For a small town, Kawakawa has a couple of very big surprises for visitors.
The unique and colourful set of public toilets is one, but the other is literally show-stopping: a train that runs right down the centre of the busy main street, effortlessly halting traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. It is, in fact, the only working train in the country to do this – just one of several notable claims to fame.
The railway itself was the first to be opened in the North Island, in 1877, to haul coal, and was also the first passenger service. Today, the train runs from the heritage-listed town station as far as Taumārere’s Long Bridge, which is the longest curved wooden viaduct in the southern hemisphere.
Out of action for some years, the bridge is being restored for railway use and is already part of the Twin Coast cycle trail. The aim is for the train to run, as it used to, 14 kilometres all the way to Opua, over many bridges and through a tunnel.
Because it’s your only chance to chug down the middle of a State Highway, with people waving and photographing from both sides.
On the hour-long trip, you can sit in a vintage carriage, or out in the open, while you travel through pretty countryside for 4.5km, listening to the enthusiastic volunteer guards telling you the history of this former horse-drawn tram route, and stories from the railway’s past. You won’t want to miss spotting the lava tree along the way.
There’s a 10-minute stop at Taumārere, while the engine swaps ends, before the return to Kawakawa.
The classic 1927 steam engine, Gabriel, is in need of a new boiler and currently out of use, but Timmy the substitute vintage diesel engine is quite quaint too – and your fares will contribute to the $350,000 needed for the volunteers to get Gabriel back into action. Train buffs will want to join the Gabriel Club.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
Of course you will visit those famous public toilets designed by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, which are as much a spectacle as a convenience; but take a walk around town too, to see how that colourfully decorative theme has been continued in shopfronts, murals and more.
Even better, explore the newly-opened Te Hononga community hub, where there is as much to discover and appreciate outside the building as there is inside. You can learn about the idiosyncratic artist in the foyer, and then pay $5 to enter the gallery upstairs.
A same-day return ticket costs $20 adult, $5 children (under 5s free), seniors $18, family $45.
BEST TIME TO GO
Until February 8, the train will run four times daily, at 10.45am, noon, 1.15pm and 2.30pm. After that, it will run at the same times on Fridays and weekends only. Consider a morning departure, so you can have a picnic or barbecue by the Long Bridge and return on a later train.