Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

omaka aviation heritage museum

Peter Jackson’s old war planes displayed in sets built by Weta Workshop is exactly as awesome as it sounds. I’m not even interested in aviation history and I absolutely love this museum! It’s on the outskirts of Blenheim, near Brayshaw Heritage Park. There are two parts, one dedicated to the First World War and one to the Second, which you pay for separately. If you only have time for one section, make it the Second World War, as it’s the newest and most exciting, but, of course, both are worth seeing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

So, how did a museum in Blenheim come to be in possession of such awesome displays? Well, at some point in the ’90s, the people storing their planes at Omaka decided it would be cool to turn the place into a museum, so they started fundraising, holding airshows and such like. In the early 2000s, this caught the attention of Peter Jackson, a long-time war plane enthusiast. He joined the club, needing somewhere to store his collection of WWI fighter planes, which, presumably, he’d recently purchased with the profits of his phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings films. He, too, thought a museum would be cool, so he called upon the set and prop artists of The Lord of the Rings and bid them do their thing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

The result is magical. It’s hard not to get sucked into the atmosphere. The experiences of the war pilots are brought to life in harrowing detail. I especially enjoyed – well, maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word – the scene of the Red Baron’s demise. The churned-up dirt and the expressions on the mannequins’ faces are worryingly realistic. The scene with the plane crashed into the tree, surrounded by snow, is also highly evocative.

omaka aviation heritage museumMy favourite part of the museum is the one dedicated to WWII planes, perhaps because it has even more focus on raw human experience than the WWI part. You enter the exhibition through a recreated air raid shelter, a gloomy tunnel adorned with wartime posters. The muffled sounds of planes and bombs, accompanied by the eerie whine of an air raid siren, make it wonderfully spooky. You emerge from the tunnel to be faced with a life-sized diorama of a lovely moment involving a Kiwi pilot who’s just crash-landed onto some toff’s country estate in the middle of a garden party. He’s being offered a glass of champagne.

lydia litvyakI suppose I shouldn’t give the whole thing away, but I will say there’s a quite amazingly immersive cinematic experience pertaining to the Battle of Stalingrad. You actually feel like you’re there, which is incredible, but I imagine it would give some children nightmares, and trigger distressing flashbacks for certain soldiers and refugees. It left me weirdly winded. There’s also a bit about the Nazis that has a giant swastika flag hanging above it. This, according to the old veteran guide I got chatting to, has proven a tad controversial.

The guide was lovely, but, having mistaken me for the mother of the children in another part of the exhibition with their father, went to great lengths to emphasize a part of the exhibition that might be of more interest to “womenfolk”, and seemed surprised that I was relatively knowledgeably about certain things already. (I took great relish in flaunting my knowledge after this realisation, never revealing, of course, that aviation history isn’t really my cup of tea, my knowledge having been transferred by osmosis from a lifetime of proximity to my father.) Almost annoyingly, I did find the part of the exhibition about the Russian female fighter pilots – the Night Witches – especially interesting.

The two most impressive displays, I thought, were the one focusing on the ace fighter Lydia Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and the one focusing on the bomber crashed into a patch of Pacific jungle. I made sure my fiancé experienced the Stalingrad section, because his grandfather, a German soldier, was actually stationed at Stalingrad, but was recalled to Germany for officer training just days before the battle began. It wasn’t until after the war that he discovered every single one of his friends who’d been at Stalingrad had died.

omaka aviation heritage museumNow Omaka is quite an expensive museum to visit – $40 if you want to go ’round all of it. The money does go towards improving the museum, however. They want to build an Art Deco bit to go in-between the First and Second World War bits, for example. You can also go for a plane ride if you want. Oh, and there are some amusing T-shirts in the gift shop that say “Old Fokker”!

omaka aviation heritage museumSo, if you love planes, or military history, or Peter Jackson, you’ll be in heaven in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum. If you don’t, you’ll still enjoy it. Like I said before, aviation history isn’t my thing, but I’m dead keen to go back once they’ve finished the Art Deco exhibition. It’s because Peter Jackson’s displays have allowed the exhibitions to highlight the human experience surrounding the planes, not merely the technical aspects of the planes themselves. Human stories are what make history so powerful.

The World’s Last Surviving Convict Ship

Picton: a small port town at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s known as the gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sounds. The Cook Strait ferry sails to and from it, but other than that it’s a quiet settlement. Most people pass through it, never knowing it’s the home of the world’s last surviving convict ship, the Edwin Fox. And you can board it.

The Edwin Fox was built in 1853 with the help of elephants. (It was built in India, you see.) Starting life as cargo vessel, it was soon repurposed for use in the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale herself may very well have graced its timbers! (There is actually evidence for this; it’s not just wildly wishful thinking.) In 1858, it began transporting British convicts to Australia and, in 1873, British immigrants to New Zealand.

Not only is the Edwin Fox the world’s last surviving convict ship, it’s the second-oldest surviving merchant sailing ship, the oldest surviving East Indiaman, the only surviving wooden New Zealand immigrant ship, and the ninth-oldest ship in existence. The story of how it came to be preserved in Picton is fascinating in itself, told lovingly at the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, which you should not leave Picton without visiting! We visited it on our most recent New Zealand campervan trip, and getting to explore the venerable ship was wonderful.

The atmosphere changed the moment we entered the hulking wreck. Bright sunlight filtered through the rotten planks, but everything felt hushed; smothered by the weight of so much history. All those lives: soldiers, sailors, prisoners, families… There were bunks, showing how horrifically cramped conditions would have been – one narrow stall for a mother, father and multiple children to share. We saw how they would have eaten and whiled away their hours, days, weeks and months at sea. We saw the hammocks and barrels, chests and manacles, and then we descended into the bowels of the ship.

manacles edwin fox

What struck me was how much like a cathedral it looked. My English childhood was woven with picturesque ruins, the broken stones arching overhead like whale bones. These wooden bones were almost as magical.

So, next time you find yourself in the Marlborough Region, spare an hour for the Edwin Fox Museum. I personally think it’s one of the ten best museums in New Zealand. If this kind of thing interests you, allow me to recommend my articles Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand and The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman, which is about an Australian convict who mutinied and escaped to New Zealand.

To Rivendell where Elves yet dwell

The first Lord of the Rings film came out nearly twenty years ago.

Let that sink in.

The Fellowship of the Ring hit cinemas in December 2001, not five months after I arrived in New Zealand. (At what point do I stop being a British immigrant and become simply a New Zealander?) I was ten years old and I was in love.

At once, it became my favourite film, surpassing even The Return of the Jedi. (It remains amongst my favourites to this day, more prominent in my heart than both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.) I suppose, as well as being a masterpiece, it was, for me, the perfect film at the perfect time.

I had just left my own ‘Shire’ and embarked upon a long, scary journey through Middle-earth, a.k.a. New Zealand.

The fact that New Zealand literally was Middle-earth helped me a little in coming to terms with living in it. I could almost pretend I was living in a fantasy story. (In fact, this was when I started writing fantasy in earnest, beginning a life-long obsession.)

I can’t adequately express how much The Fellowship of the Ring means to me; how much the beauty of its aesthetic and music thrill me on a deeper-than-nostalgic level. I’m getting married in Hobbiton in less than four months, which rather feels like coming full circle. (Is that the point at which I’ll become a New Zealander? I am marrying one, after all!)

What I meant to say, before I got side-tracked, is that despite coming out nearly twenty years ago, The Lord of the Rings is practically impossible for New Zealand’s tourists to escape. This is especially true the nearer you get to Wellington, Peter Jackson’s lair. A while ago, Tim and I were driving towards Wellington in our campervan rental, having just visited the Putangirua Pinnacles, themselves a Lord of the Rings location, when we passed an unobtrusive sign saying only ‘Rivendell’. Now dusk was fast approaching, but what were we supposed to do, not visit the House of Elrond?

So we turned down the beckoning road into what turned out to be Kaitoke Regional Park, just north of Upper Hutt. We knew we had to find Rivendell quickly, as the park gates would soon be locked, so we jumped out of the campervan and rushed off into the gloaming. The first sign of ‘Rivendell where Elves yet dwell’ was an ornate post bearing an Elvish script. More posts followed, explaining a little about the movies, and a map pointing out which bits were filmed where.

Don’t expect to recognise anything. It’s just a random bit of forest above a river. I mean there is this one tree with twisting roots, perched atop a rocky mound, that looks kind of cool… (Orlando Bloom posed there in his Legolas gear, apparently.) I imagine it would be a lovely place for a picnic.

I was about to give the place up as not really worth visiting, when I spotted an ancient, stone archway through the trees. Of course, it wasn’t ancient, or stone, but it looked awesome. It would be fantastic for wedding or cosplay photographs!

In the end, Rivendell made for an unexpected, delightful diversion. We didn’t have time to visit the nearby Gardens of Isengard, unfortunately. Does anyone know if they’re worth it?

Come to Crystal Mountain, Charlie!

Way back in the mid-noughties, my generation became suddenly and inexplicably obsessed with a certain unicorn named Charlie. Charlie was a cynical soul who just wanted to sleep, but two younger unicorns badgered him into accompanying them to the mythical Candy Mountain.

“Candy Mountain, Charlie!” came their simpering, sing-song cry. “Candy Mountain!”

It turned out it was all a ploy to steal Charlie’s kidney.

The irreverent fairy tale resonated with Millennials everywhere. Some of us quote it to this day, to the confusion of our elders.

Why?

Umm… we just do. It’s kind of funny. Thus, every time my fiancé and I drive past the sign for Crystal Mountain in West Auckland, it’s hard for us not to cry, “Chaaar-lieee!”

crystal mountain

At the gates of Crystal Mountain

“We’ll have to actually go there one day,” I added, a few years ago.

“I went when I was a kid,” Tim replied, focussed on the road.

“What was it like?” I asked.

“There were crystals.”

“Oh, really?” I joked. “Were there crystals at Crystal Mountain, Charlie? Did a magical liopleurodon tell you the way, Charlie? Chaaar-lieee!”

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. Once again, we were driving past the Crystal Mountain sign, but this time, we had our flatmate, Ems, with us. Now Ems is… how to put this delicately? Her bedroom is so full of crystal energy you have to beat it back with a stick. An incense stick. We couldn’t not go now!

So, we went. Most of these photos are Ems’s.

Now, understandably, I was expecting Crystal Mountain to be a glorified crystal shop, and it did indeed have one – an enormous one – but it also had a rollercoaster – a small, lonely rollercoaster that looked more than a little old and dodgy – and dinosaurs. In fact, there was a whole animal park with things for children to ride on, but we didn’t experience any of that. We headed straight for the main building, which housed the shop, café and an underground crystal museum.

The entrance was flanked by real crystal monoliths. Ems made me take a photo of her hugging one.

“I want to get married here,” she said.

“Does Grant know you two are getting married?” Tim asked, jokingly, as I quipped, “Who to? Grant or the crystal?”

The crystal museum was quite cool. We took an almost eerie elevator ride down into what was basically a crystal-encrusted bunker. There were some epic specimens, including a fossilised T. rex head. Ems could identify most of the crystals without reading the signs. She was in heaven. If you’re not into crystals, $8 might seem a bit over-priced to visit the small museum, but if you are – or if you have children that are into dinosaurs and fossils – I recommend going.

As for the animal park bit… well, I only saw it from the outside, but it looked, frankly, lame – especially at $88 for family pass! (Oh, and you have to pay for rides individually on top of that.) As well as the aforementioned rollercoaster, the rides include a tractor and a train that isn’t on a track. Let’s just say I’m sceptical.

Ems said the crystals in the shop were very reasonably priced, though.

cm08

The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

putangirua pinnacles

These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

putangirua pinnacles

Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

putangirua pinnacles

By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

putangirua pinnacles

I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

putangirua pinnacles

It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

Victorian Villas and Vineyards

greytown

New Zealand’s most complete main street of wooden Victorian buildings – that was what attracted me to Greytown. Nestled in the vineyard-rich Wairarapa, just north of Wellington, it was recently voted New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. I can’t really dispute this. The day my fiancé and I went there, the sun had gilded every surface. In fact, it was almost too hot to walk around!

greytown

Using my umbrella as a parasol, I felt like a proper Victorian lady promenading down the high street. It seemed as though each shop was a fancy boutique, mostly catering for middle-aged women. There were a few nice-looking cafes and bakeries, and a bicycle shop old-fashioned enough to make hipsters drool. I got more enjoyment from the architecture than the shops themselves, although there was one shop that I spent a little too much in… the chocolate shop.

greytownSchoc Chocolates is right next to Greytown’s historical village. The shop is actually inside a tiny Victorian cottage, and the chocolate they make there is divine. There’s a range of interesting, and often experimental flavours, but my favourite is their Earl Grey tea dark chocolate. The aroma is intense without being overwhelming, and the chocolate feels velvety in your mouth. You can’t help but eat it slowly, savouring the aftertaste of every piece.

greytownThe historical village itself was unfortunately closed when I was there. From the outside, though, it looked unbelievably pretty, especially as dappled light was filtering down through the trees. The walk back towards the centre of town was a slog in the heat, but the houses along the road were pleasing to look at. To cool off, we had a drink in The White Swan, an old, wooden building with a large balcony. We’d run out of things to do in Greytown, so we headed to the nearby village of Martinborough.

martinboroughMartinborough is entirely surrounded by vineyards. It has a few fancy boutiques, though nowhere near as many as Greytown, including an old-fashioned sweet shop, a predictably impressive wine shop and a disappointingly expensive bookshop. There’s a selection of good restaurants around the village green, serving, naturally, local wines. My fiancé and I went to a little place called Pinocchio. It was expensive, but he was treating me, and the food was orgasmic.

cat martinborough holiday parkAs a side note, the Marlborough TOP 10 Holiday Park was a brilliant place to stay. We were in a rental campervan, and though we didn’t need to plug in, there weren’t any convenient free campsites around. This place had unlimited free Wi-Fi, nice facilities and a friendly pussycat.

So, in conclusion, if you’re a wealthy, middle-aged lady with a liking for designer clothes and fine wine, the Wairarapa Region is for you!

New Zealand Has Its Own Stonehenge!

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

I love stone circles. I’m not a ‘spiritual’ person, but such ancient monuments fill me with awe. My favourite is the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, which I visited last year. My sense of awe was only slightly dampened by the various tourists trying to ‘fall through’ the stones. (The Outlander TV series was at its most popular and the lure of dashing, eighteenth century highlanders waiting to be the tamed by modern, sexually enlightened time travellers was potent.)

Of course, there were nowhere near as many tourists at Brodgar as there were when I visited Stonehenge – the Stonehenge. I often joke that the thick ring of tourists revolving around the circle made it look like it had an extra layer of megaliths, each wearing a different, brightly coloured anorak and speaking in a loud, American accent. Nevertheless, it was awesome to behold. I lingered so long the bus almost left without me. I can still see my teachers rolling their eyes.

So, when I heard New Zealand had its own Stonehenge, I had to see it. I was apprehensive, though. I mean, how could it possibly live up the original? Well, it couldn’t. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t trying to.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Stonehenge Aotearoa is located between Masterton and Martinborough, near the bottom of the North Island. Most people who haven’t been think it’s a replica of England’s Stonehenge, and are worried, therefore, about it being tacky. I was in the ‘I want it to be awesome, but will be probably be disappointed’ camp. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I mean, wrongly assumed it would be the sort of tourist attraction with a café.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

The thing is, it wasn’t built as a tourist attraction. It’s a passion project, built on the farm of a couple of retired astronomers by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was never meant to be a replica of the original Stonehenge, but an accurate calendar for its specific place in the world. Yes, it was built on a similar scale to the original, but it combines modern scientific thinking with the starlore of many cultures, including Māori. The small gift shop is more focussed on educational gifts than spiritual.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There’s an explanatory video to watch to before you make your way out to the circle, through a modest but lovely garden. Though the site promotes science and education, it still attracts the druidic crowd. It holds equinox celebrations, which include storytelling and music. Apparently, the acoustics are something else! Beside the entrance, there’s an old school building set up with a cinema screen, which will hopefully see more use in the future.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

As for the circle itself, it’s underwhelming, but still pretty damn cool. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s concrete. The lines are disconcertingly clean, but of course they are – the pillars and lintels are brand new! They haven’t been subjected to thousands of years of weather, or Victorian souvenir hunters with chisels. You have to appreciate Stonehenge Aotearoa for what it is, not what it isn’t.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There are a few interesting touches, such as an analemma, an obelisk and a statue of Artemis. There’s also a star sign tracker – an accurate one. Apparently, people are always disappointed to learn that their star signs are wrong! I’m really glad I visited Stonehenge Aotearoa. I’d recommend it to anyone travelling down to, or up from Wellington.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand