I’VE ALWAYS HELD A SOFT SPOT for the wilder, more remote corners of Aotearoa. They’re often some of the most stunning: postcard panoramas of mist-laden native bush … snow-capped mountain peaks … windswept coastlines. But what’s equally appealing is their history – and especially the stories about the people who settled these isolated lands. They’re stories of adventure, drama, setbacks, resilience, romance and (often) heartbreak. All the makings of a Hollywood epic!
One such place is Whangamomona – a small town nestled in the hills between Taumarunui and Stratford on state highway 43 – now known as the ‘Forgotten World Highway’. There’s something like 150kms between gas stations in this area, so it certainly ticks the remote box! It’s also crammed with history, and although it’s had its fair share of heartache over the last century, it’s making a new name for itself – thanks to some rebellious locals and a little bit of slick marketing.
Anyway, earlier this week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days exploring the area on my motorbike with my mate Ian ‘Acky’ Atkins, a well-known Taumarunui local. He’d offered to guide me around ‘Whanga’ on two wheels – and, with promises of isolated dirt-roads to ride, stunning natural beauty to see, and once-thriving ghost towns to explore, it sounded like an epic adventure!
After filling our tanks in Taumarunui, we set off for the Whangamomona Hotel and our accommodation for the night. It had been raining most of the drive to Acky’s – and it looked like our afternoon ride was going to be a wet one. However, a little rain shouldn’t dampen one’s enthusiasm for adventure! The plan was to take a few of the roads-less-travelled – like Roto and Huia through to Ohura, then continue on the Forgotten World Highway and into the infamous Tangarakau Gorge.
Back in the day, the area around Whangamomona and the Gorge was only sparsely populated by Māori – although there was a network of tracks used to trade birds and eels with fish from the coastal villages. It was these tracks that the first Pākehā surveyors used when mapping out roads in the district, among them a young man named Joshua Morgan.
These steep, bush-covered hillsides were some of the last tracts of unexplored land in the North Island, and it was while Morgan was pushing his survey pegs into the hard papa terrain that he became gravely ill. Even though his assistant made a mad dash to the coast for medicine (a feat in itself), Morgan died shortly after his return of suspected peritonitis. It was 1893 and he was 35 years old.
Morgan’s grave lies where he died – on the banks of the Tangarakau River, surrounded by towering trees and ferns. It’s a short walk from the roadside, and I welcomed the chance to stretch the legs as we pulled over for a look. It was a damp, inhospitable place, the light drizzle adding to the sombre surroundings, and I could only imagine how tough these early explorers must’ve been. Life’s pretty easy now by comparison!
After weaving our way along the potholed 12km gravel section of the FWH, we drove through the 180m long Moki Tunnel, aka ‘The Hobbit Hole’ – one of many hand-dug tunnels in the area. We then hooked left onto Raekohua Rd, dodging cows and their calves as they grazed happily along the grass edges.
About 6km up we came to the thriving township of Tangarakau … at least it was thriving in the 1920s. Today there’s little to see, except the railway track and a few buildings. It used to be home to around 1200 railway workers, linking Stratford with the Main Trunk Line near Taumarunui. There was a school, shops, library, and even a hairdresser! But by 1932 the rail was finished, and many of the families started moving out to find other work.
Back on the Forgotten World Highway, we wound our way up and over the Tahora Saddle and into Whangamomona. Talk about a step back in time! The wide main street housed a handful of historic buildings, including the iconic Whangamomona Hotel – our lodging for the night. I suggested to Acky that a gun-fight outside the pub wouldn’t seem amiss …
After peeling off our layers of protective riding gear, we stepped inside to sort our beds for the night. The Whangamomona Hotel is on its second incarnation, its first having been burnt to the ground in 1911. By 1912 it was back up and running again, and today it carries its 100+ year history with pride. You could spend a good while looking at all the photos and memorabilia displayed on its walls.
Being midweek it was quiet, with just a handful of locals relishing a beer after a hard day on the farm. We pulled up a chair and joined a couple of natives Acky knew for a drink and a yarn. After dinner, we got to chat with Vicki Pratt, President of the Republic of Whangamomona (see panel). She and husband Richard own the hotel, and following an enjoyable discussion about the politics of the area, we all agreed that the rest of New Zealand could learn a thing or two from the Republic.
The next morning dawned fine and clear – perfect conditions for exploring the countryside on a motorbike! The plan was to head towards the Taranaki coast, checking out other ‘forgotten highways’ and making sure we were back in Taumarunui by early afternoon. Farewelling the Republic, we re-entered New Zealand, winding our way up the twisty road to the Whangamomona Saddle – fantastic riding, with amazing views at the top.
Soon after, we turned off the main highway onto Junction Rd and explored a bunch of remote thoroughfares – Matau, Mangoapa and Tarata Roads. It was all a blur, and I was just glad Acky knew where he was going! This was gravel riding at its best as we weaved up and over one steep valley after another. By now we’d come away from the FWH and headed northwest towards the small township of Urenui, where we refuelled both ourselves and our bikes – the first petrol station we’d seen since leaving Taumarunui!
From here we travelled inland and onto more amazing roads, like Moki and Kiwi – some of my favourites of the trip. You know when there’s grass growing down the middle these roads don’t see much traffic! We ran into wild goats, mobs of cattle and sheep – way out in the middle of nowhere, and all in some of the most beautiful parts of the North Island.
Threading our way through the rugged Waitaanga Forest, we made it into Ohura again before taking a different route back to Taumarunui. The scenery started to change; more gentle farmland and more sealed roads – still backcountry, but not as backcountry!
By the time we rolled into Acky’s place, my butt was numb and I was well-and-truly ready for a stretch!
The Forgotten World Highway? It’s simply fantastic – and you gotta go there yourself. In just two days, we’d ridden more than 350km of remote roads, visited historic places, witnessed stunning vistas, met awesome people … and had a jolly good time doing it!
This is one forgotten world that won’t be forgotten quickly. Maybe I’ll throw my hat in the ring for the next presidential elections?
THE BIRTH OF WHANGAMOMONA REPUBLIC
When local government in New Zealand was reformed in 1989, a commission based in Wellington thrust the Whangamomona district into the Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council. The settlers, having been denied their rightful Taranaki citizenship, were rightfully grumpy about this and sought ways and means to protest against this evil tyranny.
One afternoon, over a few beers in the Whangamomona Hotel public bar, locals formed a plan, and a decision was made to revolt – breaking away from New Zealand, and forming their own Whangamomona Republic. News of the impending insurrection caught the attention of national and international media, prompting TV crews to visit the village.
Whanga celebrated its first Republic Day on November 1st 1989. Passports were sold from ‘long-drop’ border controls manned by gun-toting guards. An independence flag was hoisted with ceremony to flutter defiantly outside the hotel – which had been chosen as headquarters of the Republic. A huge turnout of thousands from near-and-far thronged Whanga’s main street to eyeball the first democratically-elected President.
Presidents have since come and gone: three humans (Ian Kjestrup, Murt Kennard and a Czech who was run out of office after just two days) … a dog … a goat … and now (since 2015) the first woman to take office, Vicki Pratt. The next Republic Day (held biennially) will be in January 2017 and a new President will need to be elected. Passports can be purchased at the Hotel to ensure safe passage through the territory.
FOR MORE INSPIRATION, CHECK OUT WWW.WHANGAMOMONAHOTEL.CO.NZ – IT’S WELL WORTH A VISIT!