Lost in time

23:52, Mar 13 2009
Ian Kjestrup, first president of the republic.

All roads lead to the pub. All two of them. Passing tourists stop for a break, locals gather to catch up and the Republic Committee holds its meetings in the dining room.

Its Whanga burgers are legendary.

Outside the Whangamomona Hotel, a farm bike pulling five dogs on a trailer is parked haphazardly. A group of people who have just finished weeding a steep bank across from the pub are standing under the verandah of the hotel chatting.

Serving President Murt Kennard at border control, wearing the chains of office.

No one rushes in Whangamomona. No one is in a hurry.

The little village has a population of about 40 and 150 people live in the surrounding district. Today, the 20th anniversary of becoming a republic, the population of Whangamomona is expected to swell to around 5000.

Hopefully, they won't all arrive at once. The village is not a big place. Anyone with a good arm could throw a stone from end to end.

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The revolution, 20 years ago, started of course in the pub.

Some locals were sitting having a few cold ones and discussing the events that had befallen them. Someone, miles away in a stuffy office and probably wearing a suit, had drawn a line on a map.

As a result, Whangamomona was to be ripped out of the heart of Taranaki to come under the Manawatu-Wanganui regional council.

And the good people of Whangamomona weren't happy.

So, as the men drank, an idea was born: they would declare Whangamomona independent. A poem was written for the occasion: Stuff the Manawatu. At early Republic Day celebrations, the crowd collectively booed Manawatu. The ritual has been dropped over the years, but ask any locals about Horizons and they don't hold back.

"Useless pack of bastards" pretty well sums it up. The council's One Plan is a "scary document" for those looking at their farm as a business. They never see hide nor hair of the council, except the rates bill. Publican Penny Taylor says she rang Horizons about a transport levy on her rates.

She was told it was for the pollution that the bus service causes ...

"I said, Do you know where we are? She had no idea. What are we actually paying them for? That got my back up. We're not getting anything for it."

Mrs Taylor and husband Geoff have owned the Whangamomona Hotel for 18 months. They are newbies, incomers in a district where people can track their families back four or five generations.

But people made them welcome. The locals are down to earth, there's no pretence, no keeping up with the Joneses. People are very real, the Taylors say.

"It's small town New Zealand at its best and worst. Everybody knows everybody else, they talk through their teeth about each other and when the chips are down, they all pitch in," Mr Taylor says.

What is happening across the road is a classic example, he says. About 30 people have been out weeding the bank so it will look good for Republic Day.

People in Whanga aren't interested in flash clothes, the right address, the right schools.

"They are really more interested here if are you are honest, hard working, prepared to lend a hand, be part of the community."

And there are some real characters around, which is part of its charm.

"It's a very special place."

A hundred years ago, Whangamomona was also a happening place. The street is now lined with derelict buildings and heritage notices, but at one time, the local grocer employed 23 people. There was a baker its oven the best of its type a billiards saloon, crockery shop, hairdresser and drapery, to name a few of the thriving businesses. The store closed in 1967, the butcher's shop in 1970 and the post office in 1988.

The first pub was built in 1901. It burnt down in 1905. The current hotel was built a few years later. The walls are lined with history: photos of early Whangamomona, photos of the district's rugby teams from 1906 and a special corner for the history of the republic.

There is a legend about one of the bedrooms called the Cork Room. A cork on a string supposedly hung down into the bar from a wire in the mattress, Mr Taylor says.

"If you were here and had that suite, all the locals would wait in the bar until you went to bed ... and they would wait and see what sort of action took place. Then they would cheer and laugh and carry on and sometimes the people would actually come down to see what the party was about."

He wouldn't confirm or deny the tale ...

Then there is the origin of a very large fur skin on the wall behind the bar. A notice under the skin says it was the largest possum ever seen in the region and was caught in the 1930s.

But maybe it's the skin of another type of Aussie import, pub regular Johnny Poutu says, conspiratorially.

Mr Poutu lives over the road, behind the old bank where the republic's president lives. He sits in his usual spot at the corner of the bar, where he meets people from all over the world, he says.

A small, quietly spoken gentleman, Mr Poutu has lived in Whangamomona for more than 20 years. But he first came to town, to play rugby, in 1947. The game always ended in the pub, and if the boys missed the 9pm train, they were stuck there for a week. A young Mr Poutu can be found in the sub-districts rugby team photo from the mid-1950s hanging on the pub wall. A recent photo of Mr Poutu hangs in the Local Celebrities corner, labelled storyteller.

He used to be a miner at Ohurua and Puketihi farther north along the Forgotten World Highway. During the 1951 waterfront strike, the miners went out in sympathy 151 working days without pay. It was a hard time. And he had a wife and baby. It was a good life, being a miner, but it couldn't last. He knew the mines would be closed, so he didn't want his sons to follow in his footsteps, he says. He shipped them off to the Navy.

One of them, Lew, now lives up the road. Whangamomona is a good place to retire, he says: "Relax, do what you want in your own time, no hassles, no rush."

Today he will be in his seat at the bar, by the window, watching the fun.

"They are an an independent lot out here. I take my hat off to the locals for standing their ground about the republic."

His goat, Gumboots, was the republic's second president.

Gumboots was officially known as Billy Goat or Bill Lee, depending on who is telling the story. Legend has it Mr Goat won by a landslide after he ate his rival's voting papers.

Sadly, Gumboots died in office. Mr Poutu wrote an epitaph for him, which is on the wall in the pub. It says as well as being president, Gumboots had other jobs such as weed eater, fertiliser distributor and as a more-than-efficient lawnmower.

Following Billy Goat into office was Tai, the black toy poodle. He entered as a joke, but then won. Tai retired after an assassination attempt by another dog in the main street and concerns were held for his safety. Tai was owned by Mr Poutu's son Lew.

The first to preside over the new republic was farmer Ian Kjestrup.

His inauguration throne was a bale of hay.

Mr Kjestrup has some dust-covered bottles of DB lined up on his kitchen table. They all have different labels, representing different republic day celebrations.

He is out of it now, he says. He was prez for 10 years and he's done his bit. He reckons he spent about $10,000 of his own money promoting the republic. He got his picture in magazines and newspapers all over New Zealand and across the ditch.

People from all over the country wrote to him telling him about their connection to and memories of the district.

Whangamomona was being pushed into Palmerston North and had no say about it, he says.

"We rebelled against it. Bugger them."

Twenty years later, nothing has changed.

"Horizons do nothing for us. We don't see them."

It's a sentiment echoed by current president Murt Kennard.

``We get bugger all for what we pay.''

Mr Kennard put his hat in the ring four years ago, following the nomination of a cross-dresser. He didn't want him/her to win.

There are rumours a woman will stand against him today, but he is not bothered. He'd like to keep his job, though. It's fun and he's getting better at it. Talking to the media used to be really nerve-wracking, he says.

Mr Kennard doesn't know how his inauguration will hold up compared to the other one in the news this week, but didn't think he would be able to get The Boss to come to Whangamomona.

He is wearing an  I've Done the Forgotten World Highway T-shirt, black jeans and boots with the laces undone. To become presidential for the photos, all he needs to do is put on his black felt hat and the chains of office. The chains are made up of thick chain, like the type on a farm gate, sheep docking rings, beer can tabs and pig tusks. It's heavy.

How much longer he gets to wear it will depend on what happens today.

Anyone with a Republic of Whangamomona passport can vote in the election. Everyone attending the Republic Day celebrations has to buy a passport at border control  a long drop  or get an old passport stamped.

Mark Coplestone is emcee. He has to talk all day, he says. And he can't swear. Not even once. He shakes his head. It will be very difficult. But, if he gets stuck for something to say, he will just nod to the singer up on the verandah of the pub to start singing.

Seats on excursion trains from north and south are sold out. The two trains will bring in a total of 950 passengers.

Republic Committee boss Shona Gower has been in the district for more than 20 years. Her children are fifth generation through their father's side. The republic used to celebrate every year, but a few  years ago changed it to every two years. And it was changed from October to January, partly because of the weather and partly because the locals are too busy in October lambing, calving, docking.

The theme for today is a garden party and everyone is asked to dress up, she says. 

The committee members meet in the pub. They are interrupted by a phone call asking if the possum skinning is a competition. It isn't. It's a demonstration.

Parking needs to be sorted out, as does where the more than 50 stalls will fit. It is decided to mark where the stalls can't go and let stallholders fit themselves in.

The sheep racing is sussed, as is the chainsaw sculpture, the face painting. The Shreks are ready to be shorn and Toko fire brigade is ready to do its demo.

Eels are ready to be counted and, for those brave enough, swum with.

The Mitre 10 Strongman isn't coming. Seems he'd rather go to Christchurch to be on the What Now TV programme. 

The first Republic Day featured male cheerleaders with pom poms made out of lamb tails. They won't be making an appearance today, but there will be belly dancers.

Much discussion was had about whether there were too many ice-cream vendors. Is it possible to have too much ice cream?

The gumboot-throwing comp will have to be held later in the day, when the crowd thins out a bit and there is a bit more room.

The meeting ends with an assurance to the publicans that the hay bales and rubbish bins will be removed after the event, so bored revellers don't set fire to them, like they did last time, after the pub closed.

But this time, the pub has no intention of closing. As long as it has customers, the Whangamomona Hotel will stay open.

 

Taranaki Daily News