Elisabeth Easther discovers a gem of a town in Northland where the train runs down the middle of the main street.

Where is it?

In Northland, 30km from Kerikeri, 211km from Auckland, at the confluence of the Waiomio and Waiharakeke streams.

Origin of name: Named for Kawakawa, a native plant traditionally used in Maori medicine. It translates as "bitter-bitter" or "sour-sour" and is medicinal in small doses, toxic in large.

Population: 1347 (2006 estimate).


Town slogan: Currently "Cultural Junction", but about to be updated.

Town mascot: Friedrick Hundertwasser's legacy, notably the toilets - the great Austrian artist and architect left an extraordinary impression on this town. Pure fruit.

Fancy this: In the 1860s, Kawakawa was the biggest urban centre north of Auckland, largely thanks to the discovery of coal, noted for being the Southern Hemisphere's finest.

Most famous local: Hineamaru, one of the earliest Maori to settle in the area; she was renowned for developing new methods of horticulture. And, in part thanks to Hineamaru, women have speaking rights on Ngati Hine marae. Hundertwasser sailed into Opua in 1970 and liked it so much he bought a patch of land and called the area home. His gifts to the town will be treasured forever, and have to be seen to be believed.

Most prominent industry: First it was flax, then coal mining, then Affco's freezing works, while today it's Ngati Hine Health, which employs more than 300 people and does loads of good work in the region including running an early-childcare centre that sports a grass roof.

Source of pride: The spirit of Hundertwasser, and the townspeople working to keep it alive.

Town competition: The Puff and Pull Train Carnival, the whole town turns out to watch teams attempt to pull the steam engine Gabriel the length of the main street. Massive.

Best reason to stop: To visit Amazespace; the cafe and icecream parlour are merely a facade concealing a garden art folly that's just plain eccentric - and of course those loos.


Best place to take the kids: Visit when the steam train is operating and travel from Kawakawa to Opua.

Best place to get a drink: Klondike Ale House is good for a pie and a pint, while the historic Star Hotel is a 135-year-old treasure. Both places do pub grub.

Best food: Railway Station Cafe (102 Gillies Street) is quality, every time.

Best flat white: Railway Cafe and The Trainspotter both serve a good brew.

Best bakery: Bay of Islands Bakeries - old-fashioned favourites.

Still hungry? There are 14 dining options in Kawakawa, including Indian and Chinese takeaways, a couple of fish 'n' chips, a few chicken joints. You won't starve in Kawakawa.

Best museum: Kawakawa Museum in the World War I Memorial Library on Wynyard St. See some of Hundertwasser's work, view the town archives or permanent exhibits featuring military, mining and printing themes.

Best walk: Oromahoe Road Traverse, at 6km it's 2.5 hours one-way. Up in the hills you'll stroll across the valley, over the river, it's very steep but the views all the way to Cape Brett and Russell make it worthwhile. There's also a boardwalk through hardwood and podocarp forest. Or go another 2.5 hours and enjoy a rural road walk back to Kawakawa.

Best view: From the water tower up on the hill, great for looking out over the town at sunset.

Best mountain biking: A little further east of Kawakawa do the Twin Coast Cycle Trail open from Kaikohe to Okaihau.

Best toilets: The Hundertwasser facilities will blow your mind. Rarely does one wish to linger in public lavatories, but these prove there is an exception to every rule. Spend a penny or an hour.

Best park: Johnson Park has a lovely playground, and is great for picnics, with the big old trees swaying in the wind providing shade in summer. Dogs can run around, campervans are welcome. There's also a little playground opposite the railway station.

Best kept secret: The Waiomio Valley Caves - stalactites, stalagmites and glowworms.

Best shop: The Grass Hut for Hundertwasser franchise products.

Best swim: The heated pools - on the main road at Bay of Islands College, a most excellent pool.

Most fabulous item of wildlife: Go to the wetlands and take a gander at the birds, including impressive flocks of swans. When it floods the whole area becomes a massive lake.

Safety warnings: The train goes along the middle of the main street, so do give way. Also, the hills are still filled with holes from the mining days, so do be careful when wandering off the beaten track.

Word to the wise: if you see a guy selling mandarins by the side of the road, buy some, you won't be disappointed.

Locals say: I was just passing through, now I live there.

Visitors say: Very little, as they're often rendered incoherent by all the weird and wonderful fruitiness they'll find throughout town.

Thanks to Mathew from Med cafe and Amazespace for being so frank.