The forgotten world highway
A photographer’s quest to find memory and meaning on the Forgotten World Highway.
My journey began when I saw a photograph of two women laughing in front of a road sign that read ‘Forgotten World Highway’, part of a slide show played during the funeral of a dear friend. Thelma and Louise on a road trip; a reminder to enjoy the moment and the journey. It made me yearn for a road trip myself.
Three years later, I drive to Taumarunui in the central North Island, leave State Highway 4 behind and begin my journey into New Zealand’s own ‘Forgotten World’, a place that history left behind. A traffic sign warning that there’s no petrol station for the next 150 kilometres looks promising.
On the outskirts of Taumarunui, the road runs beside the Whanganui River, the original ‘highway’ into this hinterland. By 1350, the legendary Tamatea had explored the entire length of the river. His journey can be followed in the places he named: Te Punga, where he anchored; Tangahoe, where new paddles were carved; Tangarakau, where the canoe was repaired. Although strewn with rapids and strong currents, the Whanganui made the protected valleys accessible, and around 20,000 Maori settled there.
The road and the river part company before Aukopae—the Whanganui makes a sharp left turn towards one of the biggest remaining rainforests in the North Island, and the road heads into hilly farmland. After I drive over a few low passes, the landscape changes to forest and the road to gravel, the rain eases, and I find myself in Tangarakau Gorge.
Unlike the coastal regions and the river flats, this area was only sparsely populated in pre-European times, but there was an extensive network of trails that Maori used to trade coastal fish for birds and eels.
The first surveyors followed these trails when mapping out a road, among them Joshua Morgan. He became severely ill (suspected peritonitis) when surveying the gorge. I can imagine the man lying in a damp canvas shelter, delirious, knowing his chances of rescue are slim. Though his assistant dashed all the way to the coast for medicine, Morgan died on the banks of the river in 1893, aged just 35. His grave marks the place of his passing, surrounded by trees and ferns.
It’s cold and feels lonely here. I turn up the car heater and drive a few kilometres to where a tunnel cuts through the Moki Saddle. “It used to be a swine, as soon as it rained you got bogged in the car—everyone carried chains,” a heritage trail sign informs me. The tunnel, originally proposed by Morgan, was dug by hand 45 years after his death.
I drive through the 180-metre-long single-lane tunnel and re-emerge in farming country. The first settlement is Tahora.
Murray McCartie has been living here all of his 86 years and runs a small museum from the woolshed, but I wouldn’t have found it unless a neighbour had told me. There are no signs.
When I arrive, McCartie is waiting for me in the yard, a tall man with piercing blue eyes. His museum was established after he gave up farming. He began by displaying old machinery, books, photographs and anything he could find that helps make sense of the past. He opens a padlocked door and switches on the light.
“This is Ned Shewry, world champion,” he tells me, pointing to a photograph of a man wielding an axe during a wood-chopping competition.
“Ned lived just down the road in Kohuratahi, but he showed the Aussies and the Americans how to chop. He also loved his rhododendrons.”
McCartie sits down in a comfortable chair and explains how the road was built.
By the end of the 19th century, the government was dividing the region into small farm sections, and despite limited access, all of them sold. Every week, the farmers were paid a certain amount to help the road gangs to build roads. The geology of the region proved a big challenge—soft papa stone turned into mud in winter, and the deep furrows made by wagon wheels dried like concrete in summer. Laying down manuka branches was a temporary solution. For a while, papa mudstone was fired in large kilns and broken up to spread on the roads. That worked well, but it was slow and expensive.
Good-quality gravel could be brought into the region only once the railway line began operation. It was built in stages, starting at Stratford in 1902, and took 22 years to reach Tahora, then another decade to link up with the main trunk line in Okahukura near Taumarunui. The terrain was extremely difficult, requiring 24 rail tunnels and 91 bridges. In today’s money the cost would have been around $9.4 billion. Sometimes supplies were delayed and railway workers had to labour on a farm as well to earn a few eggs to keep going. The government was hopeful that large-scale coal mining would make the line viable. It didn’t.
The Tahora-Tangarakau area was busy then, with hundreds of workers and their families living there. But that situation didn’t last long. After the line was opened in 1933, the area became quiet again, until the next surge of development accompanying the installation of an electric transmission line.
After that, shops and the post office disappeared. McCartie’s neighbour, Peter Kennedy, went to the school in Tahora with 40 other students. When his son Joshua attended, the roll was just 15. The school finally closed in 2002. Kennedy bought the building and is converting it into a homestead.
Kennedy takes me up a steep hill where he is replacing a fence line. His farm has been in the family since 1906, cleared by his great-grandfather with an axe and handsaw. These days, though, he lets manuka re-establish on some of the hillsides to tap into the lucrative new honey business.
The fence nearly finished, Kennedy collects a few posts for another project. Below us, the road winds around rugged hills, and I ask him how Highway 43 became the Forgotten World Highway.
“We had a highway and nobody came. They forgot us,” he says, then suggests I ask his wife about the details.
Vanessa Kennedy talks about strategies and 10-year forecasts, drawing a bigger picture. When council boundaries were redrawn in 1989, eastern parts of Taranaki became part of Manawatu. The locals of Whangamomona were not happy with the decision and declared themselves a republic. What started out as a protest of locals to air their annoyance turned into a biennial celebration of Republic Day that has grown by the year. From a handful of people who blocked off the road and celebrated with beer and fundraising activities, the last Republic Day saw a crowd of around 6000 gather to purchase their stamped passport of the Republic of Whangamomona and join the movement.
The rebranding of Highway 43 to the Forgotten World Highway in 2002 was the second stroke of genius. Houses have been restored and turned into bed-and-breakfasts. Forgotten World Adventures offers rail tours of the mothballed Stratford–Okahukura railway line in golf carts modified to run on the tracks. The carts have proved very popular, and business has doubled every year since the venture opened in 2011.
All this activity has passed by other towns, such as Tangarakau. I can’t resist the sign at the turnoff: ‘Ghost Town’. This is where Tamatea, the traveller from Hawaiki, repaired his canoe, and where 1200 railway workers were based to complete the line to Taumarunui. Here was established a town with shops, a post office, bank and police station; a coal-fired power plant provided electricity for streetlights and every house had a light bulb.
Today, however, I can hear only a chorus of paradise shelducks, tui, finches and lambs. A buckled shipping container lies not far from the line from which it tumbled, a relic from a derailment that finally shut the line down. Sheep and cattle graze on a large flat surrounded by native bush.
There is a small campground, the barn that used to be the school, and near the former train station, another small cluster of houses. Smoke twists from the chimney of just one of them. This is what happens when history turns its back—nature moves in, and civilisation slowly corrodes away.
I press on to Whangamomona, rising over the Tahora Saddle where I can see the snow-covered volcanoes of the Central Plateau glistening in the distance. The landscape below me looks as if it belongs in a model train set, with cone-shaped hills, delicately positioned trees on sharp ridges, and a train track disappearing into tunnel entrances beneath the hills. Sheep with lambs are scattered about and every fence and tree is decorated with lichen. A small country road with white centre-lines winds through the hills, marked by periodic sheds, peeling paint.
Turning a sharp corner, I nearly drive into a small rockfall, one of countless slips after a few days of heavy rain. It jolts me back to reality.
In Marco, a brightly coloured school stands out in a landscape of fading railway buildings. The place name seems unusual, and I find out that it was named for a surveyor’s dog, which died in a fight with a boar.
Whangamomona, the ‘Capital of the Republic’, is just down the road. A dozen vintage cars are parked in front of the hotel. I order a coffee inside, and start a conversation with the bartender. After 20 years, Kevin Barrow got tired of his job in the legal world in London. He needed a change and looked for a house on Trade Me. He bought one in Whangamomona. Two previous owners of the house were Golden Kiwi lottery winners in the days before Lotto. But Barrow and his New Zealand-born wife, Vivien, see themselves as winners already they can’t believe their luck to have a small lifestyle block in Whanga’.
While Barrow is busy serving the vintage car owners, I check out the interior of the hotel. It’s decorated with historic photographs, group shots of rugby teams, newspaper clippings and images of the two local All Blacks, Jack Sullivan and Bob Scott. It’s like walking inside a Facebook timeline. Subsequent publicans have been diligently keeping the records up to date: canvas camps of settlers breaking in the land, lean men standing with their tools in a devastated landscape, well-dressed families posing in front of first homes, or first cars, a framed photograph of the last passenger train that came through in 1983, school groups on outings, the fur of the largest possum ever caught.
What is worth keeping a record of? Moments of pride and achievement, the completion of a large project, images that illustrate the end of an era. Most of all I get the feeling of a strong community spirit and a good sense of humour.
I return to the bar and sit down on a barstool in the corner near the window. Barrow brings my coffee. “This is Johnnie’s seat,” he tells me. Sure enough, about half an hour later, Johnnie arrives. He doesn’t have to order; Barrow pours a Whangamomona Pale Ale in a handle glass.
At 87, Johnnie Poutu is small in stature, but remains agile. His gnarly hands tell of hard work, but his face, partly covered by a well-trimmed beard, has remained friendly and soft. He tells me that as a young man, he walked for two days from his hometown of Aria to Ohura on the off-chance of finding work in the coal mine. He did, and worked for the next 25 years underground.
“They called me ‘Teaspoon Boy’ because I had a smaller shovel,” he says. “But I moved just as much coal as anybody else.” Poutu lives across the road from the hotel, next to ‘the president’.
When I first meet the president, he is lying beneath a pale-blue Daihatsu miniute. Grass is growing on the loading tray, but that’s not the problem. “She’s not engaging in four-wheel drive, and that’s dangerous on these hills,” he mutters into his white ZZ Top beard.
After a while, he flings himself out from under the truck and introduces himself: “Murt Kennard, president of the Republic of Whangamomona. I drew the short straw.” He points at his massive corrugated-iron workshop surrounded by spare parts: axles, motorbikes in various stages of repair, a concrete mixer, cars, a house-bus.
“Welcome to my playpen! You wouldn’t believe what comes through my doors,” he says. “Anything that breaks in the district, including motorbike riders with grazed hands and broken side mirrors because they got the wobbles in the Moki tunnel. When you ride through the Moki, you need to fix your gaze on the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Kennard is running the only garage on the Forgotten World Highway, pretty much in the middle of the 150-kilometre stretch of winding road between Taumarunui and Stratford.
He introduces me to the First Lady, Marg Kennard. She guides me through their bed-and-breakfast, M&M’s, in the original Bank of Australasia building. The bank manager’s super-sized bathtub is still in use. Murt needs to go back to his workshop. A logging truck with brake problems has pulled up.
It’s getting darker and I wander over to the hotel. A few guests are settling in for the night. Two lads from a group travelling from the Wairarapa have a smoke outside. One tries to ring his wife on the cellphone until he realises that there is no coverage. “This place is getting better and better. I don’t even have to ring my missus,” he says.
It’s misty the next morning when I make my way over the Whangamomona and Pohokura saddles through dense bush towards Stratford. The farmland becomes more gentle, the road widens and the first milk tanker overtakes me. I didn’t realise how slow I was driving—must still be on Whanga’ time. On the Strathmore Saddle, Mt Taranaki suddenly dominates the view, and I drive towards its perfect cone for the next half hour until I reach Stratford. I keep remembering a sign that I saw somewhere on the Forgotten World Highway: “Please drive with your eyes open.” Good advice when travelling in a forgotten world.