Peter Dragicevich searches out the best places for a pit stop on a classic Kiwi road trip. In Katikati he finds murals, haikus and a bloke called Barry.
What is it about central North Island towns and gimmicks? Otorohanga has its icons of Kiwiana, Tīrau its corrugated-iron animals, Ohakune its giant carrot, Bulls its groan-inducing puns and Paeroa its pervasive L&P branding. Katikati has strong gimmick game too. In fact, it has arguably the classiest ploy of them all in its 'town of murals' concept. Launched in the 1990s there are now over 70 substantial artworks adorning its streets, many on historical themes – everything from local Māori lore to the history of the kiwifruit industry.
Although SH2 isn't usually the fastest route between Auckland and Tauranga these days, it's still the most scenic one – skirting the bottom of the Coromandel Peninsula through the lush bush of the Karangahake Gorge. The section leading through the Western Bay of Plenty offers views to the Kaimai Range to the west and glimpses of Tauranga Harbour and Matakana Island to the east. Katikati (population 5000) lies near the centre of this stretch, a little closer to Waihi than it is to Tauranga.
Park near the Arts Junction on the main road (conveniently called Main Rd but doubling as SH2) and call in to the information centre based within to pick up a free map of all of the town's street art. The complex also houses a gallery and a theatre. Sitting on a park bench out the front is 'Barry, a Kiwi bloke' – an adorable figure in a flat cap and comfy shoes perpetually immersed in his newspaper. Oamaru-based sculptor Donald Paterson erected this copper-toned statue of his old mate here in 1999. A little dog named Jack has been patiently waiting to have his ball thrown even since he was positioned at Barry's feet in 2006.
The present-day town of Katikati took shape in 1875 when it became the first (and only) planned Ulster Scots settlement in the world. All in all around 4000 immigrants were enticed over, mainly from County Tyrone in what is now Northern Ireland, by a chap named George Vesey Stewart who went on to become the first mayor of Tauranga. The new arrivals were divided into two distinct classes: "settlers useful" (mainly tenant farmers) and "settlers ornamental" (the idle rich) – although one suspects that the hard-working farmers may have been easier on the eye than the pampered toffs.
Of course, Ngāi Te Rangi were living here long before the Irish arrivals. You can learn all about both the local iwi and the "Ulster Plantation" in the Western Bay Museum, housed in the bright-red old fire station just over Barry's left shoulder.
Straight across the road is the extremely elegant Katikati War Memorial Hall, built in 1954 with an Art Deco ambience despite the style being about 20 years behind the prevailing fashions by then. Fans of mid-century-modern design will also love the square-faced clock out the front.
Katikati means "to nibble", a reference to the eating style of the captain of the Arawa waka, Tamatekapua, during a meal here. If the crew of your waka are feeling a little peckish, head to the 19th-century Talisman Hotel for hearty country pub fare: burgers, roast lamb, slow-cooked beef cheeks… that kind of thing.
Shake off any food-induced lethargy with a stroll along with Katikati's other unusual claim to fame, its Haiku Pathway – the only one of its kind outside of Japan. Erected to celebrate the millennium, it takes the form of 40 poems etched into boulders positioned alongside a pretty path meandering along the banks of the Uretara Stream.
The world's only Ulster Scots colony, the only haiku path outside Japan… if you thought that the town couldn't possibly have any further distinctions to crow about, you'd be wrong. Katikati also proudly proclaims itself to be the "avocado capital of NZ" with around 500 orchards in the area producing over half of the nation's crop. Every January the Avocado Food & Wine Festival celebrates the success of the Mexican natives in the fertile Bay of Plenty soil. Drop into the Big Avocado to stock up on your way out of town.
Leave room in the car for one more essential supply stop on the outskirts of Katikati, 7km closer to Tauranga. Adding to the town's already eclectic hodgepodge of international influences, the Leveret & Mills Creek Winery has a cellar door housed in an attractive Cape Dutch–style building which could have beamed in from rural South Africa.
Whether your journey is taking you on to Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula or the Bay of Plenty beaches, arriving with a boot full of Katikati avocados and Leveret IQ bubbly is a terrific way to kick off a holiday.
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