to remove macrocarpa crowding the urupā.

And on the ridges moving up the valley, kauri after kauri.

"I like moving fast because I see it," he says. Others pull him back when he drifts too far ahead.

"I think it will change communities too. It changes people's outlook when good things happen to the land."