Kawakawa, with a population of around 1,500, would have been much like any other small town in Northland, except for its world-famous Hundertwasser public toilets!

It started out as a coal mining town in the 1860s, then focussed on farm services as the coal disappeared and the kauri forests were cut down. At least it gained a railway line as the coal was hauled to the nearby Kawakawa River mouth in the Bay of Islands. The line was subsequently extended to Opua. Today, the use of the line by the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway is a significant tourist attraction that runs as far as the bridge over the river mouth. The balance of the line to Opua is part of the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.

But it is the Hundertwasser toilets built in 1998 that make the town unique. Friedensreich Hundertwasser (which means “Peace-Realm Hundred-Water”) was an Austrian artist and architect who moved to the Bay of Islands in the 1970s. This allowed him to indulge his passion for eco-centric, off-grid living alongside his unusual artworks. He disliked straight lines and conformity. In his building designs, he combined organic shapes with a mix of brightly coloured glass and tiles to create visually striking buildings and a wide range of artworks. His most famous building is the Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, built in the early 1980s.

The Kawakawa toilets were opened in 1999. They were the only example of Hundertwasser’s architecture in the Southern Hemisphere; sadly, he died in 2000 at 71.

There are other examples of his influence on the main road of Kawakawa, but this was greatly extended by the development of Te Hononga Hundertwasser Memorial Park in October 2020. Te Hononga included a plaza, a public park next to the toilets, and a new building celebrating Hundertwasser and Māori heritage. There is also a public library, cafe and nearby freedom camping facilities. In Whangarei, the Hundertwasser Art Centre, with the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, further extend recognition of his unique perspective in Northland.

You can’t miss Kawakawa as you drive north on State Highway 11. Be aware it can be exceedingly busy during NZ holiday periods.

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