I woke up in New Plymouth with no particular inclination to spend more time there than needed. If the schedule had allowed, I perhaps would have ventured closer to Mount Taranaki, a 2,518-meter active volcano that appears on maps as an almost alarmingly perfect sphere. Like Mount Fuji, Taranaki – known also by its pakeha name of Mount Egmont – is a stratovolcano, and lends its steep, snow-capped cone of a shape to brochures and graphics for the area.
But the city itself left me uninspired. Despite the motto of the region, “Like no other,” I found New Plymouth to be very much a twin of Nelson, lying just across Cook Strait at the top of the South Island. Both are built on the water and share moderate population sizes, making them the center of their regions, as well as a reputation for being a home to the arts. The way the cities are laid out is strikingly similar as well, with grid-like streets lined with the same shops, diagonal parking spaces and pedestrian crossings. Of course New Plymouth has Puke Ariki – Maori for “Hill of Chiefs/Kings” – a well-designed one-stop shop of sorts, holding a museum, library, and visitor center, but as I was unwilling to part with the money for the museum entrance fee, I settled with a glimpse of the replica of a prehistoric shark hanging in the foyer.
Even if New Plymouth had been filled with enough charm and class to win over the Queen, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. The night before, I came across a brochure in my hostel for the Forgotten World Highway, supposedly one of the country’s oldest touring routes. I had initially planned to continue past New Plymouth up the west coast to Awakino, where SH3 would take me directly to Waitomo, my destination for the night. Simple and straightforward, just how I always liked my math homework. But this newly discovered SH43 would take me inward, almost retracing my steps towards Stratford, to where the Forgotten World Highway begins, carrying me through to Taumarunui, and from there, SH4 to Waitomo. Not only would it give me a chance to see Stratford – which would have otherwise been out of my way and impractical – but I’d even be able to put my passport to good use with a visit to the Republic of Whangamomona… well, not quite, but you’ll see what I mean. So what were a few kilometers (and a few more hours of driving time) compared to the lure of an unknown, self-avowed “forgotten” road? Bring on the mystery.
Inglewood, population 3,000, did little to bring it, unfurling yet another show of American flags for “AmeriCARna” that were distinctly unmysterious. Wikipedia describes Inglewood as a “typical small town,” and as any travel writer knows, that’s no way to make the cut. Give me crazy, give me bizarre – give me more bad puns, if need be – but don’t give me typical. Inglewood gave me rain and the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum, an impressive-sounding distinction, yet one brought into question by the not-so-central location of the museum to the national population. I didn’t stay long.
To the literary-minded, the name of Stratford most likely conjures up images of Shakespeare and his humble beginnings in the English countryside. This is most likely what Stratford, New Zealand, wants you to have in mind as you visit. By bringing your perhaps more pleasant associations of quaint England, chances are you’ll find a greater amount of charm and appeal in its Kiwi counterpart. I can’t help but pick up on a touch of wry humor in the Wikipedia entry for the town as it explains the original title was Stratford-upon-Patea, after the “supposed similarity” between the two rivers, given by William Compton of the Taranaki Waste Lands Board, a man “known to have a literary turn of mind.”
There’s no beating around the Bard – the similarities end with the name. Nothing but Shakespeare’s image hanging from the street lights, an abstract portrait designed from light tubing on squares of wire mesh that normally feature Christmas trees or candles during the holidays. Signs bearing the town’s name outside the city limits are built from what resemble cobblestones and feature a metal likeness of the Bard himself, looking especially devious and holding a plumed quill pen – naturally. Sixty-seven of Stratford’s streets are named after characters from 27 of Shakespeare’s plays and the town boasts in having New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clocktower that performs the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet four times a day.
Regrettably, I missed the glockenspiel’s morning performance and found myself with an extra two hours on my hands before the fated lovers were due to make their next appearance, so I did what anyone else does with that amount of time in Stratford: headed down the road to the Taranaki Pioneer Village. Conceived in 1978 and officially opened in 1990, the village is a sort of open-air museum, home to some forty furnished “heritage” buildings, which, while not original, provide a somewhat realistic glimpse into the past of the region.
My footsteps echo loudly on the hardwood floor of the village’s entrance, a sort of cafe-cum-office building there to welcome visitors. The two people standing at the front desk look up, whom I take to be the office manager and groundskeeper, and I am greeted by a smile typically reserved for any attraction’s sole customer for the day, filled with that special exuberance of “Thank God you’re here!” Happy to oblige, I hand over the ten-dollar fee and follow out the back door into yesteryear. As always, there’s an unspoken scale in my head that weighs out what I will and – usually – will not part with money over.
A railway circles the village, where a real train line once stopped at Tariki Station. Nowadays, the tourist train operates twice a day on weekends but Monday through Friday “only when train driver is available.” The track runs directly behind the entrance building and I step over the crossties and onto the main gravel street. Just across from me is the sort of picture-perfect scene you see on old-time postcards: four buildings – library, post office, police station, and the office of the Egmont Settler, a local newspaper published in the late 1890s – standing together in their clean, coordinating paint jobs and Wild West-esque, settler charm with a distinctive red British postbox for a bit of Commonwealth flavor.
The absolute perfection of the village’s replication rivaled that of a movie set. While walking the grounds alone, I half-expected crews to rush in, swinging round their cameras and hoisting up lights, and a costumed cast of characters to take their place. There was a village forge, a cobbler, an old photography studio and a one-roomed schoolhouse, with its portrait of Queen Victoria hung respectfully over a shield painted like the Union Jack.
A sheet of paper posted near the door of the schoolhouse left me speechless:
Back in the entrance at the end of my time in the village, I asked the shop attendant about them. “Agapanthus,” she explained, writing the bulky name out on a yellow post-it. I tucked the note away in a back pocket, where it was to stay for at least a week until finding its way into my notebook. Despite the ever-shifting course of my schedule over the months that followed, I somehow managed to keep track of that little slip of paper and now, whether by design or by chance, it’s a wonder I am able to accurately report it to you. I wonder further at the unexpected knowledge that agapanthus, a South African bloom known also as Lily of the Nile, is formed from the Greek words agapē, love, and anthos, flower. First brought to Europe by explorers in the late 1600s, the “flower of love” I stumbled across must’ve had quite the journey of continents to find its current home down under. Is there anything that doesn’t have a story?
Stratford doesn’t think so. I arrived back from the heritage village just in time to park the car and find the glockenspiel for its next performance. In New Zealand, the standard small town gives you the impression of being rather one-dimensional. Despite the interest of history found carved in the old art deco facades, the buildings never venture towards the heavens for more than a story or two, and certainly never past the heights of streetlights. So to approach Stratford is to be baffled by the presence of a clocktower standing head and shoulders over the rest of Broadway Street, built in the style of a black-and-white English timber building so unlike the rest of the town.
In protest to this betrayal, to such a loss of geographical identity and belonging, the residents of Whangamomona – no matter how few and far between – declared themselves an independent republic…facetiously, of course, but officially unofficial nonetheless. Since the republic’s inception in 1989, they’ve taken the idea and run with it, now issuing fake passports from the bar of the hotel, constructing corrugated “border control” huts that look more like old outhouses, and celebrating their “independence” once a year with a Republic Day festival in January.
The life of Whangamomona – if you can call it that – revolves around the hotel and its first-floor pub. A large balcony extends along the length of the second story, painted white with red accents to coordinate with the roof. I walk inside and ask where I can purchase a passport. “Here,” she says, somewhat shortly. “And you can stamp my passport, too?” I ask, feeling like I should have a small child or two with me to justify this foolish excursion. It’s an extra dollar for the stamp, apparently, but I suppose they could use the business. I’m the only one in the pub and the silence is awkward as I wait for her to…well, I’d say “process the paperwork,” but that gives the whole exchange too ceremonious of an air.
I nod my head, assuming the standard run of tour buses must stop through often. She says no, though, leaving me at yet another loss as to how such a place could ever stop short of deserted. The walls of a room off the side of the pub are lined with pictures and newspaper clippings featuring stories of Whanga’s colorful history, a little black sheep of a town that’s kept itself alive. There’s even a “National Poem,” penned by poet laureate Jack Curtis, that begins:
There’s a little piece called Whanga
Way inland from the sea,
The poem’s rhymes are often questionable, but the final line leaves no room for error: STUFF THE MANAWATU! On the way out of the hotel, I noticed a piece of paper in the corner of a window: Whangamomona Hotel is FOR SALE. Freehold land and buildings. Plants and chattells in excellent condition. Profitable business showing Positive Growth. Popular Destination. I wouldn’t have guessed, but one never can tell.
Rain starts up and I continue towards Taumarunui. It isn’t hard to see why the highway was forgotten. The twists and turns of each stretch are unbearable, not because they’re “hair-raising” as one brochure described it, but because they’re annoying, slowing you down and making any real progress difficult to achieve. The sheep only augment the road’s serpentine ways. Just past Whanga, a herd crosses my path as if they have all the time in the world. Which they do.