The one-lane Moki tunnel on the Forgotten World Highway. © Arno Gasteiger

The Forgotten World Highway

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Here’s a word to the wise: if your fuel gauge is anywhere below halfway by the time you reach Stratford, give serious thought to filling up.

And if you’re still thinking by the time you reach Toko: stop. Toko is the last sniff of gas you’ll get on State Highway 43 until you reach Taumaranui, 150 kilometres distant. After all, it’s not called the Forgotten World Highway for nothing: it’s not as though there’s traffic jams or anything.

What there are, instead, are the remnants of several settlements and townships that had their day in the sun along here while the Stratford–Ōkahukura line was being built. Long since abandoned, these are but sites of historic interest on the map of New Zealand’s first heritage trail today.

The road took 50 years to complete from the day it was begun until the day it was opened in 1945.

There’s some extraordinary scenery along here – some of the most unspoiled bush to be seen on any New Zealand roadside, the sheer walls of the Tarangakau Gorge, soaring to 500 metres on either side, to say nothing of the peaks of Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro floating intermittently into view.

There’s the 180-metre-long, single-lane Moki tunnel, and a short side-trip and a brisk walk will bring you to the lovely Mount Dampier falls.

Around the halfway mark, you’ll haul into Whangamōmona. Overseas visitors to New Zealand often cherish its left-behind feel, but even the most dedicated nostalgia-hunter might think Whangamōmona has taken this to extremes. It’s hardly changed since the 1920s, and its residents have made a virtue of necessity. Whangamōmona is one of the North Island’s remotest townships – so remote, in fact, that the townspeople declared it a republic in 1988.

The people of the district still celebrate Republic Day every year, with a festival involving a kind of rustic Olympics of gumboot-throwing, possum skinning, whip-cracking and a Wild West shootout. To take part, and to be sure they’ll let you through town unmolested, you’ll need to apply for a passport, which you can do at the New Zealand embassy, alias ‘The Whanga’, the Whangamōmona tavern.

It’s a trip back in time.

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