By Deena Coster / Stuff Reporter (8 Feb 2020)
"A huge, shaggy, and lonely land. No grass field, no fence, nor house or tent, no smoke of settlers' burning off fires gave civilised touch in the silent expanse. Valley and hill and glinting stream and dark solemn forest law bathed in soft blue haze, mysterious, unpeopled, as untouched by man, it seemed to us gazing over it there, as it might have been a thousand years ago."
Largely unknown now, writer James Cowan was hugely influential in defining New Zealander's sense of place from the late 1890s into the 20th century and this was his take on the Whangamomona valley in 1892.
And it's that untouched, pristine landscape which continues to be a selling point for the Forgotten World Highway, which winds its way through this valley and beyond, linking Stratford in central Taranaki to the King Country town of Taumarunui.
The highway's history is closely linked to the pioneering, settler spirit which is the bedrock of part of Taranaki's history.
But it's challenge for the future is to protect that old world charm while encouraging tourism, which is the life blood of the businesses dotted along the 155-kilometre stretch of road.
One of former Stratford mayor David Walter's claims to fame is having a hand in naming the highway.
Initially it was called the 'Lost World Highway' but a legal challenge around copyright in 2001 put that moniker on ice.
About 40 names were tossed around to replace it, Walter says, including the Volcanic Link Highway, The Real World Highway and the Hidden Earth Highway.
But the name Forgotten World Highway won out in the end.
The appeal was very much spelt out in the name, Walter recalls.
"It was a forgotten part of New Zealand and particularly the North Island. The little villages were forgotten."
Walter, who still travels the highway once a week or so to visit the family farm in Douglas, was also witness to history during the birth of the Whangamomona republic in 1989.
Over a pint at the settlement's hotel, a group were lamenting possible local government reforms which would see the settlement come into the boundary of the Manawatū-Whanganui Regional Council.
The idea of the breaking out and becoming a republic developed over a few more drinks and on November 1, 1989, the very first republic day was held.
It is now a biennial event which attracts thousands of people.
Places like the Toko Junction Tavern and the Whangamomona Hotel remain touchstones for the community who call the highway home.
Walter says they are almost like one, big family in a way, made up of people who have farmed in the area for generations, embodied in their allegiance and avid support for the Dean Cup, where teams from Whangamomona, Toko and Strathmore compete for the oldest rugby trophy in New Zealand.
But in other ways, the desolate, wide open spaces which are common in this part of the world makes it an attractive place for people who want to drop off the grid, or for other reasons, might have something to hide.
Previously the area was home to the likes of convicted murderer Quinton Winders, who was jailed for life with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years after he shot dead stop-go worker George Taiaroa in March 2013.
Winders reportedly lived in a barn in Whangamomona which had no electricity, running water or plumbing.
Despite a case like that making the headlines, for many years the East Taranaki area itself had little profile.
Walter says giving the highway a name was part of a raft of measures to reverse that and to bring more people in.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an exodus of residents, with numbers dropping from 870 to 380. The reasons for this included the amalgamation of farms, a lack of jobs and smaller family sizes.
But the 1980s marked a period of positive change.
The Whangamomona Hotel got its full accommodation licence, the former Whangamomona School was converted into a motor camp (which Walter says attracted interest, at the time, from Bert Potter, founder of the notorious Centrepoint community) with the first republic day held at the close of the decade.
Now, Stratford district councillor and Pohokura farmer Amanda Harris, believes the area has become a destination for people.
Although the majority of visitors are still coming from outside the region or overseas.
"People in Taranaki don't put it on their bucket list," the mother-of-two says of the Forgotten World Highway trip.
Harris, along with husband Aaron, runs Mill House, which can be rented out on Airbnb or booking.com, for people looking for a taste for rural life.
"It's quite authentic out here. It's pretty special."
Harris is among those backing the sealing of 12km stretch of highway at Tangarakau gorge, made possible through $9 million cash injection from the coalition Government's Provincial Growth Fund.
The news has not been widely welcomed by locals, and while Harris accepts it "takes away a little bit" of the highway's vibe, it's an important step forward for the area's growth.
When you stop along the Forgotten World Highway, you get a sense it's a place which breeds independence, but also resilience.
In some ways it's landscape is untamed, but it's not untouched by human industry - forestry is a big player and the rising influence of tourism is also important to the area's survival.
Vicki and Richard Pratt, who own the Whangamomona Hotel, are among about nine people who live in the self-declared republic.
They get between 22,000 and 25,000 visitors during the summer months, with an increasing number bringing bikes in tow.
"We are seeing more and more cyclists every year," Richard says.
A recent visit from 18 Polish riders is just one example of the type of unexpected bookings which come their way.
"At first I thought it was a hoax," Vicki says.
But the likelihood is that such numbers might become the norm as the back country highway is listed by Lonely Planet as the 10th best cycle ride in the world.
Current Whangamomona "president" John Herlihy, who won his second term at last year's Republic Day, loves living in the settlement.
"You get to know everyone and everybody's there to help out. Everybody just shows up."
Herlihy, who has run a shearing gang in the area for 26 years, says the increased presence of tourism did have its downsides.
There was a time he could move his stock down the road and never encounter another vehicle. But now 30 or 40 would make their way through on any given day.
"They're here, if we like it or not."
But the arrival of visitors provides a life-line for the hotel.
"The hotel wouldn't exist without tourism," Richard says.
While the hotel remains on the market, the Pratts are in no hurry to sell. When it happens, they will have to drive the highway themselves, as they plan to move closer to New Plymouth, which is about 100km away.
But they say whatever happens, Whangamomona will always hold a special place in their hearts.
"If I had the time, I probably would have written 10 books," Vicki says.
(Source: Stuff News / 8 February 2020)