A Maori Trust in the Bay of Islands is hoping a bold new tourism venture will bring income and jobs - and set an example of how iwi and business can work together.
Motukokako Ahu Whenua Trust owns iconic Motukokako Island, better known as Hole in the Rock, but has next to no income despite the many thousands of tourists that travel to, and through, the island each year.
That could change following the launch last Sunday of a joint venture with Paihia helicopter company Salt Air. Choppers will fly tourists to a platform on the island's highest point on the edge of a 500-foot (150m) cliff with stunning views of Cape Brett and the Bay of Islands.
Eventually the trust wants guides to greet visitors and explain the island's rich Maori history and biodiversity, which is protected from pests by sheer cliffs rising from the sea.
Sunday morning's launch saw two helicopters shuttling trust members and dignitaries to the island from Rawhiti, including kuia Ella Garland, 86, Mayor Wayne Brown, Te Runanga-a-iwi o Ngapuhi chief executive George Riley and Salt Air owner Grant Harnish.
The cliff-top platform was blessed by trust treasurer Joe Bristowe, who built it with help from Haimona Ahitapu-Tauariki and other volunteers.
''This is a good day for Maori who want to keep going forward and doing things for ourselves. Someone has to lead, so we jumped into the role,'' he said.
Trust chair Patuone Hoskins paid tribute to his predecessor Edina Coulston, who was the driving force behind the venture but died just before it came to fruition.
''When she heard about this project, she was never going to let go. She was organising this event right until she died.''
Salt Air owner Grant Harnish said when trustee Richard ''Blandy'' Witehira came up with the idea three years ago, his first reaction was that his friend was ''nuts''. However, once the trust gave its blessing, building the engineer-designed landing pad took just 13 days over a two-month period late last year.
The trust and Salt Air would split the profits as well as the cost of building the platform, incurred mainly from flying tonnes of cement and timber to the island.
Mr Harnish said the trust would start receiving income as soon as the first passenger booked a flight, and would gradually pay back its share of the helipad cost from that income. That made the venture ''zero risk'' for the trust, which would lose nothing if it folded tomorrow.
The agreement included an undertaking to share Motukokako's history and ownership with every flight, Mr Harnish said.
The contract was signed following the group's return to Te Rawhiti Marae and a lengthy debate.
Mrs Coulston's daughter, trust secretary Yvette Turner, was pleased her mother's dream had come to pass.
''The dream is to derive some income from our assets, so we can invest in employment, education, health and cultural initiatives, uplifting our people and the communities they live in.''
Next summer the trust hoped to have guides welcome tourists on the island, she said.
Motukokako, later named Piercy Island by Captain Cook, takes its name from the young men who scaled its sheer cliffs to search for kokako feathers to adorn their cloaks. In more recent times young men climbed the cliffs to gather titi (muttonbirds).
Trust shareholder Hohepa Hemara remembered being taken to Motukokako by his uncle, Stout Puru, and ordered to collect the delicacy from its burrows on top of the island.
''There was no fear for you as a young fellow, about 15 or 16, but it's different now when you get to this age.''
The trust has about 600 shareholders across Northland. The first commercial flight took place on Tuesday.
An example to others
The new helicopter venture to the top of Motukokako/Hole in the Rock follows a long-running dispute between the trust that owns the island and the operators of the tourist boats that pass through it.
The Motukokako Ahu Whenua Trust believes tourist operators should pay a fee to pass through the Hole in the Rock, much as companies have to pay a concession to operate a tourism business on private or conservation land.
Trustee Richard ''Blandy'' Witehira said boat operators had been ''making millions'' from the Hole in the Rock, without contributing anything to its owners.
''They hide behind a law that says you can't impede access to the open sea ... but they're just ripping off the indigenous people.''
Mr Witehira said trustees had tried to resolve the issue through discussions and the courts, but would now set an example instead by showing they were willing to do business with anyone who would treat them as equals.
''We want to send a strong message to other operators: If you won't talk to us, here's an operator who will.''
Mr Witehira said he climbed Motukokako every year and felt a ''good wairua'' (spirit) the moment he set foot on the island.
''My moemoea (dream) was to open it up to the rest of the world, so they could see the beauty of it - and to make an economic springboard for our hapu,'' he said.