The little town that could

Not just home to New Zealand’s most famous public loos, Kawakawa has a working vintage steam train and glow-worm caves, among other attractions. Megan McChesney visits the Bay of Islands town that’s reinventing itself.

Train driver Trevor Bedggood surveys the scene as the train rumbles through the countryside towards Taumarere.

Word is, the curl in the main street helped swing the deal for Friedensreich Hundertwasser. If there was one thing the celebrated Austrian artist and architect couldn’t stand, it was straight lines.

Luckily for sleepy Kawakawa, its forefathers hadn’t been aiming straight at all when they allowed SH1 to pass through the town. Northbound vehicles swoop down a hill and around a corner into the small inland Bay of Islands town before negotiating a gentle zigzag through the huddle of shops and hanging a sharp right to continue the long meander north.

Bent as bent can be, that twisted main road would have pleased Hundertwasser no end when he put down roots here in the 1970s. And 40 years later, the town counts its lucky stars he did because although he died in 2000, his gift to the town just keeps giving.

It is, of course, the most celebrated piece of public art in Northland and arguably the whole of New Zealand – much admired, photographed and, well, peed on by tens of thousands of tourists each year. Kawakawa, indeed, must be one of the only towns on Earth that can lay claim to being revitalised by its public loos.

Austrian architect, artist and Kawakawa resident Friedensreich Hundertwasser in his studio around 1985.

To an outsider, it’s hard to believe this village, lined with vibrantly painted shops − a red sealed strip down the centre of the street marking the vintage railway line − was once a drab little place that hardly warranted the bother of parking the car.

Like so many small towns in New Zealand, it’s had its fair share of struggles. Once a booming coal mining and kauri gum trading centre (disused coal mines still run like rabbit warrens beneath the town), in the 1800s and early 1900s it was crammed with shops, offices, hotels, churches, a telegraph office, court house and police station. It even had its own newspaper − the Northern Luminary.

By the 1950s, the town had morphed into a prosperous service centre for the Bay of Islands. Businesses boomed, all the major banks competed for custom on the main street, the cinema showed the latest movies, and getting a job at the local council, freezing works and dairy company was a cinch.

“The town didn’t have to try very hard. Everything was here,” says community leader Johnson Davis, who was born in the local hospital in 1943 and has lived in the area most of his life.

But in the 1980s, everything changed. The freezing works retrenched, the dairy factory closed, the hospital was downsized. The cinema’s silver screen had long since stopped flickering. The Bay of Islands County Council amalgamated with the other local authorities in the region to become the Far North District Council, which set up head office in Kaikohe, losing Kawakawa around 200 council jobs.

Little by little, businesses died or relocated and the banks all upped sticks and left. By the end of the decade, the town was gasping for air while, as if to rub its nose into the proverbial, just 14km away the millionaires’ playground of coastal Bay of Islands was booming.

In the mid-90s, a local community group, including Davis, brainstormed ways in which Kawakawa could reinvent itself from service town to tourist destination. They identified the town’s two points of difference: it had a vintage steam train and it had a world-famous artist – Hundertwasser.

“At the same time, our public toilets were about to be replaced,” says Davis. “I don’t want to be insulting, but they were going to be the same tin-can style of toilet that was everywhere else in the Far North. Someone in our group said, ‘Why don’t we get Hundertwasser to design us one?’ He’d been saying for a long time he wanted to do something for the town. When asked he said, ‘I vould loov to built you a toilet!’”

The only building in New Zealand Friedensreich designed: the Kawakawa public toilets.

It was to be the artist’s last major work and his only piece of architecture in the Southern Hemisphere. Davis says when he first saw the architect’s model for the building – an off-the-wall symphony of tiles, recycled bottles, wavy lines, sculpture and even a live tree – he thought, ‘That’s so ugly, I love it.’ “In retrospect, what I actually meant was, that’s so different…”

Different is a word that crops up time and time again when locals talk about their town’s most famous adopted son (its most famous locally born son, it’s generally agreed, is former prime minister and current ambassador to the US, Mike Moore). Hundertwasser drove a green Lada and wore bright shirts and loud socks, usually odd. He lived on a farm around 15km out of town which contained a house, a cowshed and a pigsty. The artist’s distaste for straight lines was so well developed he used his two boats as studios. “He’d float in the mangroves,” says Davis, “ensuring that all of the lines he painted were askew.”

“He was truly remarkable,” says artist Matthew Nisbet, who’s created a maze constructed of mosaics, sculptures and paintings called Amazespace opposite the public toilets. “He had environmental and conservationist philosophies that were way ahead of his time.

“And he was a survivor. He was a Jew living in Vienna during World War II who had to join the Hitler Youth to survive. More than 60 members of his family died in the Holocaust. Imagine what that would do to your head!”

Matthew Nisbet reflected among the mosaics in his Amazespace.

Mike Bradshaw, who had been instrumental in running the vintage steam train in the town since the mid-80s, was a friend of Hundertwasser and says the pair regularly sipped coffee in the local Train Spotter cafe “putting the world to rights”. Bradshaw left town to work overseas for six years just a month before the artist’s sudden death on a cruise ship in 2000.

“It was terribly sad,” he says. “I understand he’s buried on his farm standing up. He wanted to be vertical, apparently, which didn’t surprise me. In fact, if he’d said he wanted to be buried standing on his head it wouldn’t have surprised me.

“The one time I was astonished was when he found out the steam train committee needed money to refurbish a dining carriage. He pulled out his chequebook and said, ‘You write the amount you want and I’ll sign the bottom’… and just like that, we got our dining carriage.”

Mike Bradshaw with steam train station in background.

Like Hundertwasser’s toilets – which attract so many tourists the council was forced to build some extra conveniences out back to cope with demand from people who wanted to use a loo rather than just admire one – Kawakawa’s steam train is a jaw-dropper.

A small army of volunteers, many from of out of town, dedicate their spare time to making the service a dependable and unforgettable experience. British-born Bradshaw recently stood down as ops manager, ending a 61-year railways career.

Throughout his time in Kawakawa he’s overseen everything from the acquiring and rebuilding of Gabriel, the flagship steam engine, to replacing bridges and tracks and the building of an enormous workshed that houses diesel engines and a number of carriages in various states of refurbishment (all as a volunteer).

While he’s no longer running the show, he’s still on call for emergencies and remains on the roster to drive the 1927 steam engine because, quite frankly, it’s in his blood.

Steam train driver Alan McGunnigle.

“I don’t know what it is and I’m not alone in this. I’ve heard it described as the most fun you can have with your trousers on,” he says. “In the UK, we regularly used to exceed 100 miles an hour with steam engines. That’s really something – especially in the dark. They are most uncomfortable things. You have to hang on for grim death and it’s thrilling beyond measure.”

Tourists taking a ride on the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway don’t hit anywhere near those speeds, but the sedate 40-minute return journey to the Taumarere Station is memorable nonetheless.

Starting from the northern end of town, the train chugs up the centre of the main street before rolling through the countryside to rural Taumarere, where passengers can either stop for a picnic or return immediately.

The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust was recently granted money from NZ Lotteries to restore the long, curved Taumarere bridge. “Once the work’s done, it won’t be long before the train goes all the way to Opua,” says Bradshaw.

Fun on wheels isn’t restricted to the train in these parts. The Twin Coast Cycle Trail, two sections of which are still under construction, is slated to run from Opua through to the Hokianga. The potential for the area once the remaining sections of the trail are completed and connected is immense, but locals reckon Kawakawa is worth a look-in regardless of whether you’re on two wheels or four. For one, it punches above its weight when it comes to art.

A colourful mural by the pupils of Karetu School lures tourists across the road from the Hundertwasser toilets. Nisbet’s Amazespace, meanwhile, is quirky and energising. A landslide last winter wiped out half the maze but Nisbet is soldiering on. “My vision was to give people an experience, especially when they’re on holiday and open to new things. They go in and come out with smiles on their faces.”

The old King’s Theatre, which screened its last movie in 1976 and has since been everything from a clothing boutique to a second-hand shop, was recently purchased by former Kerikeri-ite Lau’rell Pratt, a single mother of two.

Pratt had been dreaming of starting a creative community space for some time. “I used to drive past the theatre and it always looked unloved and lonely. Finally, I surrendered to the idea that it was the space I was looking for.”

Built in 1936, the building has raked totara floors, a projection room and a ceiling lined with old movie posters with slogans like “How Long Can A Man Hunt Something That’s Already DEAD”? Pratt knows the place needs more money spent on it than she’s ever likely to have at her disposal. She plans to form a trust and start fundraising.

She has since met both the theatre’s original projectionist and ice-cream vendor and hopes to one day show movies again, but the space will mostly be used as a community artistic hub running exhibitions, workshops and events.

Another plan is to open the stage at the back of the cinema for concerts in the park behind, which is currently being developed by the local Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust. Next to the park, a project is also under way to build a visitors’ centre in remembrance it could be argued, were New Zealand’s first women’s refuge. And what a refuge it was. Reaching more than 200m into the Earth’s crust, the light dancing from Roku’s fire illuminated enormous, warty columns of stalactites plunging from the roof, stalagmites reaching up to meet them.

Bay of Islands Vintage Railway.

A pristine creek bed meandered through the floor of the cave, but Hineamaru’s eyes were pulled up, up, up to the subterranean ceiling – a galaxy of tiny lights shining through the dark. Glow worms.

The caves have been a treasure of local Maori for centuries. In the 1950s, Te Tawai Kawiti, great-grandson of the famous Maori chief Kawiti, began offering tours to visitors. These days his granddaughter, Manuwai Wells, oversees what is now a busy tourism business, and it’s still very much a family affair.

I arrive on a scorching summer afternoon, tyres crunching over the gravel path that leads down from nearby SH1, and Wells introduces some of the other guides working that day – two of her nephews and her son.

It’s cool in the caves – in summer, around 16°C – a welcome relief from the relentless heat. In winter, she says, the temperature doesn’t dip much below 14°C. I begin to understand why Roku stayed on here – a roof over her head, a handy supply of sweet potato and her own private, milky way.

Bay of Islands Vintage Railway.

To stay

African Safari Experience

For a camping holiday with a difference, South African hosts Koos and Sandra Lombard provide accommodation in spacious safari tents. The tents are erected on platforms and include beds. Guests must bring their own lighting (there’s no electricity in the tents), dinnerware, rubbish bags, toilet paper etc. Facilities – kitchen, BBQ, showers and toilets – are all communal. A tent for four people is $75 per night.

240 Tirohanga Rd, Kawakawa, ph (09) 404-0255,

Words by Megan McChesney

Photos by Megan McChesney

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