Published: September 23rd 2009
June 30th 2009
(N) Just as should happen in the UK, there is a public holiday in New Zealand to celebrate our Queen’s Birthday. To make the most of this extra day of freedom, we decided to travel the approx 300km down the western side of the North Island to New Plymouth
, the nearest town to the volcano named Mount Taranaki
. It was not just the volcano that interested us, but also the nearby micronation of Whangamomona (pron. “Funga-mo-mona”) that we would pass through on the way.
It was good weather as we left Auckland but shortly afterwards the heavens opened and it was like that for the whole day; just cloudy grey skies as far as could be seen in every direction, so we knew it wasn’t going to change anytime soon. For several hours we drove south, through open countryside and plenty of small villages, but it wasn’t until the early afternoon that we reached a part of the country that we had not been to before: State Highway 43, also known as the Forgotten World Highway
We don’t know exactly why it got the name but it was not much more than a single lane road winding its way
for around 150km, taking us from the centre of the North Island to the western knuckle, where Mt Taranaki sits, the dormant (since 1755) volcanic centrepiece of Egmont National Park.
The Highway started impressively, passing through the ultra-scenic Tangarakau Gorge, beneath the towering Herlihy’s Bluffs, 1,300m-thick layers of sandstone, which needless to say made road-building in the old days a challenge. The rock dates back up to 25 million years, when this part of NZ was still on the seabed. Facts like that are difficult to get your ahead around. Anyway, the road was only a single lane through this thick podocarp (conifer) forest, so we had to pass oncoming traffic carefully (not that there was much!), and even that single lane was sometimes mostly taken up by fallen rocks. Most of it was a sealed highway but not all, and the road edges quickly became grass, then bush. The rain continued to fall, much to the delight (we supposed) of the extremely green ferns and other plants, and the whole view could be summed up in one word: sodden.
There is a quicker way to New Plymouth, but that would have altogether avoided the Forgotten World Highway
and, more specifically, the Republic of Whangamomona
. Founded in 1895 as a small town to service the farmers trying to make a living from the surrounding bushlands, it reached a maximum population of 300. But it fell into decline from the 1960s, and the defining moment came in 1989 when the local council tried to move the town into a different county for administrative purposes. This would mean playing rugby for a different area, and, for Whangamomona, that was something up with which it would not put. As a result, the tiny village (now with a population of just 30 souls) declared itself independent from the rest of NZ, erecting a small barrier at the entrance to the town.
I had actually read about this place in my Wanderlust magazine back in the UK a few years ago. The President of Whangamomona, a man called Murt, also had a more mundane job running a café opposite the iconic Whangamomona Hotel. I had saved the travel article and was really looking forward to seeing the location. When we arrived, it was pretty clear that Whangamomona was little more than a ghost town: the old butcher, general store and post office
were long-closed and simply had heritage plaques on them. Murt’s café was also gone; he is still mayor but now works in construction. Fortunately, the Whangamomona Hotel was still standing and in great condition, being one of the few places on the Forgotten World Highway where travellers can get a beer and a good meal. It’s almost 100 years old with a dubious history, having burned down a couple of times and reputedly once been sold in a deal which included somebody’s wife. But in the present times you are able to order a Whanga-burger and Whanga beer, so we did.
Inside, the walls were decorated with newspaper articles about the history of the republic, alongside posters about a wild boar competition happening this weekend: awards for the heaviest boar, best tusks etc., with prizes of a few hundred dollars…and a .22 calibre rifle! And the kids were not left out: those under 15 years of age could enter the Juniors competition, where they had to hunt and bring all three of the following animals: a rabbit, an eel and a possum. The winner would be the boy or girl whose 3 creatures had the greatest combined weight -
plus free soft drinks and chips for all entrants!
All too soon, we left the republic and headed back into NZ for the remaining drive to New Plymouth. We awoke to a beautiful morning and thought we were set for a fine day’s walking in the Mount Egmont (as Taranaki was formerly known) National Park. The Mount itself is almost a perfect circle (only Mount Fuji is more perfect), as is visible from overhead if you are flying, say, between Auckland and Wellington or Christchurch.
Before setting out that morning, we chucked some food to the eels in the small stream that winds its way through the bottom of the hostel
garden. But as soon as we drove away, ominous grey clouds appeared on the horizon. Our first stop was Lake Mangamahoe
, where you can sometimes see Mount Taranaki reflected - not with today’s conditions, however, but the resident black swans with red beaks looked very exotic. We headed to the small base of North Egmont
, 20 km away on the north-east side of the Mount, to pick up some maps from the visitor centre. After a while the ‘Ice Hazard’ warning light appeared on the car’s
Snow dusts the palm fronds
On the way up to North Egmont, Taranaki region
dashboard, but we rubbished it - not possible, it had been warm and rainy just before. But sure enough, as the curvy road continued to climb upwards, the rain quickly became sleet, then snow, leaving a white dusting on the ferns at the roadside. Then it got scary as the snow became a couple of inches thick and the tyres began to skid and lose their grip. It was too slippery & narrow to try and turn around, so we pushed on and fortunately came to the visitor centre, at 940m above sea level, whose advice was to turn back straight away before we got snowed in! Fortunately we were right behind a 4x4 and could follow its tracks to the lower altitude, where we experienced the reverse climatic changes: snow became slush, which in turn became rain; so there was a very specific altitude where rain became snow, and we had not seen anything like it before. Later, we learned that the road became fully snowed in and shut completely around midday.
Our next plan was to go to Dawsons Falls
, a picturesque spot on the south-east of the Mount that we’d heard good things about. But exactly
Cape Egmont Lighthouse
Taranaki region, North Island
the same thing happened! As we drove up the higher ground and the snow became evident, we decided to turn around, a mere 1km away from the Falls because the snow made gripping the road very difficult. How frustrating...!
So we decided to spend the day driving, just making a wet circuit of the base of the volcano. The roads and lanes took us deep into dairy country, with plenty of rolling green fields and cows looking unphased by the deluge. At the end of many farm’s driveways we saw tall, thin poles with numbers on a plaque at the top, which looked like race numbers (see photo) but they were in fact showing that each one was one of many suppliers to the huge dairy company Fonterra, which represents 25% of NZ’s total exports (or something).
In fact, it was quite sad to see some places like Eltham* which had clearly been a thriving centre, but which were now dominated by a milk plant, surrounded by boarded-up shops, closed hotels and unused grand buildings.
On the western side of the Mount was Cape Egmont Lighthouse
, an iron lighthouse that seemed to inhabit a pocket of land
with a separate climate, being sunny (and not raining), unlike everywhere else. The wind was still howling, however, and the waves crashed and frothed below us with lots of energy.
Our final stop of the day was on the north-west of the Mount, at the Puniho Track
, which is a starting point for a 6-8 hour walk; but not for us, because it was so late in the afternoon. We only managed 90 minutes but it was still interesting, through a narrow track past lots of…trees, plants and shrubs. Imagine a leafy path in the forest with vegetation of all shapes and sizes. It was very muddy and all the trunks and branches were covered in moss, in fact everything here too was sodden. It was the adjective of the weekend up to that point. There was a lookout, over a ravine, towards a mid-distance mountain range from a cliff-point on our walk, which just reinforced the extraordinary scale of NZ scenery.
That evening, the lady running the youth hostel had baked ‘Egmont Cake’, a delicious moist brown sponge with loads of icing on the top that Paula realised resembled snow atop the real Mt Egmont / Taranaki
just down the road. Despite two nights in the vicinity, we still had not glimpsed its peak (the mountain, not the cake). We were really hoping the next day, when we had to return to Auckland, it would not be so shy.
The following morning we got up early to have a better chance of seeing the volcano before the clouds descended. We were not disappointed; as daylight broke, we could see its peak piercing into the sky (You can see Paula’s video of this at the top of the blog). We tried to go to North Egmont again, but it was still snowed in; we met a ranger who said that it was 20 years since snow had been down to this level so early into winter. We spent some time in the town of New Plymouth, visiting the old church of St Mary's, which had gravestones upon which were chiselled poignant tributes to townsfolk killed by Maori rebels, as there had been a lot of fighting over land in this part of the country. We also went to the great Taranaki Museum (Puke Ariki
) to see some of the region’s history and got a big surprise when
we came out: instead of being covered in its habitual afternoon cloud, the volcano peak was as clear as it could be and it was an awesome sight. It’s the tallest volcano in NZ (at 2,518m above sea level) and looked majestic (it is dormant not extinct!)
On the way back from the Taranaki region, there was one last hurrah, in the form of Mike’s Organic Brewery
. After tasting their lager and the darker mild ale, we bought a couple of drinks with which we could sit in their garden and wash down our picnic, plus a 2-litre flagon to savour when sister Alex and husband Cev came to visit us from Sydney a few weeks later.
The latter half of June was mainly spent packing up and out of our Auckland abode, ready for a few weeks on the road to complete our tiki tour of NZ. One morning when I awoke and looked out the window I was greeted with an unusual sight - as dawn threw a pinkish hue onto the buildings below, a wide band of cloud had settled extremely low; in between the water and the top of the Waitakere
My last day at work happened to coincide with the Langham
hotels across the globe all offering Afternoon Tea
at the original price (back in the 1840s) of the equivalent of 20 cents! Sharelle and I enjoyed an afternoon of dressing up and generally acting as “Ladies who Lunch”.
Nick’s sister Alex and husband Cevan hopped “across the ditch” from OZ to us for a weekend, feeling it would be rude not to perform a Bungy Jump
during their stay (the true rite of passage for any hardcore tourist to New Zealand). Not that we didn’t
want to do one ourselves until then, you understand(!), it’s just that it wasn’t high on our list of our ‘must dos’. Consequently, no sooner had Alex & Cev touched down than we were driving them straight to Auckland Harbour Bridge
, where the deed was done by each of us (see separate blog entry ‘Bungy From Auckland Harbour Bridge’). Mustering the courage to step out to a 40 metre plunge downwards may sound brave to some, but extreme NZ visitors know that Auckland’s bungy is a baby compared to the 147 metre-plunge over the Nevis river near Queenstown, offering a
Trying to intimidate the enemy
Te Puia cultural centre, Rotorua
full 8 seconds of free-fall. (NO. THANK. YOU.) But still, the phrase of the weekend became “I can’t believe
we did it!”
Continuing to entertain our guests on a similar vein for the remainder of their trip was a challenge, but we did our utmost. The following morning, after a quick stop at the top of Mount Eden volcano, the highest point in Auckland, to catch a view of the city's expanse, we chugged south west to Rotorua
and its surrounds, an area renowned for its geothermal activity, resulting in frequent wafts of sulphur (or bad eggs) in the air, steam rising from the ground due to the earth’s heat and naturally spouting hot water geysers. We stayed in a great place called Victoria Lodge
where our rooms had a small but high-sided outdoor walled patio which also served as a natural bath: simply turn on the tap and fill using the hot water from the ground (it was so hot that we had to add cold
water to cool it down to a comfortable temperature!)
The first evening we received a traditional welcome at Te Puia
cultural centre, where we saw a Maori cultural performance
Orakei Korako, Rotorua
dancing and singing, followed by eating a traditional Maori hongi
meal (where food is placed in a hole the ground and cooks from the earth’s heat). To finish off, we went outside and sat on toasty rocks (again naturally hot from the geothermal heat) whilst hearing about the geysers that were spouting high into the air within a stone’s throw of us.
The next day we headed out to the Hidden Valley
of Orakei Korako
, the Lonely Planet travel guide describes it as “possible the best thermal area left in NZ and one of the finest in the world”
. Highlights were the bubbling mud pools, Artist’s Palette and a white silica terrace named “The Golden Fleece”.
Last stop was for a sunset plunge into the mud pools
at Hells Gate Waiora Spa
. About 10,000 years ago a series of violent hydrothermal eruptions occurred creating the many hot pools and other geothermal features seen today. This thermal park’s website says explains the name ‘Hell’s Gate' as: in the early 1900’s George Bernard Shaw, a famous playwright from England, visited the area for a week and on looking at the thermal park decided that this must be the gateway
to Hell, which his theologian colleagues talked about. Shaw was well known as an atheist; however after being here a week it is understood that he changed his views. Our people were so taken by the playwright that from that time on, they allowed the area to be known in English as 'Hell's Gate'.
Up close and muddy
Hell's Gate Waiora Spa, Rotorua
We made our return journey to Auckland via the Buried Village
, so called since the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera
, NZ’s greatest natural disaster. The explosions were heard as far away as Auckland and swallowed up 5000 square kilometres of the surrounding area, including the local Pink and White Terraces, which were considered by many to be the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ and attracted tourists back in the early 1800s from as far away as Europe.
A couple of weeks later, on a foggy winter’s day, we went for an experience ominously entitled ’Shark Survival’
at Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium
where - we were assured - the school sharks that we would swim with were well fed and would not mind us joining them in their watery home! It was an excellent day where we also saw stingrays (about 2 metres wide), tropical fish, penguins
In the water
Swimming with sharks, Kelly Tarlton's Aquarium, Auckland
As far as adventurous escapades go, it had been an eventful month. In the midst of packing up to move out, we enjoyed our final meal at home with commanding views over Auckland and wondered what July would bring…
* By the way, the Eltham Cheese Bar marked on maps is not, as its name would suggest, a place where you can get a fromage platter with beer, much to Nick’s chagrin; on arrival we discovered that it is just a bulk discount cheese shop. And closed when we got there.
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