Behind the Bay: Kawakawa and Ruapekapeka

January 6, 2024
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JUST south of the Bay of Islands, where the main road through Paihia rejoins State Highway 1, you come to the town of Kawakawa.

Kawakawa and environs. The name of Lake Ōmāpere was added for this post. Background map data ©2023 Google. North at top.

The map above also shows the locations of Ruapekapeka and Ruapekapeka Pā, the sites of the most significant battle in the Northern War, a conflict I’ve just introduced in my Bay of Islands post. I will talk about my visit to Ruapekapeka later in this post.

But first, Kawakawa. This little town was founded in the 1860s when a deposit of coal was found in the area. For a long time after that, it was a fairly utilitarian coal-mining town, best known in the twentieth century for having the Opua Branch railway line running up its main street.

An old-time photo I saw in the Kawakawa railway station, one of several such photos

The Kawakawa of yore: The Hunter Star Hotel, est. 1876

The Opua Branch Line has long since closed, but tourist excursion trains operated by the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway now run on the old tracks. It offers a return service between Kawakawa and the coastal locality of Te Akeake, via Taumarere.

The name Kawakawa comes from a medicinal plant in the pepper family, closely related to the similarly named kava or kava-kava species of the tropical Pacific. The greenery of the kawakawa shrub is also traditionally used for ritual purification, such as the fronds waved when women welcome visitors onto the marae.

It is ironic that a town so dedicated to steam and smoke should have had a name drawn from nature‘s purity. However, the natural touch would be restored in the 1970s when a bearded fellow resembling most people’s idea of a wizard decided to make Kawakawa his home.

This new arrival was, of course, the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who lived just outside the town on what’s now called the Hundertwasser Estate until his death in 2001, and is now buried on the same estate.

Hundertwasser famously abhorred the straight line, and for that matter anything dull and grey. He proposed all sorts of buildings in his own alternative style — and the emphasis here is definitely on “alternative” — but only one would be built in his lifetime, the famous Hundertwasser public toilets, which began to give Kawakawa another reason for being on the map.

The famous Hundertwasser toilets, and road crossing in front

More recently, additional Hundertwasser-inspired structures have begun to pop up, such as the Grass Hut gift shop, with a frontage designed by Hundertwasser himself and a mural in his style, which sells official ‘Hundertwasser Products’.

The Grass Hut, with what seems like a Hundertwasser-inspired form of traffic calming on the road in front, coloured curves that are presumably intended to slow the traffic by making the road less monotonous.

Here’s what seems like a possibly Hundertwasser-inspired bus stop, though the roof needs a bit of a fixup.

In 2020, a Hundertwasser Memorial Park was opened in Kawakawa, as well.

The main building in the Hundertwasser Memorial Park

I made sure to go for a train ride on the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway.

The Railway Station Café, and tracks

The following sign, outside the nearby Taumarere Railway Station, explains that the Opua Branch Line was the first railway line to be opened in New Zealand, in 1867.

Information panel outside the Taumarere Railway Station

Tracks elevated above a swamp

It looks like I am about to be run over by a mad cyclist in the next photo. Kawakawa is on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, which runs from Horeke, at the head of an inlet on the west coast of Northland, through to Opua.

By the elevated tracks, on a shared bridge

The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway. It looks like the open carriage is for bicycles, probably for cycle tourists on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.

I made a video of the Kawakawa Railway Station and my ride along the tracks. Te Akeake (“the next station they’re working on”) wasn’t quite open when I took this ride, but it is now.

I also visited the battlefield site at Ruapekapeka, one of three where Hone Heke’s forces fought the British in the Northern War, though there were other clashes in which he fought Tāmati Wāka Nene’s pro-government Māori operating without British support, as well.

The three battles between Hōne Heke and the British: Puketutu, near Lake Ōmāpere; Ōhaeawai; and Ruapekapeka. All three locations fall within the map above. These battles were very significant for the evolution of Māori fighting techniques.

At Puketutu, on the 8th of May 1845, the British showed they could defeat the Māori on open ground. At Ōhaeawai, in July, the British did poorly, because Heke’s followers were inside fortifications that had been constructed with an awareness of just what was needed to stop not only musketry, which the Māori had possessed since the early 1800s and used on each other in the so-called Musket Wars but also the great guns of Britain’s artillery.

At Ruapekapeka, the Heke faction sheltered inside an even stronger pā, called Ruapekapeka, or the bats’ nest, because the defenders felt as snug as bats in a cave while the British attacked it in December 1845.

The fortifications at Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka were both abandoned by their defenders in the end, but in good order and on their own terms.

The increasingly strong pā of Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka were mainly designed by Heke’s ally Te Ruki Kawiti, “a notable warrior” who ironically “detested being bottled up in a fort.

All the same, building forts of ever-increasing strength and ingenuity seemed to be the only way that dissident Māori could equalise the score with the British, who otherwise had the numbers and firepower to turn any open-air clash with indigenous people into a Culloden.

The ability to construct good forts proved especially important when an even larger and more dragged-out conflict between the New Zealand Government and dissenting Māori broke out at the start of the 1860s. I’ve written about that conflict elsewhere, in posts that include a remarkable sketch of some 1860s Māori fortifications by the British military engineer Charles Heaphy.

The British claimed to have won the Northern War since Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka were both abandoned in the end, but it’s said that the terms eventually received by Hōne Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti suggest otherwise.

Here are some photos of my visit to Ruapekapeka, and a video that I made which shows the still-surviving trench systems, the best-preserved of any in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Here is a link to the official website of the Ruapekapeka battlefield park:

Te Ruapekapeka - Home
On 8th January 2021, Ngāti Manu, Te Kapotai, Ngāti Hau and Ngāti Hine will welcome whānau, hapū and iwi from across the…

What else? Glow worms, which no self-respecting cave system in Aotearoa New Zealand should be without!

The link to the caves is as follows:

Ruapekapeka and the Kawiti Family Caves are the two main attractions in the area outside of Kawakawa itself and the associated railway and Twin Coast bike trail,

And if the name Kawiti sounds familiar after my discussion of Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka and the notable warrior who designed them, well, yes, they are related.

Whether because they were expert fort-builders, or not, the Kawiti clan managed to hang on in the same spot, not far from the most desirable tourist attractions of the Pacific coast of Northland.

They have done so in the face of an otherwise overwhelming settler encroachment and pressure from developers, of the sort that led to the recent secret reburial of the bones of Hōne Heke so that they wouldn’t get pilfered by strangers.

The same pressure from settlers also tended, over time, to exile much of the original Māori population of Te Tai Tokerau to a poverty-stricken interior and the less touristy west coast of the peninsula.

I’ll be talking about those tensions when I shift my gaze, in my next post, to the inland town of Kaikohe, Ngāwhā Springs, and the western shore.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning new book about the North Island, available from this website,


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