Northland is not a happy place for many local people.


Let me set the scene. As suggested by the name, Northland comprises the northern chunk of New Zealand. Because of its geographic location, it also enjoys the country’s warmest climate so is often referred to as “the winterless north”. The historic town of Kerikeri was the location for the country’s first European mission station and is now the centre of a horticulture industry supplying kiwifruit, oranges, lemons, mandarins and grapefruit to the local market. Kerikei is also on the tourist route with the Stone Store completed in 1836, being an iconic New Zealand building.

The nearby Bay of Islands is another tourist magnet with the quaint little village of Russell offering arguably the most attractive seaside boulevard in Australasia. The Bay of Islands is also world famous for the big game fishing that anglers from around the world flock to in the hope of catching the Marlin, Tuna, Hapuka, Kingfisher, Shark and Snapper that are found in the sparkling waters around the 144 islands that make up the Bay of Islands.


Kawakawa is billed as the “Gateway to the Bay of Islands”. Like other towns in Northland, its population has declined in the past decade. Kawakawa, however, has two unique claims to fame. A railway runs along the centre of its main street with the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway operating a 1927 steam locomotive on scheduled trips.


The Kawakawa public toilet is the other attraction visitors to the town are encouraged to visit (honestly!) not to necessarily use, but to marvel at. The somewhat odd instillation was created by Austrian artist with the tongue twister name (for a Kiwi anyway) Friedensreich Hundertwasser who lived locally for 25 years. The somewhat eccentric artist decided Kawakawa needed something to put it on the map, so he created the wonderfully quirky toilet which won the internationally recognized ‘Golden Plunger’ award for its unusual features. Most of the toilet building was constructed with recycled material and it’s hard to find a straight line anywhere in the structure. Classed as a work of art, the use of colour is another reason the loo has been such a popular attraction. Fortunately for Friedensreich and his dream for his adopted town, he achieved his goal. His Kawakawa public convenience is possibly the most famous toilet in Australasia and is certainly the best known loo in New Zealand. Apart from his architectural gift to Kawakawa, he also designed an apartment building in Vienna which has become a tourist attraction in the Austrian capital.


Now to the point of this blog. Despite the tourism and fruit growing, Northland is arguably the most impoverished province in New Zealand. Unemployment is amongst the highest in the country with the town of Kaitaia gaining the unfortunate label, “murder capital of New Zealand”. So far this year, Kaitaia, with a population of just 4,900, and the most northerly town in New Zealand, has experienced 4 murders and numerous cases of child abuse and violent assault. A scary number of attempted murders are the result of gang confrontations with drugs being the catalyst for much of the violence.

Kaitaia (Maori for 'abundance of food')Kaitaia (Maori for ‘abundance of food’)

There is an inordinately high number of unemployed in the area which must be a contributing factor to the high suicide rate. In a three month period this year, 6 people under 25 have died, with suicide suspected in all cases.

Over the past few years, with crime in the area on the increase, the far north police have asked for more resources but their calls have largely gone unheeded. With heavy publicity resulting from an armed defender’s call out in Kaitaia in August, the serious social problems faced in the area were brought to the nation’s attention. As a result, it seems the hard working local police will finally get some reinforcements. The extra personnel will allow an increased police presence on the streets of Northland’s towns, especially Kaitaia, with the hope of reducing the grim violence statistics that are plaguing  “the winterless north”.


It’s odd that Southland, the closest part of New Zealand to Antarctica and the coldest province in New Zealand, is also among the most prosperous. Northland with its wonderful climate, historic villages, fishing opportunities and horticulture, hasn’t  experienced the level of success enjoyed in Southland because, as I’ve noted after my visits to both provinces, Northlanders appear to lack the motivation that drives Southlanders. When a company closes or farm prices fall, those in the south look around for new opportunities and pursue them. They work until they find something new to invest their energy in. I will be talking about this in an upcoming blog.

However, recently there have been positive signs for Northland. Whangarei is beginning to emerge from a sleep. The business district of the province’s only city recently underwent a refurbishment. There is also investment being made in the city’s internationally recognized boat building industry. New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland is only a 2 hour drive away and with the rapid growth pushing up house prices there, people are looking nearby for affordable housing and with the warm climate on offer, Whangarei is on the radar so its future is finally looking sunny. This can only be a positive development for the whole of Northland, including Kaitaia. With growth comes jobs. It is hoped this will  result in a reduction in the violence that has been responsible for too many deaths in this northern part of New Zealand.

Watch a young Kaitaia resident expressing her feelings about her town’s issues in this video–kaitaia-looks-for-mental-health-solutions