The tiny town of Towai just established its very first craft and artisans' market. Reporter Jenny Ling finds out how it started and takes a peek at what's on offer.
When Towai resident Kerry Gelmi and her neighbours started gathering around a brazier for a chat during the Covid-19 lockdown, all they were looking for was a way to connect.
As the friends pondered the future of the region, they came up with a business venture aimed at putting their tiny town on the map for visitors.
The town now has its very own craft and artisans market called the Towai Makers' Market, which is held on the second Sunday of every month.
"Some neighbours would back our utes up to a gate and have a brazier in the middle," Gelmi said.
"That's how we connected - while social distancing – we were thinking about what we would do.
"Things have been pretty quiet since Covid with people still not going out or interested in doing things.
"Every Friday night we'd talk about it. The market has never been done and there are quite a few talented people when you start looking.
"They just came out of the woodwork."
The first market was held on November 8 at the Towai Hall.
There were 18 stalls, some of which completely sold out of their product, and over 100 visitors from as far away as Auckland and Whangārei Heads turned out.
Far North District Council mayor John Carter officially opened the market by sawing through some baling twine.
Gelmi, who is the new market organiser, said it was "fantastic".
"It exceeded our wildest expectations," she said.
"It's not your usual market, it's quite quirky.
"People that live in these small rural communities, some of the things they do, it's a bit more non-mainstream."
Towai is one of the country's 'blink and you'll miss it' towns on State Highway 1 between Waiomio and Hukerenui.
But it was once a busy community, with flax mills and the railway running through.
It's now marked mainly by the historic Towai Tavern which was established in 1872, initially next to the railway station at the bottom of the hill.
In 1933 the hotel was moved up the hill on rollers and placed next to the highway during a three-day move where, famously, the bar never closed.
The Towai Hall contains the names of local men who fought in the first and second world wars, along with locals from neighbouring Maromaku, Ruapekapeka, Piaka and Motatau.
The first burials in the cemetery were in 1899 and the community is keen to preserve its early history.
The rural settlement also has a small petrol station and a church.
Born in Towai, Gelmi lived overseas for 32 years until her mother's death brought her back to the family farm four years ago.
She noticed how quiet rural Northland had become.
The market project is part of a community plan developed by the Towai and Maromaku communities in 2019 with support from the Far North District Council's community development team.
It became a priority in response to hardships experienced following last summer's drought followed by the lockdown caused by the pandemic.
Gelmi hopes it will revitalise the local economy, build strong social connections and attract more visitors to the area.
She hopes it will become a significant local attraction that promotes the work of local artisans.
As well as craft stalls, food and drink is available.
Stallholders include a local resident who upcycles and reinvents furniture from her shed, and the resident baker, Carol Summer, who specialises in sweet treats and options for those with food allergies and intolerances.
Fellow resident Russell Carter creates coffins, cremation urns, jewellery boxes, vases and unique wooden bowls made from macrocarpa, kauri and rimu.
Carter has been crafting woodwork since he was aged 12 and is thrilled the market has been established.
"I'm hoping the market will bring the community back together, and get people to try and go back to the old ways of doing things," he said.
"Old school farm communities used to get together and have meals and share things.
"There are a lot of people interested in going back to those ways but no-one wanted to do anything about it , that's why Kerry and I decided to start the market."
Gelmi, who is a textile artist, creates quirky cutlery, sculptures from paper and cardboard, and miniature indoor plants.
The success of other local markets - such as the Bay of Islands and Kaitaia farmer's markets, and the Matakana market near Warkworth - also helped inspire the project.
Gelmi said the markets demonstrate how community run events can play a vital role in promoting a district's economic recovery and boost social wellbeing.
The aim is to get the whole community involved.
"We felt confident this was a way to re-energise Towai and create a sense of connection and community. It will be a unique, quirky market, much like Towai itself.
"There will also be free workshops – it is a maker's market after all."
Gelmi is also rapt the Towai Hall was recently accredited as an official FanZone for the America's Cup.
Eight Far North venues were named as FanZones allowing fans to watch the high-speed yachting action live on big screens around the region in March.
The Towai Hall zone will raise money for the settlement's church, hall and historic cemetery.
Dates for the screenings are yet to be finalised but Gelmi expects the venue would definitely operate on race days that coincided with the market.
"We've been trying for a couple of years to get 'welcome to Towai signs', but we never get funding," she said.
"Recently we were successful purely on the basis the market is starting. The America's Cup FanZone is a huge thing.
"Already you can see the difference."
Carter said the council is focused on promoting the economic recovery of the district.
"We have won unprecedented levels of Government funding for infrastructure and recovery projects that are already having a positive impact on our communities," he said.
"Just as important is providing support for grassroots community efforts like the market at Towai.
"These projects often provide benefits far in excess of initial capital investment and I wish the Towai and Maromaku communities well."
Gravity Internet is supporting the project by providing free internet.
Towai Makers' Market is at the Towai Hall on the second Sunday of every month from 2pm to 6pm.
The next market is on December 13.
If you'd like to become a stallholder contact Kerry Gelmi 022 467 1881 or email her via email@example.com