A Journey Along The Forgotten World Highway

15 March 2015
Read Time: 3.2 mins

We'd hardly settled into Whanga Bridge House, a railway cottage in the main street of Whangamomona, when we heard the clip-clop of a horse. It was a gumboot-clad local astride a brown mare trotting along the town's main street.

Situated in the Taranaki region of New Zealand's North Island, Whangamomona lies almost in the middle of State Highway 43, which weaves 158 picturesque kilometres between the towns of Taumarunui and Stratford, passing old-growth forests, rolling green hills and valleys dissected by pristine rivers.

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The Pub's A Popular Pit-Stop

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The Whangamomona Hotel is a popular pit-stop on the highway, also known as the Forgotten World Highway, which follows ancient Maori trade routes.

Taumarunui, 280 kilometres south of Auckland, was originally a Maori settlement at the confluence of the Ongarue and Whanganui Rivers, and is the northern launching point to the Forgotten World Highway.

 The Forgotten World Highway is overlooked by 'Mt Doom' (Credit: Sandy Guy)

Heading south from Taumarunui, where snow-clad Mt Ruapehu – Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings movies - looms in the background, we come across the first of many signboards relating the region's rich Maori and European history, the Otuni Riverboat landing.

Situated on the banks of the broad Whanganui River the tranquil spot once bustled with paddle steamers, which plied the river in the 1890s, ferrying provisions to the region's settlers.

The 87-kilometre drive to Whangamomona passes great swathes of forest abounding with birds. At Tangarakau Gorge, dense with tree ferns and podocarp, an ancient genus of conifers, we see karearea (falcon), native tuis, wood pigeon and kakariki - little bellbirds.

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Silence Of Wide Open Spaces

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After navigating 12km of unsealed road we drive through the heart of a hill at the 180m-long Moki Tunnel, known as the Hobbit's hole, which was blasted from the rock in the 1930s.

From here the highway winds up hill and down dale, across steep saddles and hilly farmland, where lonely farmhouses stand like sentinels amid a sea of lush green pastures. The only sound is the bleat of sheep and rustle of wild goats darting into the bush.

 The roadsign tells the story (Credit: Sandy Guy)

At the start of the last century Whangamomona, fondly referred to as Whanga by locals, bustled with stores, boarding houses, a post office, school, council chambers and three churches. But communities across this remote region declined in the latter part of the 20th Century: the school closed in 1979, the post office in 1988.


Find out more about Maori culture. Rotorua: A Journey Into Maori Culture

Experience New Zealand by road. Inspirational Images Of A New Zealand Road Trip


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Welcome To The Republic Of Whangamomona

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To make matters worse, council boundaries were redrawn in 1989. Until then, Whangamomona was part of Tarakani Shire. Rather than be shunted to another shire the district's 200 inhabitants – around 40 live in town -  declared Whangamomona a republic.

We meet Republic of Whanga President, Murt “The Turtle” Kennard, who runs the local garage, along with the horseman, introduced as “Mum”, who manages the local campground – when he isn't riding horses.

Whanga Bridge House has three bedrooms, a wide deck, every conceivable gadget in the kitchen, and local wine and home-made preserves in the fridge. The cost is $75 per person per night.

 The president himself (Credit: Sandy Guy)

President Murt says he has it on good authority the house was moved from a previous location near the town's old railway station to its current site, rolled on 63 wine flagons. Whanga might have a modest population, but it's big on yarns.

Accommodation at the Whangamomona Hotel is also $75 per person per night, as it is at M&M's Bed and Breakfast, run by President Murt and his First Lady, Marg. Nothing like no competition in this sleepy village.

You can buy a Republic of Whanga passport at the hotel while partaking in a cold ale and hearty fare that may include roast beef with locally-grown potatoes, slow-roasted lamb shanks, venison sausages, and the popular Whanga Burger.

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There Are 24 Tunnels And 91 Bridges

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Whanga Republic Day is held every other January (most recently 24 January, 2015), where festivities include gumboot-throwing, wood-chopping, whip-cracking, sheep shearing and possum-skinning competitions, and what's described as a “gut-buster” race up one of the almost vertical hills that surround the village.

It took almost 32 years to construct the 144-kilometre-long railway line from Stratford to Okahukura, via Whangamomona, which finally opened in 1932.  In a remarkable feat of engineering, workers constructed 24 tunnels and 91 bridges along the way.

 From a world gone by (Credit: Sandy Guy)

Although the railway closed in 1983 you can still see the results of years of toil on the Forgotten World Railway, self-drive rail carts that glide along decommissioned railway lines through dramatic landscapes and long-forgotten settlements during the summer months.

We're so comfortable at Whanga Bridge House, strolling around town, chatting to Murt and Marg and sampling the pub's fare that it's not easy to say goodbye and continue on the Forgotten World Highway to Stratford, 63 kilometres away.

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We Can Always Come Back For More

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Our little car climbs the lofty Whangamomona Saddle, which has Lord of the Rings-like landscapes in the distance, and the equally impressive Pohokura Saddle, another of the more than 30 historical sites along the highway – this is an ancient Maori trail.

We spend hours driving to Stratford: we can't help but stop again at Strathmore Saddle, where the rugged countryside has a magnificent backdrop of snow-clad Mt Taranaki to the west, and Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe to the east.

We've run out of time to journey on the Forgotten World Railway, travel by boat along the Whanganui River to the isolated Bridge to Nowhere, and hike to the equally remote Bridge to Somewhere, built across the Whangamomona River in 1937.

But like the Forgotten World Highway, these equally evocative destinations will lure us back to the magical Republic of Whanga in the near future.

Sandy Guy

Victorian-based freelance journalist Sandy Guy loves to get off the beaten track and explore roads less travelled, from New Zealand's Forgotten World Highway and beyond.