Tanmay, Damien and I turned back to analyze the scene ahead. There was silence between us, as we stood there undecided.
“I’m staying in the car. I know that the people who can’t contain their curiosity get killed first,” Alisha said shutting the door behind her. On seeing the questioning look on our faces, she shrugged and added quietly, “I have seen a lot of horror movies.”
In front of us was a small gate, its disintegrating wooden planks held together by a few bent old nails. The gate was barely hanging on to its hinges and looked like it would come apart with the slightest touch. Hanging on the side was a signboard with ‘Trespassers Beware’ painted in red. The fence, if you could call it that, was made up of rusting barbed wires and we could spot a caravan parked at one side of the barbed property, and a big cabin on the other side. Whoever lived out here, miles away from the nearest settlement, sure had guts. And a bizarre taste in stuff, for the entire area in front of us resembled an unkempt junkyard.
“Hellooooo! Anyone there? We need help! We are out of fuel,” I shouted out suddenly, startling my friends.
“Calm down, will you? Let’s go inside and then if we find someone, we can explain the situation. Peacefully.” Damien said, opening the gate with a loud squeak. Alisha’s eyes were glued on us, and I gave her a smile before turning to follow Tanmay and Damien.
As soon as I stepped in the compound, there was a loud bark. Tanmay jumped in fright and grabbed my arm, hiding behind me. The barking grew louder, alternating with deep growls at intervals.
“Look silly, the dog is chained to that caravan up there,” Damien said looking at his cowering friends. “Or else it would’ve torn us to bits by now.”
“That’s reassuring, thanks Damien.” Tanmay said, shaking his head. “I’m walking behind her just to be on the safe side.”
I shook myself free off his grip and quipped, “It’s just a dog. And we are here to ask for help. They won’t shoot us for trespassing.”
“Another great image for my mind,” Tanmay said treading carefully behind me as I followed Damien. We headed towards the cabin, eager to increase our distance from the dog tied to the caravan. There were all kinds of things lying around the lawn, an old gramophone, a rusting typewriter, broken furniture, three thoroughly stripped cars with flattened tyres, and several parts of machinery that I could hardly name. Judging by the dust settled on everything, it was clear that nothing had been touched in ages.
“I don’t think anyone lives here Damien,” I whispered, coming up to him from behind. Despite his machoness, he got startled easily.
“Who would be feeding the dog if no one was here?” Damien asked, the relentless barking bothering the animal-lover in him.
Nodding at this sensible line of argument, I quietly followed him to the cabin. We stopped right at the steps of the front porch. The cabin door and windows were wide open.
There was no sign of movement in the house. Guessing from where we stood, it seemed completely deserted. There was no sound at all except for the barking of the dog behind us.
Suddenly, I started hearing something and my eyes quickly met Damien’s. It was a repetitive sound, a continuous click-click of some kind. Damien motioned me to stand still, and we waited there for a moment, ears perked up, all senses alert, ready to run back at the slightest provocation.
After about a very tense minute, I could see realization dawn in Damien’s eyes. He turned to Tanmay, raised his hand and smacked him behind his head. “It’s you! Stop chattering your teeth, you fool.”
I let out a huge sigh of relief. Looking at the astonished expression on Tanmay’s face, I couldn’t help laughing. Damien’s frown eased and he broke into a smile. Tanmay stood there staring at us blankly for a moment before joining in with his nervous laughter.
“Do you guys realize we are trespassing, despite the warning sign outside, and standing at someone’s doorstep, laughing?” I asked. My nerves were too sensitive right now and I wanted to get over with this ordeal.
“Hello! Anyone there? Hello!” Damien called out, cupping his hands to his mouth.
“I can actually hear an echo,” Tanmay said. “There is no one here. Let’s go back. I have a really bad feeling about this place.”
“I agree with him for once,” I said, stepping back. Damien hesitated for a brief moment, sighed and then turned around to follow us, saying, “So, what now? Where will we get the fuel from?”
“There is no gas station for miles ahead. Damn that broken GPRS! ,” Tanmay said, making his way back through the garden.
Damien, in his usual calm tone, said, “The GPRS is fine, it couldn’t catch the signals, that’s all.”
“We could’ve filled the tank at the last station if this GPRS wouldn’t have misguided us. Whose idea was it anyway, to go on this trip to the Forgotten World Highway?” Tanmay mocked, poking my shoulder from behind.
“Excuse me for wanting to see what people call…” I said, fishing out the pamphlet in my pocket and reading, “one of the top three majestic roads of New Zealand. And also, a remote, mysterious and spectacular highway with breathtaking views, beautiful vistas and rainforest gorges. Was it my fault that you didn’t fuel up before turning into the highway? There is a reason it is known as the Forgotten World Highway.”
“To be fair, she did warn us that we need to have a full tank of gas before starting on this f***ing 150 kms long journey,” Damien said, as we walked past the caravan.
“Language Damien!” I reprimanded him but he kept his hand over my mouth and looked towards the caravan.
“The dog isn’t barking anymore,” he whispered, removing his hand away.
It was true.
There was pin drop silence.
I looked at the dog. It was now settled on the grass, stretching its front paws, with its tail wagging lazily. The dog’s gaze met mine and I could swear that it was smiling, a wicked smile at that.
Suddenly the caravan’s door flew open. We waited, holding our breaths for someone to step out, our eyes glued to the swinging door.
But there was no other movement for several seconds.
“I don’t like this,” Tanmay whispered from behind me. The light breeze raised the hair at the back of my neck.
“Hello, anyone there?” Damien called out. He would never admit it but his voice was hoarse with fear.
But there was still no answer.
The door kept swinging gently.
“Let’s go,” Damien whispered. And then he raised his voice and commanded, “Let’s get out of here right now.”
It was one thing being scared, but Damien’s voice contained an urgency that sent us scrambling back to the car without a backward glance.
Tanmay raced ahead of me, and only when we reached the car, he stopped to catch his breath. Making sure that we were right behind him, he said, “Had to get out of there before you guys. They always kill the comic relief first.”
Quiet relieved to get out that weird place, I laughed and said, “Another horror movie fan, huh Alisha?”
But there was no answer.
“Alisha?” Damien asked looking inside the car. “Guys! She is not here.”
“Alisha?! Alisha?!” I could hear Damien’s voice from this end, as I hurried along, calling out her name again and again.
We were spread in three directions, two searching along the road and me scanning the bushes on the opposite side. As I climbed the rising hill, making my way in the bushes calling out Alisha’s name, I wondered if this was a nightmare. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no signals in our mobiles and a broken GPRS, barely any fuel left in our car, parked in front of that unnerving place and with a missing friend.
For the first time I had seen Damien panicking when he had instructed us to go in different directions in search for Alisha, “We will be able to cover more ground that way.”
“But isn’t this a common mistake that people always make in movies? We should stick together and search for Alisha,” Tanmay suggested. But a glare from Damien sent us hurrying in different directions.
“Psst…Hanadi? Are you alone?”
I turned around relieved to hear Alisha’s voice. It was coming from behind the bushes to my right.
“Oh Alisha!” I exclaimed, and stepped towards the bushes, but she cut in saying, “Stay where you are please.”
My eyes widened and dreading the worst, I whispered, “What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
“Yes, I am fine. Just give me a moment will you,” she said quietly, still hiding from my view.
“What the hell are you up to?” I asked, unable to comprehend what was going on in this crazy place.
Stepping out from the bushes, she came towards me, a bottle of water in her hand. As I stood staring at her, she washed her hands, threw away the bottle and wiped herself dry before facing me. Looking at the expression on my face, she shrugged and said, “What? Nature’s call.”
I felt like strangling her right then and there. “Are you out of your freaking mind?! You scared us to death.”
“Arrey. I was about to burst, waiting for you guys. There is no loo around here for miles and it would’ve been embarrassing to let the boys know what I was up to in the bushes. So, I headed up here, avoiding the road.”
I looked at her with murder in my eyes, and she bit her lips and asked, “Did I really scare you? I wanted to try to get signals up here. But it’s no use, no signals at all.” She shoved her mobile on my face.
Casting it aside, I hugged her. Despite my anger, I was relieved. She was safe. We were all safe. This wasn’t a real nightmare after all.
“It’s a nightmare,” Tanmay sighed. We were walking along the road, with our heavy backpacks, trying to cope up with Damien. He was way up ahead, with Alisha right behind him, still urging him to get over the fact that she scared the daylights out of him earlier.
The boys had been relieved when the girls returned unharmed. Although Alisha tried to avoid the real reason for going in the bushes like that, she made up a silly story that infuriated Damien. His mood worsened when the car ran out of fuel and stopped a few blocks down the road. They had no other option but to leave the car behind and walk ahead, hoping to find someone who could give them some fuel.
“Just a little while longer. According to Alisha there is just one significant settlement on the forgotten world highway, Whangamomona. Since we haven’t passed by any towns so far, it has to be up ahead.” I explained, giving my hand to my poor friend, who was panting badly by now.
“I give up. I can’t move another inch,” Tanmay said, finding a rock nearby, big enough to sit on.
“Fine by me,” I said moving along. It didn’t even take a few seconds for Tanmay to get on his feet again and join me.
“There must be special place in Hell for people like you,” he muttered as he dragged himself forward.
An hour later, the sun was right above our heads, and we were sweating profusely, our mouths parched and tongues almost hanging out, when Damien and Alisha stopped.
“Guys, look! There is a car heading this way,” Alisha shouted.
As we stood there, Damien waved the driver to stop. But to our surprise the car wasn’t slowing down as it approached us. I could make out an old lady behind the wheels.
“Maybe she didn’t see us,” I said.
Tanmay dropped his backpack and with a swift movement, he stepped to the center of the road, waving his hands above his head. The car came to a screeching halt and the lady looked out of her window at us, annoyed on being stopped like that. “What’s it that you fellas want?”
“Good aft’rnun Mam,” Alisha said, using the most native accent she could come up with. “We ran out of fuel. Is there anyway you could help us out?”
“Damn foolish of you to come here without a full tank. The next gas station is all the way back to where you turned in on State Highway 43.” Tsk-tsking, she motioned Tanmay to move out of her way.
“Could you give us a lift?” I asked and on seeing the look she gave me, I added, “Please. If you are heading that way.”
“Sorry, can’t do,” she said, honking at Tanmay now. He moved away, and the old lady started her car again. We looked at each other helplessly. Before she could disappear, she looked out of her window and shouted, “Ask the folks at Whangamomona. Someone might have spare fuel for you.”
“How far is it?” Damien asked, shouting after the retreating car, but in vain. The car disappeared and we were left standing on the dusty road.
Looking at the dirt covered faces and the stained clothes of my friends, I said, “It’s no surprise she didn’t want to give some dirty Indian hitchhikers a ride in her car.”
“We better find a stream or something soon, wash up and then get back on the track,” Tanmay suggested, wiping his sweaty forehead with his sleeves.
“No time to lose, let’s walk faster,” Damien said looking at his watch. “It would be getting dark in a few hours.”
I didn’t want to imagine what would happen to us if the sun went down. Helping Tanmay with his backpack, we resumed walking.
“I think our luck is beginning to turn. Look there.” Alisha pointed at a board right up ahead the road. Walking towards it with quicker steps, we could finally make out the writing on it.
‘Welcome to The Republic of Whangamomona’.
“Yoooo Hooooo!!!” We rejoiced, giving each other hi-fives.
As we walked ahead, we spotted a sign for Public toilets, and quietly headed inside. After about 5 minutes, I stood outside with Damien, waiting for the other two to join us. I felt so refreshed, having washed my face and hands. I breathed deeply, taking in the fresh air, enjoying the beauty of the place for the first time on this trip. It didn’t matter how frustratingly eventful this trip had been so far, at last we were going to get back on the road again and enjoy the rest of our holiday as planned. I took out the crumbled paper from my pocket and read the itinerary. We still had to see the Hobbit’s Hole, the Mount Damper Falls, and the Tangarakau Gorge on the Forgotten World Highway before we could head back home.
“Isn’t it strange that we haven’t noticed anyone since we came here?” Damien asked.
I looked up from my list, and saw that Damien’s brows were arched with suspicion. I followed his gaze and noticed for the first time that the shops, and buildings around us seem deserted. Taking a step forward, I motioned Damien to follow me, but he stopped me, saying, “Wait, we need to stick together. Let them come out first.”
It took us another couple of minutes before we could finally move from the restroom. Tanmay was at his wit’s end when we told him what Damien had observed.
“Hey look there, a campervan. We can finally have some answers,” I said, spotting the big vehicle parked by the road. As we approached it we could hear the engine running.
“Hello?” Alisha called out.
But no one came out.
“Guys, the driver’s door is open.”
We walked to the other side and found that the door was wide open, the keys in the ignition and the engine running. Even after repeated shout-outs, there was no sign of anyone coming out of the campervan.
“Shall we go in?” I asked but was met with instant disapproval from everyone.
“This is very strange, we better move along and look for the owner of this vehicle instead of messing around with it. He must be around here somewhere,” Alisha reasoned.
“It’s a ghost town. I know it. We are doomed,” Tanmay whispered.
“Shut up and move along,” Damien said. We walked along the street, unaware that a man got out of the campervan a few minutes later, wiping his hands and looking at our retreating figures silently.
There were all kinds of shops here. But all deserted. Most of the doors seemed locked. We didn’t want to barge in or break any down, so we kept on moving forward until we saw an open door. It was an antique shop. Alisha peeked inside, and called out, “Hello, is anyone here?”
We stepped inside gingerly. There were all sorts of collectibles here, crammed into innumerable glass cases. The place reeked of a strange smell, perhaps the smell of putting years and years of items together in one place.
As I walked in, awed by the strange things gathering dust here, I spotted some newspaper clippings dating back a few decades. “Hey guys, look at this.”
“What does it say?” Tanmay asked, standing by the door. He didn’t dare to step inside and explore like the rest of us. I felt bad for the poor guy.
Going over the text, Alisha said, “It seems that the residents declared this a Republic in 1989 protesting against the new council boundaries. They even held their own presidential elections.”
“What rubbish? Do you mean to say we are in another country in middle of nowhere?” Damien asked, taking the clipping from Alisha and going over it. Tanmay stepped inside and joined us as we crouched together, trying to read the rest of the clippings.
“Hey look at this one, it says here that after their first President Ian Kjestrup, they elected Billy Gumboot, the Goat as their next president,” I pointed out, grabbing Alisha’s sleeve to attract her attention to the other newspaper clipping in my hand.
We all laughed. This had to be a joke of some kind.
But it wasn’t.
The town actually had Presidents Tai the Poodle and Murtle the Turtle after that.
“What nonsense?” Tanmay said, keeping his arm on the shoulder of the person next to him. It took him a few seconds to realize that the rest of his friends were all standing to his right, laughing together.
So who was there to his left?
Tanmay let out a ear-splitting scream and we all jumped up, banging into the table in front, upsetting the items kept on top of it, sending them crashing down on the ground.
“What the hell Tanmay?!” Damien screamed, as we regained our composure and turned around. Tanmay’s face was as white as a sheet when he pointed at something on the ground to his left.
Before we could see what was on the ground, we heard a female voice coming from the door. “What’s going on in there, Henry?”
An old lady walked in, and stopped on seeing so many people crowding the small shop. “Well, well, what have we got here?”
Before any of us could open our mouths, we heard a noise from Tanmay’s left. The thing he had been pointing at was actually a fragile old man lying on the floor.
To his credit, Tanmay got out the shock and remembered his manners. Lending the old man a hand, he helped him get back on his feet. We stood still, like lifeless statues, as the old man dusted himself.
Shaking Tanmay’s hands, and chuckling, he said, “You scared me, young fella. That was one hell of a scream.”
It took several minutes before things settled down. We got over our shock and realized that this wasn’t a ghost town after all. It was a small township of around 100 people, who at this time of the day were mostly retired to their homes for lunch or were taking afternoon naps, so we didn’t run into anyone in the last half hour since we arrived.
Looking at our exhausted faces, in the spirit of true Kiwi country hospitality, the old couple invited us to join them in the Whangamomona Hotel on the next street.
Damien shook his head, saying, “We would love to join you guys for lunch, but we have left our car out there on the road. We better get back to it before dark.”
Tanmay’s face dropped, and he tried his best to suppress the rumbling sound coming from his stomach. I suppressed my laughter, turned to the old couple and said, “Thank you so much for the offer but why don’t you let us treat you both to lunch at your favorite hotel here? You can direct us to the nearest gas station afterwards.”
The old couple laughed and the lady took my hand in hers and replied, “This is the only hotel in Whangamomona, my dear. It is the center of our town’s activity. Come along.”
We spent an hour of hearty conversation with all the townsfolk who had gathered in the hotel to look at the Indians from across the globe. Although we were very conscious of the eager eyes fixed on us, our hunger got the better of our hesitation, and we gorged on a truly delicious meal. Briefed with the town’s rich history, and truly amazed by the unique nature of this community, we paid a few dollars to get our passports stamped. Yes, this was truly a Republic and we were dining there legally now.
Our stomachs full, hearts merry and minds enriched, we were dropped off to our car, fuelled up and sent along our way.
We were silent for a while, as the car sped along, each of us lost in their own thoughts of the day.
“So are you happy now Tanmay?” I asked. When he looked at me with questioning eyes, I ruffled his hair and added, “You wanted to travel to at least five countries before the end of this year. You just got the fifth visa stamped on your passport.”
Tanmay grinned as the thought settled in. “Yes! Very happy indeed.”
“Guys,” Alisha called out from the passenger seat in front. Tanmay and I turned our attention towards her, when we saw the huge black cave up ahead.
“It’s the Hobbit’s Hole,” Damien informed us just when the car entered the cave and got absorbed into pitch-black darkness.
“I can’t see anything,” Tanmay added nervously.
The car seemed to gain speed and we were thrown back in our seats with several jerky movements. The darkness added to the increasing dread that was drowning us again.
“Slow down will you?” I screamed, my heart in my throat.
“I can’t!” Damien’s voice was high-pitched and panicky. “The brakes aren’t working…”