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Whacky Kawakawa

If you leave Auckland via SH1 with the sun shining in your review mirror it's no surprise that you will be travelling north, into the descriptively titled Northland. I presume that it was those still upper-lipped johnnies at the F&C office who named it with such dull propensity for accuracy. It's the north of the North Island so what shall we call it chaps?

Anyway, you can shoot up the SH1 along with all the other traffic, or you can take a bit more time and meander off along side shoots when the lumber trucks and roadworks get a bit too much. We wandered off piste just after Warkworth ( which had a wonderful cafe called Q selling a great range of organic food) travelling via the Dome valley and then on to Mangawhai with its incredible sand dunes and Waipu Cove which has a great surfing beach and another excellent cafe. By now it was getting on a bit so we pressed on towards the Bay of Islands but we just had to take time out to visit Kawakawa.

New Zealand as a whole is something of a unique, bizarre country. And its inhabitants echo this quirkiness. After all, they call themselves after a a strange hairy fruit which looks like a cross between a gooseberry and a tiny melon and a flightless bird with a knitting needle for a beak and which looks like it's had a very bad perm at the local hairdressers. But perhaps the capital of bizarre is Kawakawa (so bizarre they named it twice!)

It's not the fact that a narrow guage railway runs down the centre of the road. It used to carry coal but, as we witnessed, the odd, tiny diesel locomotive still trundles along pulling freight wagons, to the consternation of the traffic. That's rare but not bizarre. It's not the agricultural workshops rubbing cheek by jowl with trendy wholefood cafes and ice cream parlours. That's just a bit juxtaposed. No, what is quirky, odd and downright bizarre is the fact that thousands of tourists come each year to Kawakawa to visit Hundertwasser's toilets ( I kid you not).

Now, I don't know about you but I wouldn't normally wander into a public toilet holding a large lens in my hand; or anyone's toilet come to that. However, this is Kawakawa so this is what you do. The outside of the building gives a clue to what's inside but nothing quite prepares you for the incredible ceramic decoration covering the entire walls, even around the urinals and basins. There were flashes going off everywhere reflecting off the highly coloured tiles and it's a bit like being in a 1970's disco having dropped a tab or smoked a spliff. It's surreal, man. Pass me the toke there, dude.

But seriously, the mosaic of decorative tiles and pottery glazed columns is quite unique and totally whacky. It was designed by Austrian born Friedensreich Hundertwasser who was an architect and lifelong ecologist. The roof of the toilets features a garden and what appears to be a tree growing out of it, though the tree in fact grows at the rear, adjacent to the building. The toilets are the last building created by Hundertwasser but throughout the town are exuberantly decorated wall murals, lamp posts, street furniture and works of art. Hundertwasser was something of a maverick and in 1990 was declared a Living Treasure. Sadly, he died in 2000 but his spirit lives on and Kawakawa really is a place not to be missed.

Whilst I was photographing inside the toilets, without flash, of course, a couple of locals came in to avail themselves of the facilities but didn't bat an eye when I started snapping away. I carefully avoided getting any dangly bits in shot. Not wishing to be arrested as a sex pest I sent Jane into the Ladies to photograph her bit and I notice that there is the representation of a whale in there. I'm almost certain it's a Sperm Whale.

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