Bermuda Post

Sunday, Mar 26, 2023

New Zealand's town that needs a passport

New Zealand's town that needs a passport

Every other January, visitors flock to the quirky Republic of Whangamōmona to celebrate a place that "refused to be swallowed up".

Sometimes geographical features are named aptly, and New Zealand's Forgotten World Highway is definitely one of those.

Driving from the town of Taumarunui to Whangamōmona in Taranaki in the western part of New Zealand's North Island, makes you feel like you're winding through a part of the world that time forgot. It's a place where moas (now-extinct 8ft flightless birds) crashed clumsily through the forest and thick green vines and ferns twisted their way around ancient kauri and totara trees, the lush darkness punctuated only by magical shafts of green light stabbing through the forest canopy. The 87km road is twisted and unforgiving, but the pristine bush and scenic saddles make it worth it, as you drive towards the Republic of Whangamōmona, or "the Republic", as locals sometimes like to call it.

This tiny, remote town is well known in New Zealand as the place that refused to be swallowed up by new zoning regulations in the late '80s and consequently declared itself independent. It even has its own "passport". In fact, if you happen to turn up on Republic Day, held biennially in January, you can't actually enter the town without a one. It's obviously all a bit tongue and cheek, but it does stem back to a time when it was somewhat less of a joke – to 1989, when alterations were proposed to regional borders that would move Whangamōmona from Taranaki Province to Manawatu/Wanganui.

Gaylene Coplestone remembers it well. "David Walter was the mayor of Stratford District Council [the nearest big town] at the time. He was a good friend of ours and obviously very involved in local politics. He wasn't too pleased when they announced the borders were going to move."

The Forgotten World Highway is one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand

The story goes that Walter was at the pub with some locals who were discussing how they shouldn't just take these changes lying down, and he said, "well you're all pretty revolting, why don't you revolt?" It was a light-hearted suggestion, but it sowed the seed for a novel way to protest. "No one had any clue back then how much it would put Wanga on the map," said Coplestone.

The idea quickly gained momentum, and on 2 November 1989, The Taranaki Daily News reported, "It [Whangamōmona] declared itself independent in protest at being taken from Taranaki to form part of the new Manawatu/Wanganui region." There was a gathering of more than 400 people (a large crowd for a small, remote village) all – peacefully – showing their dissatisfaction with the government's decision to change boundaries and leaving residents dealing with a regional council they feared would not support their tiny rural town.

No one had any clue back then how much it would put Wanga on the map

And so, it began. From that gathering of 400 people, Republic Day continues to be commemorated until now, bringing in up to 5,000 people at its biggest turnout. Visitors travel from all over New Zealand to attend the quirky celebrations. Vicki Pratt knows all about it, being one of the owners of the Whangamōmona Hotel, which is the centre of all township activity.

"On any normal day there's only 120 people in the whole region; in fact, only 10 who live in the town – and most of those are my family," she laughed. "But on Republic Day we regularly have up to 2,500 people."

The event is small-town New Zealand fun at its best: sheep racing down the main street; market stalls selling arts and crafts; dog trial demos; wood chopping; gumboot throwing and eel catching. The small fee – around NZ$5 – that you pay for your passport goes directly to the upkeep of the local community.

Republic Day, held biennially in January, includes events like sheep racing down the street

To add to the festivities, a "president" is elected every Republic Day. Currently occupying the seat of power is John Herlihy, who says that he "was kind of bulldozed into it by neighbours and grandkids in 2017". He added: "It all seemed like a bit of a laugh but when it came to the day, I was nervous driving down the road in front of thousands of people."

Herlihy remains the only living current or ex-president (unless you count Pratt, who stepped in as an interim when a president died in office). Ian Kjestrup (the first elected president) and Murt Kennard (who presided from 2005-2015) have both passed away, not to mention Billy the Gumboot goat (there were rumours of poisoning) and Tai the poodle who died of old age (despite speculation of an assassination attempt by another dog). No, you don't have to be human to be president of Whangamōmona; Sherman the cockatoo, Eunice the sheep and other animals have also run for election.

It's obvious people in these parts don't take themselves too seriously. "It's all been a bit of fun," said Herlihy, "but realistically the tourism it brings does help our remote community. We make NZ$15,000 from passport sales on Republic Day and another NZ$15,000 through the year with visitors wanting to get their passports stamped." This supports the town and the wider farming community significantly, with school needs, the upkeep of the hall and the church, and sending kids off on excursions like Spirit of Adventure (a well-known New Zealand youth development course that takes place at sea).

Like most residents, Herlihy loves living in "Wanga" even though it's so far from many modern conveniences. "It's old-fashioned New Zealand at its best," he said. "A neighbour broke his arm recently, and the next thing you know there are 10 people ringing up to see what he needed a hand with, docking or shearing or whatever."

A "passport" costs NZ$5, and visitors need one to enter the town on Republic Day

Pratt agreed. "When you live somewhere like this you have to help each other. It's not out of the ordinary to drive half an hour to take petrol to someone who has run out on the Forgotten World Highway. It's so remote, and because of that you need to care for others – as well as be resourceful and resilient. There's no doctor, dentist, rubbish collections; we're an hour from the nearest town. We are strong Taranaki people and it's not really surprising we became a republic; we were already kind of independent."

This is a sentiment echoed by the current mayor of Stratford. "The declaration of independence was initially a protest and a bit of a middle finger to authorities," said Neil Volzke. "But it has grown way beyond that now. It really shows the true Kiwi spirit of innovation and independent thinking still exists, and that small places like Whangamōmona have a really strong sense of community. I think mocking the authorities comes as a bonus – you've got to love it!"

We are strong Taranaki people and it's not really surprising we became a republic; we were already kind of independent

This spirit can't be denied. New Zealanders have a history of paving their own way, even when it goes against the general flow – like the alternative style of boat building that finally lead them to victory in the 1995 America's Cup or the anti-nuclear stance of the 1980s that saw international nuclear-armed ships banned from their shores. This little town lost in some of the North Island's most primeval landscapes is the living embodiment of "sticking it to the man" when it's necessary.

And while it wasn't the original intent, it hasn't harmed that a bit of fame and some tourist dollars have come as part of the independence package.

Whangamōmona declared itself independent in 1989 in response to new zoning regulations


Related Articles

Bermuda Post
In a dramatic U-turn against His Government: Judicial Overhaul Legislation Must Be Halted, Says Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant
Powell: Silicon Valley Bank was an 'outlier'
Donald Trump arrested – Twitter goes wild with doctored pictures
NYPD is setting up barricades outside Manhattan Criminal Court ahead of Trump arrest.
Credit Suisse's Scandalous History Resulted in an Obvious Collapse - It's time for regulators who fail to do their job to be held accountable and serve as an example by being behind bars.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman tours potential migrant housing in Rwanda as asylum deal remains mired in legal challenges
Paris Rioting vs Macron anti democratic law
'Sexual Fantasy' Assignment At US School Outrages Parents
Credit Suisse to borrow $54 billion from Swiss central bank
Russian Hackers Preparing New Cyber Assault Against Ukraine
Jeremy Hunt insists his Budget will get young parents and over-50s back into work
If this was in Tehran, Moscow or Hong Kong
Nashville police officer, and a female driver shooting one another
TRUMP: "Standing before you today, I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent World War III."
Mexican President Claims Mexico is Safer than the U.S.
A brief banking situation report
Lady bites police officer and gets instantly reaction
We are witnessing widespread bank fails and the president just gave a 5 min speech then walked off camera.
Donald Trump's asked by Tucker Carlson question on if the U.S. should support regime change in Russia?.
'No relation to the American SVB': India's SVC Bank acts to calm depositors amid brand name confusion.
Good news: The U.S. government is now guaranteeing all deposits, held by, Silicon Valley Bank, and the funds are available as of today
Silicon Valley Bank exec was Lehman Brothers CFO
In a potential last-ditch effort, HSBC is considering a rescue deal to save Silicon Valley Bank UK from insolvency
BBC Director General, Tim Davie, has apologized, but not resigned, yet, following the disruption of sports programmes over the weekend
Elon Musk Is Planning To Build A Town In Texas For His Employees
The Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse effect is spreading around the world, affecting startup companies across the globe
City officials in Berlin announced on Thursday that all swimmers at public pools will soon be allowed to swim topless
Fitness scam
Market Chaos as USDC Loses Peg to USD after $3.3 Billion Reserves Held by Silicon Valley Bank Closed.
A primitive judge in Australia sparked outrage when he told a breastfeeding woman to leave his courtroom for being “a distraction"
Barcelona is feeling the heat as they face corruption charges over payments to former vice-president of Spain's referees' committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira
Senator Tom Cotton: If the Mexican Government Won’t Stop Cartels from Killing Americans, Then U.S. Government Should
Banking regulators close SVB, the largest bank failure since the financial crisis
The unelected UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, an immigrant himself, defends new controversial crackdown on illegal migration
Old clip of Bill Gates saying Ukraine is a big, fat, corrupt sinkhole is going viral
Man’s penis amputated by mistake after he’s wrongly diagnosed with a tumour
In a major snub to Downing Street's Silicon Valley dreams, UK chip giant Arm has dealt a serious blow to the government's economic strategy by opting for a US listing
How do stolen goods end up on Amazon, eBay and Facebook Marketplace?
It's the question on everyone's lips: could a four-day workweek be the future of employment?
Is Gold the Ultimate Safe Haven Asset in Times of Uncertainty?
Spain officials quit over trains that were too wide for tunnels...
Don Lemon, a CNN anchor, has provided a list of five areas that he believes the black community needs to address.
Hello. Here is our news digest from London.
Corruption and Influence Buying Uncovered in International Mainstream Media: Investigation Reveals Growing Disinformation Mercenaries
Givenchy Store in New York Robbed of $50,000 in Merchandise
European MP Clare Daly condemns US attack on Nord Stream
Former U.S. President Carter will spend his remaining time at home and receive hospice care instead of medication
Tucker Carlson called Trump a 'demonic force'
US Joins 15 NATO Nations in Largest Space Data Collection Initiative in History
White House: No ETs over the United States