looking for juliet and the forgotten republic: day two on the north island.

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:

Rules for Teachers (1915)
1. You will not marry during the terms of your contract.
2. You are not to keep company with men.
3. You must be home between the hours of 8pm and 6am unless attending a school function.
4. You may not leave the city limits without the permission of the chairman of the board.
5. You may not loiter down town in ice cream stores.
6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
8. You may not dress in bright colours.
9. You may not under no circumstances dye your hair.
10. You must wear at least two petticoats and your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.

I am not entirely convinced joining a convent would put you in a stricter environment, but I suppose one should never underestimate the negative influence of ice cream and bright colors.

One of the pride and joy’s of the village today is another cottage named the Okato House, a simple structure with a pale yellow exterior and corrugated roof the color of green rust. Built by the Julian family, it dates back to 1853 – remarkable considering the Maori wars in the region that left hardly an original building standing. I found most of the house to be as expected – the faux fruit set out on the dining table, the delicate lace on the fireplace mantle, and the rickety wrought-iron furniture you see in so many of the bedrooms in such cottages. And yet, tucked away in a narrow hallway at the end of the house, a picture hangs on the clapboard wall, that of three camels, a red-and-yellow bedouin tent, and a cluster of slightly-arched palm trees. A watercolor sky is tinted with golds and pinks and it’s unclear if the sun has already set or is only just about to crack its shell open and spill out over the horizon. But one thing is certain: that desert image was the last thing I assumed I’d find, a small glimpse into the exotic, into a world about as far removed as you could possibly get from that of the Julian’s.

And then, in the same hallway just by the backdoor, three old leather suitcases sit propped against the wall. The details of this antique luggage – the aged metal clasps and the battered handles – strike me: where were they going? where had they been? Suitcases imply movement and travel, concepts not often associated with the everyday life of colonial settlers. I was touched by the presence of both the painting and the suitcases in such a rural location; that in the smallest of small towns in a country like New Zealand – which at the time of the Julian’s in the mid-1800s was truly the end of the world for its settlers – such hints at another world and another way of life existed.

I continued round the grounds, taking a gravel path that follows the lake at the center of the village and listening to the stillness of the morning. The sky was overcast and the lake dark from the heavy foliage growing at its edges. A water wheel spun slowly and fire trucks looked out from inside a fire brigade station. What kept drawing my eye in, though – from the top of the hill where a church sat to the lowest point of the lake – was a particular flower, in shades of white and cerulean blue, growing in all corners of the village. Each flower was comprised of delicate bunches of florettes, little funneled trumpets that grew together into a stunning globe that rested atop a tall stalk like magic on a wand. I’d seen them all along the highway and here I found them again, bringing life to a walk through the past.

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.

And the puzzlement persists when the clock strikes one. To watch a glockenspiel come alive in Prague is one thing – where the Apostles hiding inside the city’s astronomical clock draw quite the crowd at the top of every hour – but I was utterly at a loss for words standing next to two German couples – one young, one old – when Stratford became the latest backdrop for Romeo and Juliet’s fateful balcony scene. Panels of the clocktower opened like hidden doors and the star-crossed lovers appeared in three scenes, their painted wooden bodies moving stiffly along their track to a crackling loudspeaker symphony. Yet again, I felt that sense of displacement from the day before in Foxton. Amused, for sure, and glad for the photo-op but no less out of place.

But while the glockenspiel had been what first drew me to Stratford, what got me moving around the town itself were the street signs – all sixty-seven of them. I began at Prospero Place, located just behind the information center on whose windows another bust of Shakespeare had been not surprisingly painted. I held the steering wheel in one hand, a brochure for Stratford in the other, and relied on its map to guide me to green sign after green sign across town.

Talk about a visit from the ghosts of English-major past. Suddenly it was spring of 2006 and I was back in Wilson Hall, listening to Professor Kinney lecture on madness in Macbeth and draw lessons from The Winter’s Tale on the power of forgiveness. Maybe it was my overactive literary imagination, but I couldn’t help but note that Hamlet and Claudius Streets were located on opposite sides of town, locked in their eternal dispute, and that Claudius lay directly across from Elsinore Street – the king in his castle, whether rightfully or not. Although Cordelia Street led right into Lear Street, Goneril was nowhere to be found, as if five hundred years of bad karma had banished this evil eldest daughter from recognition, and I imagined the sort of domestic disturbance that must take place at the corner of Montague and Capulet Streets. Each intersection seemed to invite a further reading into these road-sign relationships.

From Juliet Street, I turned left onto Celia Street and then right on Orlando to get to the top of Romeo Street. I stopped the car briefly, letting it run while I snapped the requisite picture and tried to ignore two construction workers there on the corner, buried in what looked like a messy water works project. I am forever riding the fence between brazen photojournalist and sheepish tourist, embarrassed and emboldened all at once, always half-conscious of how my curiosity might be interpreted. I had nothing to worry about in Stratford, however. “You looking for Juliet?” the workers ask, egg-yolk yellow hard hats perking up at the sound of my shutter. “Nah, I found her already,” I say appreciatively and they smile as I get back in the car. There were no other cars around when I pulled up to Lysander Street, so again, I left the door open and the car running in the middle of the street. A police car drove by and I froze for a moment, but the officer simply smiled and drove by. Maybe they found me crazy, or perhaps were simply chuffed to see someone enjoying their town.

It was soon well into the afternoon and I knew if I didn’t get going on the Forgotten World Highway before long, there was no telling if and when I’d make it out before nightfall. State Highway 43 begins neatly on Regan Street in Stratford, a little too neatly for my liking. Such a name for a road demands a little edge to it, a sense of passing into something unknown, but as I passed the sign announcing the start of the highway, a Google Maps Camera Car drove past heading away from me into Stratford – and so it would seem SH43 is forgotten no more.

The highway is marked by a series of saddles with names like Strathmore and Tahora, passes that lead me up gentle slopes through the mountains of the Tararua Range. The land seems remarkably Tuscan, undulating hills of dark golden brush and rows of cypress trees that stand like sentinels. There’s a mystique to the iconic Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach, but these are different – tall, towering over forty meters, and thin, their rounded scruffy leaves looking like the mark of quick, thick brushstrokes, going up, up, up in the wind. It’s all bush in these parts, civilization hours and a world away, with only the remains of a few villages and an old flour mill to remind you of the settlements that once were.

That, and the village of Whangamomona, population – at last count – thirty-three. Like so many small towns, there wasn’t much to Whanga on first approach, nothing but a few heritage buildings and a large, two-story hotel, but there’s more than meets the eye to this quiet town. In 1989, a series of reforms changed the way local government looked in New Zealand, streamlining over 700 ad-hoc committees into sixteen new regional councils. As a part of this process, Whangamomona was shifted from the Taranaki Region to the Manawatu-Wanganui Region. This didn’t sit well with the locals.

I didn’t get it first. It wasn’t as if the town was suddenly being governed by far-removed English officials…or God forbid – Australians, from just across the Tasman. Yet the regional council is apparently the top-tier of local government in New Zealand and seemingly equivalent to the role of state government in the US. I suppose in that light, it’s as if an unassuming town near the border of Wisconsin – say, Dickeyville or Cuba City – suddenly found itself shifted to Illinois or, worse yet, Iowa, like a seventh-round trade in the NFL draft.

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.

hoping for curious looks from the UK border control on this one...

“It’s quiet,” I comment, taking in how the dark green ceiling and floor of the same color make the large room seem small, confining. Advertisements for Tui, a New Zealand-brewed beer with blue-collar branding, are hung next to wall-mounted antlers. The place seems cluttered and dark.

“Won’t be later.” Touché.

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,

It’s stuck out in the hills

Of Eastern Taranaki.

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 GrowthPopular 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.

I pass through tunnels and past a turn-off for the Bridge to Somewhere, twin to Wanganui’s Bridge to Nowhere. I leave the Manawatu-Wanganui District and all of its bureaucratic bumbling and enter the Ruapehu District, land of the Sacred Peaks – three of New Zealand’s active volcanoes. Like the trains that used to run through the region, credited for connecting the burgeoning settlements to the rest of the country, I keep moving, rolling through the green-brown hills, ridges that fold into each other like coils on a zipper and stretch out as far as the eye can see, punctuated by a single bush here or there. The landscape isn’t striking, but its melancholy leaves you quietly impressed. At Nevin’s Lookout, I write in my notebook, the hills have endured.

Nine hours after leaving New Plymouth, I arrive in Waitomo – again, unsure of how a supposed four-hour drive more than doubled itself throughout the day. As if hands keep reaching down and stretching the road out beneath my very feet, I am learning to kiss ETAs goodbye and get used to saying, “I’ll get there when I get there.” A sign for the Waitomo District invites those passing through to “See what you’re missing.”

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do…

highway inspiration.


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