The Katikati murals that adorn every wall along the main street set Katikati apart. This little town 40km north west of Tauranga with a population of just 4000 prides itself on its artwork. Its open air gallery was the main reason it took the award of “New Zealand’s Most Beautiful Small Town” in 2005, but there’s still plenty to see almost a decade later.
Known as Katikat to the locals (and not to be confused with a well-known brand of cat food if you don’t wish to offend them), this place is the only planned Ulster settlement in the world. Those original settlers came from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland and set up what was known as the “Ulster Plantation”. A man by the name of George Vesey Stewart arrived in New Zealand in 1874 and a year later had found the perfect spot to build his town.
Having been granted the land at the expense of the indigenous Maori population, he returned to his homeland to recruit potential settlers. They were referred to as either “useful” or “ornamental” depending on whether they would be farmers or wealthier landowners. Whatever their position, they all needed a sense of adventure as they boarded their ship, the Carisbrook Castle, and set sail for the New World. Three years later another boatload, on the Lady Jocelyn, would join the 34 original families and swell the population to 600.
In the 1990s, an economic downturn had taken its toll on the area and a group of interested locals came up with a plan to create a series of Katikati murals with a view to attracting visitors to the town. Katikati Open-Air Art Inc was formed and now there are around forty murals to admire.
Many of the Katikati murals tell parts of the town’s history. One of the best is mural number six, created in 1991, and entitled “Early Ventures”. It’s the work of two local women, potter Ailsa Shaw and her friend, artist Jocelyn Mountain. It consists of inlaid tiles depicting scenes from the days of the pioneer settlers designed by the 83 year old artist: the transport which brought them, the hotels that sprang up as a result and the ploughs with which they toiled. Potter Ailsa created the background tiles which describe the physical landscape of the area, the Kaimai Range and the Uretara River, the view which Jocelyn could see from the windows of her home.
Mural number 35 is also notable. It commemorates eighteen individuals who, from the 1870s to the 21st century, had made a significant contribution to the town’s life as it celebrated 125 years of European settlement. Called “Our People – Our Story”, the artist Irene Tuscia Falconer worked from family photos to create this well-received work in acrylics between 2000 and 2002.
Route 2 from the Coromandel Peninsula to Rotorua or Gisborne via Tauranga, cuts straight through the town of Katikati in New Zealand. It’s easy enough to pull over for an hour or so and have a wander. Each of the Katikati murals is numbered and a map is available for a small fee. It’s possible to join a guided tour to hear the stories behind the artwork, or view the Katikati murals free of charge if you prefer.