Topic: Whangamomona celebrates by Jonnie Rutherford

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Whangamomona celebrates by Jonnie Rutherford is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

 Archived version here.

Leaving home early as the soft light illuminates the eastern slopes of Mount Taranaki and the mist retreats before the rose-tinted rays of dawn, I wend my way across valleys, snake around hills and ascend rugged ranges before dropping down to the border post.

Journeying along ‘the Unknown Highway’ presents challenges for the motorist - State Highway 43 linking Stratford with Taranaki.

Surmounting the Whangamomona saddle, the last difficulty before the demarcation line that separates the Republic of Whangamomona from the districts of Whanganui-Rangitikei, I pat my pocket for the umpteenth time, reassuring myself my passport is still safely tucked away. To be turned back at the border simply because my passport is lying on the dining room table would be most disappointing.

I reach the boundary and the guards scrutinise the document. Finding no anomalies, they stamp it and I am allowed to drive on. Already the crowds are starting to arrive and a number of events are underway, the pavements lined with stalls.

Whangamomona was annexed to the province of Taranaki when the powers-that-be, in their wisdom, determined to rezone the districts, placing Whangamomona into Whanganui-Rangitikei. The local population objected to the rezoning plan, which gave rise to the Republic of Whangamomona as a statement of disapproval, remembered and celebrated annually with a Republic Day.

The town moves at a leisurely place for most of the year. Once a thriving business centre with post office, garage, school, shops and hotel servicing a sparse population, most of the business have now closed along with the school. Providing accommodation for the occasional tourist - there is also a small motor camp - the pub is still the hub of social life for the local community.

Parking the car in a paddock where sheep recently grazed, I wander across to watch the wood chopping.

The handicapper is counting down. Axes gleam in the sunlight as the men wait for the handicap times to be called. The reigning champion of the standing log event is the last to start. Wood chips fly as he races to catch his rivals. Blow for blow at the turn and excitement ripples through the crowd as it senses a tight finish. The champion is a cut ahead and then his main rival, with an almighty swing, cuts his log through and the champion is topped. Cheers erupt.

A long, tuneful whistle hangs upon the air as the excursion train from Auckland rumbles into the station. People hurry along, eager to witness the pomp and ceremony that accompanies this arrival. Smoothing their kilts, adjusting their berets and inflating their bagpipes, a pipe band forms up, ready to lead the guests into town.

Resplendent in traditional costume the town crier rings his bell, calls out, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” The pipe major gives a command and to the skirl of the bagpipes playing The Hundred Pipers the procession moves down the main street. The crowd sing along, clapping and toe-tapping in time to the music.

Savoury odours waft through the air and I realise a few hours have passed since breakfast. Seeking the source I find among the barbecued sausages wild venison steaks that look absolutely delicious, so delicious I ate another, topping off my snack with homemade berry ice cream.

Other folk were enjoying the scrumptious food available and, talking with another couple, first-timers to the Republic Day, I learned they were also thoroughly enjoying the festivities. The wood chopping was the most exciting and they laughed themselves silly watching the pig races. In the sows’ race they placed a bet on the favourite, but ‘Grunt’ was beaten by a snout.

A sharp crack made us jump as the town crier proclaimed, “The stock whip programme is commencing.”

Excusing myself, I made my way across to an area set well away from the main flow of traffic and ringed by a hessian fence to keep the public at a safe distance.

Both men and women participate and their skills are astonishing. In the masters’ class, eight beer cans are placed side by side with only the slightest of space between each. The competitor is required to strike every can down without the other cans falling.

A number of competitions, including this, had junior sections. The youngsters, according to age, had to strike the ground as hard as possible so as to produce the loudest sound. Extremely popular with the boys!

Leaving all the action, I browsed among the stalls. No designer labels or commercial price tickets to be seen; instead there were beautifully hand-knitted garments. Fine layettes for the newborn, spun and knitted from the Merinos that graze the surrounding hills. Walking sticks with exquisitely carved handles crafted from the lancewoods growing among the bush on the stations. A coffee table turned from a fallen totara. Produce from the farms made into jams, chutney and pickles.

The cooks in the community had also been busy with an abundance of baking that includes Christmas cakes for sale, iced or un-iced. The gardener had not been forgotten either, with plenty of plants from large trees to small alpines available for purchase.

The variety of goods was amazing; all locally produced.

Soaking up the sunshine the day is pleasantly warm with no wind. Partaking of the region’s cider and home baking, I observe the crowds, colourful in bright summer clothes, sunhats and sunglasses. The children frantically lick ice creams before they melt. Women chat with each other over which frock or garment to buy. The men appear far more serious, maybe discussing the price of will if farmers, or, if townies, whether the rates will rise next year.

Lining up at one end of the street young men prepare to do battle with wool bales. They have to roll the bales the length of the street avoiding knocking over any of the stalls. As an encouragement a crate of beer is up for grabs, going not necessarily to the man who crosses the finish line first, but to the person completing the race without dismantling the stands on the way.

Amid yells of encouragement, gasps and profanities, the race gets underway. One fellow appears to have the knack of controlling bale until a heavier push sees it rolling towards the cake stall. People rush to stop the tables collapsing. A square wool bale is not, after all, easily controlled, having a mind of its own. Amongst the hilarity a winner emerges.

The sheep races are coming up. Exuberant children milling around a start line while adults are desperately trying to catch enough sheep. As a sheep is caught and held a child jumps on its back. When all are mounted the starter calls down to the start. One, two, three go! And they are off, the young jockeys hanging on grimly.

Jumping up and down with the thrill of the race I add my voice to the mayhem. “Come on, come on, Jumper. That’s it! Keep going. Watch out! Cardigan is on your rump. Doing well. Whoops!” Button moves up on the inside, jostling for the finish line. There is nothing in it, all agree; it was a dead heat.

Not that it matters. Everyone is a winner - no losers today. Great fun!

The day’s activities are drawing to a close, but the festivities carry on through the evening. I join folk wandering over the hotel for happy hour, which is followed by dinner at Whangamomona station.

After partaking of a sumptuous repast I go across to the woolshed, the venue for the good old-fashioned barn dance.

I enjoy the dances and listening to the music. All too soon the clock chimes midnight and the band plays Auld Lang Syne, bringing to a close the Republic of Whangamomona celebrations.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/Z6Q3-CXCT

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