Whangārei: Countercultural Capital of the North

March 25, 2022
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Updated 14 January 2023 with additional Hundertwasser Art Centre material and mention of the associated Wairau Māori Art Gallery.

WHANGĀREI is the biggest city to the north of Auckland, the de facto capital of the huge subtropical peninsula of Te Tai Tokerau (‘the north coast’) or Northland, also known as the 'Winterless North', which stretches more than 300 kilometers from Auckland to Cape Rēinga: the place where the spirits of departed Māori were said to leap into the sea, to take what my own Scottish ancestors called the low road back to the Polynesians’ ancestral homeland-cum-heaven of Hawaiki.

All along both coasts of the peninsula, from Auckland to the Cape, there are famous and fabulous coastal resorts.

Long beaches, with views in places of craggy, jungle-covered subtropical islands just off the coast, most famously in the Bay of Islands but in other places as well.

The Winterless North. The formal administrative division between Auckland and Te Tai Tokerau/Northland runs just south of Mangawhai Heads, but geographically, Northland begins at Auckland. Background map date ©2020 Google, twenty further place names added. North at top.


And coastal walks along cliffs and rugged peninsulas such as the Cape Brett Peninsula, with its famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ boat cruise.

Many of the most Instagrammable coastal tourism spots in New Zealand are in Te Tai Tokerau. I’ve blogged about some of them already:

·      Spirits Bay and Sand Duning

·      Te Tai Tokerau: New Zealand’s ‘Winterless North’

·      Cape Brett: Hiking to the Birthplace of Aotearoa

Auckland is a huge city these days, its population more than 1.7 million. But the population of Whangārei, the city that is the subject of the rest of this post, is much more modest, just shy of 100,000. Whangārei also contains half the population of Te Tai Tokerau, which is just under 200,000 if we don’t include the northern suburbs of Auckland.

In spite of its many beauty spots and proximity to Auckland, Te Tai Tokerau is off the beaten track even by New Zealand standards. Its resorts are modest and 1960s-ish, its landscape mostly unspoilt.

Now that Auckland has grown into such a mega-city since the 1960s, when even its population was only half a million, I imagine that it's only a matter of time till someone builds a fast railway from Auckland to Whangārei. Once that happens, Te Tai Tokerau will boom. But for better or worse, Te Tai Tokerau is still quite sleepy and in the sixties still.

But this doesn't mean that Whangārei – there are several accounts of what the name means – is deadsville. At the beginning of February this year, I was just blown away to see the new, NZ $33.2 million Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery, which was scheduled to open on the 20th. I can’t wait to see the art collection inside!

The following photo shows my editor Chris's first view of the Art Centre, with the black tiles reflecting the gold of the evening sun. The eccentric, Austrian-born but ultimately Northland-resident artist Friendensreich Hundertwasser, after whom the centre is named, must have thought of that when he designed it before his death in the year 2000.

Here are more some photos I took of the exterior:

The amazing path up the side, which leads to a nice first-floor café, open when I was there.

The author on the path

The same view, unobstructed, showing the café and a tower that you can go up into if you pay to visit the Art Centre itself

The next photos were taken by Chris They show a fountain and a toilet outside the Art Centre and, behind the fountain, the Canopy Bridge, a covered pedestrian bridge over Whangārei's Hātea River.

Fountain and Canopy Bridge

Outdoor Toilet

Another view of the outdoor toilet, with the Art Centre in the background

As you can tell, Hundertwasser was a bit of a hippie. His full name for artistic purposes was Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, meaning Peace-rich or Peace-realm, Rain-day, Saturated-colours Hundred-waters. But he was a very serious artist all the same. The new Art Centre at Whangārei contains the largest collection of Hundertwasser's works outside of Vienna, and that is really saying something.

Here's a video I made when I was at the Art Centre:

When Chris visited, the Art Centre had just opened. Unfortunately, because of Covid restrictions, only small groups were allowed in and you had to book. So, we are both looking forward to a look inside still! By the way, it's quite pricey to get inside, NZ $21 for adult out-of-towners of working age or $45 for a family, as of the time of writing. So don't spend your last tourist dollar before going there.

Update: In December 2022, I finally managed to get inside and look at the exhibits. I didn't know that Hundertwasser was the designer of the koru flag, an alternative Aotearoa New Zealand flag that appears in the third row of this collage, and very popular back in the day though you don't see so much of it now. Some of the other artworks in the museum are world-famous.

Collage of Hundertwasser Art Centre interior and rooftop scenes, December 2022

A wider view from the rooftop garden

The rooftop garden, from the entrance to the tower

Here's a video I made on the roof, which you need an interior ticket to visit, though you don't need one for the café.

There is a strong Hundertwasser influence in Kawakawa, where Hundertwasser lived for most of his time in New Zealand, and is buried. I will put up a blog post about Kawakawa in late January or early February 2023.

The next time I visit the Hundertwasser Art Centre, I will explore the associated Wairau Māori Art Gallery as well.

The Art Centre is in an area called the Town Basin, which extends from the Art Centre and the yellow Pak'nSave Supermarket across the road (most convenient), along the banks of the Hātea River, down to Te Matau ā Pohe: a tilt-bridge with bascule (tilt-deck) counterweights that look like old-time Māori fishhooks.

The next photo shows a map of the Town Basin that Chris took a picture of while he was there.

You can see the Art Centre in the background, plus lots of eateries, cafés and bars

I love the octagonal wedding-cake building of the restaurant and bar known as Number 8. What was it originally, I wonder?

Clapham's National Clock Museum is one of the more fascinating local eccentricities

And another sort of clock:

It's a slow-paced town, but that doesn't stop Whangārei from being into clocks. Elsewhere in town, there is a factory called Kauri Creations, which specializes in products made out the rare and valuable kauri wood, with locks embedded in kauri a specialty.

Carrying on along the Town Basin toward the fishhook bridge, you become aware of a pathway that leads along the Hātea.

The pathway has lots of historical information signs, including one that describes the former Māori villages that were on the site of today's Whangārei.

Spot the folk snoozing on these artworks!

The Waka 'n' Wave Sculpture

The Kotuitui Whitinga Pedestrian Bridge, which has a rotating middle section to allow boats to pass, on the Waiarohia Stream, a tributary at the mouth of the Hātea River

The middle of the Kotuitui Whitinga Bridge

And at last, Te Matau ā Pohe, a name that means the fishhook of Pohe, an ancestral hero.

Here's a close-up image of the bridge and its fish-hook counterweights, reflected in dead-calm water, that I saw on a sign in the Whangārei iSite information centre.

I went for an NZ $30 harbour cruise on a boat called the Waipapa, brought up from Dunedin in the 1970s to service a growing tourist trade, which passed under the fishhook bridge. (We had to present vaccine passports, and I wore my N95 mask the whole time.)


The Waipapa

 We went out past the coastal suburb of Onerahi and the large, historic harbour island of Motu Matakohe, or Matakohe, also known in English as Limestone Island, which was the site of an important Māori pā and then a colonial cement works, the latter dating all the way back to 1856.

We passed under the fishhook bridge, Te Matau ā Pohe.

Here is a video I made, which includes footage of the fishhook bridge opening:


The idea of making cement out of local limestone caught on early in these parts and never went away. Though Matakohe is now a park where wildlife is being restored, a bit like Tiritiri Matangi Island just north of Auckland, the largest and most modern cement works in New Zealand are still to be found near Whangārei in a gritty industrial satellite town named Portland: not after Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon nor even the original English town of Portland, but after Portland cement.

You can visit Matakohe, where the ruined remains of the old cement works are an additional attraction, though we just went past on this trip.

We also saw the shipyards of Oceania Marine, where luxury yachts are serviced.

Here's another video that I made of the Town Basin and its yacht marina, as well as of a trip to the Whangārei Railway Station, which hasn’t had any passengers since 1976. I think it would be one of the great railway journeys of the world if the service could be restored, or a new one built up the east coast from Auckland (the existing line mostly meanders around the mud-flats of the Kaiapara Harbour in the west).


The old railway station is being restored by volunteers. Will it ever see passenger trains again?

The path along the Hātea River extends deeply into the suburbs, all the way past A H Reed Memorial Park to the Whangārei Falls or Otaihau, formally Otaihau Whangārei Falls, a large waterfall surrounded by award-winning parklands. A H Reed Memorial Park, named after a famous publisher of New Zealand books, is also an award-winning reserve.

Here is a signboard at A H Reed which give you an idea of the extent of the Hātea River Walk.

I've included a closer view of the map on the billboard. You can see that there is a whole string of amazing reserves along the Hatea River Walk, including Parihaka Reserve, a forested hill, site of a major old-time pā, that looks down on the city. This is not the same Parihaka as the one that was invaded in 1881: that one is in Taranaki.

A H Reed Billboard map (photographed at a slant and then architecturally rectified, so distances may not perfectly to scale)

I haven't visited Parihaka (Whangārei) yet, nor has Chris. But Chris did spend time in A H Reed Memorial Reserve and discovered that it was the most amazing urban wilderness, complete with large kauri trees, a high waterfall of its own (Pukenui Waterfall) and perhaps most amazing of all, a Canopy Walkway through the trees: definitely a 'must do' for visitors to Whangarei, as the reserve's web page says, and even more so because it's all free.

The Canopy Walkway at A H Reed Memorial Park. The big tree in this photo looks like a half-grown kauri.

Chris made a video of the Canopy Walkway, the kauri trees, and the Pukenui Waterfall at A H Reed Reserve:

And so, on to Otaihau Whangārei Falls, 1.4 kilometres or a bit less than a mile up the Hātea River, according to this signpost at A H Reed Memorial Reserve.

The land around Otaihau Whangārei Falls was purchased more than a hundred years ago by the same individual, Archibald Clapham, who donated the clock museum to the town. Clapham bought up the land around the waterfall so that it wouldn't be developed as the town grew.

Below the Falls

It's just amazing that places like this are in a city! Here's a video of these falls, made by my editor:

The biggest of the several waterfalls in the Whangarei area is a little out of town. This is Taheke Falls, 46 metres or 151 feet high and bearing a distinct resemblance to the American falls at Niagara when in full spate, though Taheke Falls is far more off the beaten track. Chris visited Taheke Falls all the same, to see if they were still as good as in this photo from 1918, which doesn't really do justice as to just how huge these falls are.

View looking up at the Taheke Falls on the Taheke River, Northland Region. Photograph taken by Albert Percy Godber, in 1918. Godber Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference APG-1661-1/2-G, Image number IE319524. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

You start out toward Taheke Falls by driving eastward on Whareora Road, past the entrances to A H Reed Memorial Reserve. On the way, you go past the Abbey Caves.

Ultimately, the Taheke Falls are accessible only by a gravel road called Tahere Road and a three-kilometre loop track through regenerating kauri forest (you don’t have to do the whole track to see the falls).

You have to park short of the track at a designated carpark and walk on further up Tahere Road and over a bridge, which I think was privately built by the local farmers in recent years, to get to the track. Some websites say that you have to cross a ford which cannot be crossed when the river is in flood, but I think the bridge now overcomes that problem. Which is just as well as the falls are far more impressive when the river is up.

Park here (or be towed by irate farmers)

Plod for a short distance, down and over the bridge. Chris did not see any kiwi, but they tend only to come out at night.

The track at last

Once you get to the falls lookout, the view is vertiginous, as the lookout is right on top of the falls, which plunge into an incredible chasm, from the inside of which Godber must have taken his photo in 1918, looking up. Unfortunately, there wasn't much flow when Chris took these pictures. During the more recent weather bombs of March 2022, they probably did look like Niagara again.

The Chasm below Taheke Falls, from the lookout. Suffice to say that the pool seems to be a very long way down.

Looking straight down Taheke Falls. The white stuff is the river (clearly, not as much flow as when Godber was there)

Popping back into town, I notice that Whangārei seems to have been sponsoring a lot of street art lately.

The psychedelic influence of Hundertwasser seems to have been totally embraced these days, though I wouldn't be surprised if the mayor and councillors asked themselves "Who's this weirdo?" when the somewhat Jesus-like figure of Peacerealm Rainday Saturatedcolours Hundredwaters first burst onto the Kiwi scene back in the seventies.


The countercultural feel of Whangārei today was something Chris also noticed at a workshop called the Quarry Arts Centre, at the end of Selwyn Avenue in an area called Vinetown, at the foot of the Coronation Scenic Reserve:

It's all very 'Gandalf's Garden'. And so was the Airbnb that I stayed at, and Chris too a bit later, in an outlying area called Glenbervie, at 532 Ngunguru Road. Not that you can really miss it, given the profusion of letterboxes.

The proprietors, Andrew and Cynthia, advise that the best way to get to your cabin is through "a gap in the trees." Here is the said gap, you can't really miss it.

Once you get there, it's like this.

The cabins are fairly basic, but also very cheap, and of course you can park a campervan there or pitch a tent as well. They do have electricity but the wifi is unreliable: Andrew writes that "no matter what we try, the trees defeat it." He adds that mobile reception can be a bit dodgy in this area as well, though it seems to be OK on Spark NZ at least.

(If you want to stay at Andrew and Cynthia's, give them a ring on 09-437-6650 and leave a message if they are out.)

One of the things we noticed in the Glenbervie area was that there were masses of drystone walls everywhere, both up driveways and along the road, seemingly for miles. It all looked very un-Kiwi, as we tend to be pretty utilitarian with regard to fencing, and much more European, labour-intensive and generally Olde Worlde instead.

The common driveway at Andrew and Cynthias place, shared with their many neighbours

Quite so, said Andrew. The walls date back to the time of the French Catholic mission stations in New Zealand nearly two hundred years ago, which would have prospered had New Zealand or even a part of it joined New Caledonia, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and many other Pacific archipelagoes as part the French overseas community, an interesting historical might-have been that is the premise of the amusing 2006 play Le Sud, in which the English Channel is replicated at Wellington via a Francophone South Island and an Anglophone North.

However, in our time line, as they say, John Bull claimed the entirety of New Zealand to make it safe for roast beef and plum pudding, as both sides of the Anglo-French divide used to quip back then. And so the French stations gradually fell apart in the face of the hostility of British settlers who at that time still identified the French with Napoleon and the guillotine. The only station that still prospered was the one at Ngunguru, a little up the road from Glenbervie, probably because there weren't any British there yet.

At Ngunguru, Bishop Pompallier from Lyon enlisted his Māori parishioners to clear the lands, which were heavily strewn with volcanic rocks, and heap the stones up into walls, thereby fencing the fields and making them suitable for the plough at the same time.

And so to this day the area looks like a little bit different to the rest of New Zealand: Le Nord.

Ngunguru Road, at Glenbervie

Lastly, for I am getting to the end, I learned about all sorts of things to do in Whangārei and places to see at the Whangārei iSite, the city's official information centre. There was just one problem. I only came across it on my last day in town, nestled among some trees at a location called Tarewa Park, on the road into town from Auckland (I guess I must have driven past the first time).

Why can’t they have it in the middle of town?

There is a place called the Hub, which is a sort of subsidiary iSite, in the Town Basin. It's just across the road from Pak'n'Save and behind the tall sign and the purple e-bikes. But it is not nearly as informative as the real iSite.

So, that's another tip!

There is a whole lot more I could have said about Whangārei, and more pictures I could have put up, but this post is long enough as it is. My next post on this Northland journey will talk about nearby Marsden Point, named after one of Pompallier's Protestant rivals, and all the beautiful areas on the east coast from the Mangawhai Heads, northward past Whangārei, to Matapōuri Bay.

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website


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