It takes two minutes to saunter down the main street of Whangamomona.
Cross the old concrete bridge, past the Whangamomona, Established 1895, Population 40 sign with the lichen covered sheep's skull, the blue paint peeling off the old butcher's shop, the dilapidated general store, garage, the old post office and M&M's café, to the Whangamomona Hotel - and that's it.
It's not a big place. Probably the smallest Republic on earth.
Back in 1989 bureaucratic bungling saw Whangamomona realigned with Wanganui, instead of Taranaki. The locals got a bit upset. A special meeting over a few beers at the pub resulted in Whangamomona declaring itself a republic.
A presidential election
Now they celebrate their independence every second January and elect a president to guide the Republic into the future.
This year was a red letter day for Whangamomona, the first time a human has vied for the position for many years.
Past president Billy Gumboot the goat, who ate all his opposition's votes to win the 1999 election, died during active service, weed-eating on the edge of town. His gravesite is now a tourist attraction, overlooking the main street.
The grieving Whangamomona took two years to hold another republic day when Tai Poutu the poodle became the President elect.
With an astute political promotions manageress and a professional grooming company behind him Tai looked set to rule the town with his canine capers. But a failed assassination attempt left Tai, already a dog of nervous disposition, unable to cope with the strain and he retired in early 2004. He continues to receive trauma counselling.
This year there was a dearth of candidates. After all, who wanted to follow animals into power? Who wanted the worry of possible assassination attempts?
January arrived and the townspeople were getting worried.
Finally, after much cajoling, three men stepped forward.
Putting their hands up for election this year were former president and local farmer Ian (Kessie) Kjestrup, local Mr Fix It, Murt Kennard and cross dresser Bruce Collis.
Whangamomona farmer Ian Kjestrup (Kessie) had history on his side in the elections. He was one of a trio who started the Republic Day back in 1989.
"It was back when we were put into the Wanganui district. Peter Saunders, Rick Stagger and I were at the pub discussing it when we said 'Why not make ourselves a Republic?'"
Then Kessie discovered he'd been secretly nominated for president. "They wouldn't let me back out of it!"
He was duly elected and spent the next 10 years representing the district. "It was a lot of fun. I went to school break ups and bought sweets for the kids. I spoke to all sorts of people including Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and the Holmes show. It did get a bit expensive as the position is unpaid - I spent a lot of my own money."
Kessie would often ride on the excursion trains to Republic Day and join in the fun of the event. "It was great - it's all about fun."
The good natured Kessie stepped up to the nomination plate this year to help out. He immediately bribed everyone with lollies to vote for him.
He was philosophical about the results. "I don't really mind who wins. It's all a bit of fun. It can only be good for the district. You see it all in Whanga!"
Miriam takes on the blokes
Bruce, a cross dresser known as Miriam when she's in drag, raised a few eyebrows when she was nominated for president. Whangamomona is ‘blokes’ country and a guy wearing a floral frock, nail polish and earrings was a new concept for many of the locals.
"When I came here people knew me as a male and now they are getting to know another part of me. I'm no different, I'm still the same person," said Miriam.
A newcomer from Wellington, Miriam is a keen writer and gardener and the town's Avon lady.
She is keen to bring new views to the district. "I'm serious about representing Whangamomona and giving the place a fresh approach," she told local media.
Murtle the Turtle
Murt (‘after Murtle the turtle - 'cos I'm a slow bugger’) Kennard has been in the district for 13 years. He's the local Mr Fix It and works on the local roads. A keen supporter of the local netball and rugby teams, Murt is also a prop at the local bar. "The important things for a president are talking and listening to people.
"I want to beat him... her - you know Miriam!" he laughed.
Republic Day arrived and so did the heat and the crowds.
About 5,000 people came from north, east, south and west, some even arrived on trains.
They came to get their passports stamped, for the entertainment, to see a sheep being shorn, throw a gumboot or three, place a bet on the Whanga Cup, brave a bath full of eels, and sample the local fare.
But the mostly they came because of the magnetic draw of the looming Presidential election. Where else but Whanga can you vote for a president by scrawling on a piece of paper and hurling it down a dunny?
It was a last chance for the candidates to sway the voters. Miriam did her ‘first lady’ bit, meeting and greeting guests, Kessie had a bag of lollies, and Murt swigged a handle of beer, letting his offsiders do the work for him.
‘Vote for Murt not the skirt!’ shouted the placard and beer bottle waving teenagers as they roared through town.
The dunny was duly filled with paper, the votes counted and, amid cries of vote fixing, Murt Kennard was sworn in as new president.
President ‘Murtle the Turtle’
The new president's inaugural speech was succinct. Not a lot more eloquent than the goat or the poodle. Sitting on the presidential ‘throne’ (a toilet) the new president waved his beer mug and thanked his supporters.
"I would like to thank everyone for coming and making it what it was. To all my supporters - thank you all, love you heaps; love y'all."
A week later, once the effects of the celebration party have worn off, the president is a little more eloquent about his future plans for the republic.
It's not exactly a challenging task replacing a poodle and a goat.
Murt explains he's taking his time getting into the ‘feel’ of the position. "Doing lots of listening and learning."
He and wife Marg shifted out to the village for the lifestyle 13 years ago. Murt runs the local garage and works on the surrounding roads, while Marg runs a café and bed and breakfast accommodation. Whangamomona is their version of nirvana. "It takes me 30 seconds to walk to work in the mornings. Stratford's only 50 minutes away - people spend more time than that on the motorway getting to work!"
This is a man who believes in ‘Whanga time’, taking things easy and getting rid of the stress word. He's not too keen to see Whanga turn into a tourist town.
"We've got an ideal place here. We don't want the population to increase. We want the flow of people to increase, but not too much. Not tourists, we want exciting people, and not too many of those either!"
With the two unsuccessful candidates vowing to bring down the president at the next election one thing at least is guaranteed: 'you see it all in Whanga'.
First published 4 March 2005
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PLACES TO VISIT
The Forgotten World Highway takes travellers on an intriguing, history rich tour of New Zealand's Maori and colonial heritage.
Running between Stratford and Taumarunui, this 155km highway threads its way through pristine sub-tropical rainforests and past more than 30 sites of significant interest. This was the first Heritage Trail created in New Zealand, and each site is signposted and gives descriptive heritage details.
Travellers can drive the Highway in less than 3 hours, or take their time to explore such man-made treasures as riverboat landing sites, two road tunnels, villages that have retained their unique character of last century, and disused coal mines, flour mills and brick kilns.
Natural wonders include Mt Damper Falls, the highest waterfall in the North island, great stands of virgin rain-forest and spectacular saddles with panoramic views.
Travelling distance: 155kms including 11 km of unsealed road.
Travelling time: 2.5 hours by car; 3 to 3.5 hours by campervan.
Petrol / diesel: Available at Stratford and Taumarunui - so fill up at the start of the journey.
Accommodation: In both Stratford district and around Taumarunui there is a range of hotels, motels, farm stays, camping grounds, bed and breakfasts and lodges. Along the route are the Te Wera Valley Lodge, the Whangamomona Hotel, camping grounds at Tangarakau (Bushlands), Whangamomona, and self-contained units at the Kaieto Cafe (Tahora Saddle). Phone the Stratford i-site or Taumarunui Visitor Information Centre for accommodation options.
Food: Whangamomona has meals at the hotel and a cafe, there is the Kaieto Cafe also the Ohura Tearooms.
For more info contact the Stratford i-Site, 06 765 6708.