By Anusha Bradley of RNZ

The closure of the only bridge with car access to three urupā near Wairoa is forcing relatives to carry the bodies of their loved ones on foot nearly a kilometre for burial.

Patangata Bridge, 14km east of Wairoa, was closed to heavy vehicles in August after it was deemed by Wairoa District Council as structurally unsafe.

Its repair now hangs in the balance, with the council saying questions remain over who legally owns the bridge and who will pay for its repair, which could cost up to $500,000.

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The decades-old wooden bridge crosses the Rahui Channel, providing the only vehicle access to Whakakī Lake and three urupā about 1km up the unsealed road.

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Two big bollards and warning signs now stop cars from crossing the bridge, though it remains open to pedestrians and farm bikes.

"The trek on foot is hard going. It's rocky, there's holes ... and it eventually goes up a hill. So for our kaumatua and pakeke - they can't do that," said Wairoa resident Careen Busing, who traces her whakapapa to Whakakī Lake and Whakakī Marae.

One whānau recently resorted to using a farm bike to transport a relative to the urupā, she said.

"That lacks a level of dignity to do that to our people, and the fact we can't all go there. People from Auckland or Wellington, when they bring their cars to go to a tangi, they don't bring an ATV."

Whakakī Marae chairman Bob Solomon said the closure was having a huge impact on the community.

"We've had two tangihanga in Whakakī and we've also had two hura kōhatu, or unveilings, so this has caused some grief in the community, especially our pakeke being able to make it to the other side to pay their last respects."

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The lack of vehicle access is also affecting private and Māori landowners in the area and brought the $3 million restoration of Lake Whakakī - recently funded by the Provincial Growth Fund - to a halt.

Some mana whenua were planning to picket the council if it did not move quickly to fix the bridge, Solomon said.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said there was no quick fix.

He said the council had spent $90,000 maintaining the bridge in the past, but there were questions over who the legal owner was.

"We've got to determine the ownership, that's number one. The second thing is will this bridge attract any subsidies because if we are going to spend up to $500,000 on this bridge we would hope that there would be government or NZTA subsidies - otherwise it's just not affordable for the community."

Some of those questions should be answered in the next week, and although the council was determined to fix the bridge it could take several months before it was known how it could be repaired and who would pay for it, Little said.