Weekly travel: New Zealand’s forgotten world highway

Sebastian van der Zwan takes in the forgotten world highway.

The Forgotten World Highway may be officially known by the slight less exotic name of State Highway 43, but this really is New Zealand’s very own land of the lost.

Connecting Stratford in Taranaki and Taumarunui in the King Country, it’s 150km of twisty, turny roads – a few stretches unpaved – winding their way through unspoilt native bush, lush farmland and small settlements. It’s a taste of Aotearoa the way it used to be.

My SH43 sampler begins in Stratford, at “highway custodians” Carol and Dave Digby’s, Stratford Heritage Lodge, a former Catholic convent complete with stained-glass windows.

The hard-case couple also run Eastern Taranaki Experience, an award-winning tour and transport company, and Carol proves a font of local knowledge and funny stories as she drives me and my mate Sara through the scenic green hill country, dotted with pretty pink foxgloves and brightly painted beehives.

After a few stops to take in stunning views, including picturesque Mt Taranaki, we pass through the historic Moki Tunnel – a 180m single-lane passage dug in the 1930s, also known as the Hobbit’s Hole – and enter the untouched rainforest of the Tangarakau Gorge, where the ancient trees wear luxuriant, Gandalf-esque beards of moss.

We stop for a cuppa by the riverside grave of 35-year-old surveyor Josh Morgan, who died here in 1893. It’s a beautiful spot in which to spend all eternity, but we’ve got sights to see. Next up is a 20-minute walk through fields of sheep to Mount Damper Falls, a spectacular 74m cascade surrounded by thick bush.

For lunch, we head to the Republic of Whangamomona, a small town that declared itself independent from New Zealand back in 1989 after a dispute over council boundaries. The pub is the republic’s headquarters and makes a delicious gurnard burger.

We also bought a local passport, which promises to give you “safe passage through the republic” and requires holders to “smile a lot and be friendly and courteous at all times”. The perfect souvenir!

That afternoon, we head to the Topless Farm in Makahu – no, not a semi-nude rural retreat, but a farm-stay owned by Sylvia and Allen Topless.

After tasting Sylvia’s homemade chutneys, jams and slices, Sara and I spend the afternoon exploring the rolling green hills of the 420ha property, then join the charming couple for some succulent home-killed beef, served with six different vegetables, plus apple cake for dessert.

It’ll be a long while after this feast that I’ll be able to take my top off in public – but totally worth it!

The next day, Carol’s husband Dave is our guide for a Forgotten World Adventure tour, which sees us driving specially adapted golf carts along 84km of decommissioned railway lines at a maximum speed of 20km/h.

Sara and I are cackling with laughter as we putter through farmland, forest and spooky tunnels, stopping at points of interest so amateur comedian Dave can tell us, as he says, “the facts, legends and bulls—” of the local area.

It’s great fun and would be a dream day out for small boys and/or train enthusiasts.

Though we’re still quite full from last night, we can’t resist another pint and a lovely lunch at the Whanga Motel, where we also score a second stamp in our passport, before heading back home.

It’s been a fantastic weekend on the Forgotten World Highway. I certainly won’t forget it.

An insider’s guide to … SH43

Getting there: There are now more flights than ever landing in New Plymouth – and Stratford is just 30 minutes away from the airport.

Best time to go: Whangamomona’s Republic Day, a fair featuring sheep races, gumboot throwing and possum skinning was on January 21. The next one will be in two years’ time – start planning!

Where to stay: The comfy Stratford Heritage Lodge describes itself as “flashpackers accommodation” and it’s the perfect base for day trips around Taranaki. The owners can also arrange a stay at Topless Farm. Visit for more details.

Where to eat: Don’t miss a pie and a pint of the local pale ale at the Whanga Hotel, but my best meal was on the farm. If you’re lucky, Sylvia will pass on her recipe for lemon honey.

Best adventure: The golf carts are a hoot – – but next time I’ll bring my hiking boots and join Eastern Taranaki Experience for a multi-day heritage hike.

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