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.

Top 10 Most Brilliantly Insane New Zealanders

Chances are you’ve heard the words ‘crazy’ and ‘Kiwi’ in the same sentence. This is because New Zealanders are insane.

No concern for personal safety, they throw themselves headlong into their obsessions, combining inherent ingenuity with mad optimism. Kiwis can conquer the world with a piece of number 8 wire, or so they enjoy telling themselves.

Reading this list of crazy kiwis, however, you might well believe it. The following 10 New Zealanders all displayed varying degrees of insanity – the brilliant kind of insanity – and have consequently left their mark upon on history:

1) Charles Upham

The life of Captain Charles Upham reads like an episode of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Born in Christchurch in 1908, Upham received not one, but two Victoria Crosses for his actions during World War II – the only person on the planet to achieve this. Before the war, he worked as a sheep farmer, (because what else is a New Zealander supposed to do?) During the war, he was a badass who single-handedly destroyed tanks and kept on fighting despite broken limbs, dysentery and being riddled with bullets. Eventually, he was taken as a prisoner of war, but the badassery didn’t stop there.

hitlercroppedYou see, Upham had what the Germans considered a nasty habit of trying to escape. Once, when he was with a group of POWs being transported by truck, he made a daring leap for freedom. He broke his ankle upon landing, but still made it 400 yards before he was caught. Another time, he was being transported by train. To prevent another daring leap for freedom, he was only allowed to go to the toilet when the train was moving at high speed. This, however, didn’t stop him. Unfortunately, being knocked unconscious on the tracks did.

Yet another time, he tried to climb a camp fence – in broad daylight. As you might imagine, this didn’t go so well and he got himself all caught up in barbed wire. But as he waited for the guards to arrive and shoot him, he did his most badass thing yet: lying there, casual as you please, he lit a cigarette. This amused the guards so much that they didn’t kill him. Instead, they took a photograph and let him back inside.

All these escape attempts – and several others besides – landed Upham in Colditz. He was there when Colditz was liberated by the Americans. As you’d expect, most of the POWs were now very eager to get home, but not Upham. He immediately armed himself and, presumably, roared, “Let me at ’em!”

2) Edmund Hillary

Of course this list was going to include Sir Edmund Hillary. Though he wasn’t quite the tank-killing badass Upham was, he shared Upham’s mad disregard for personal safety. Good thing too, or he’d have never conquered Everest.

New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook

New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook

His attitude was ‘get to the top, or die doing it’. There he and Sherpa Tenzing were – sleep-deprived, affected by the altitude, scarily low on oxygen supplies – facing weather conditions that would have made any sane person turn back, and they carried on. And what did Hillary say when they’d returned victorious?

“We knocked the bastard off.”

3) A. J. Hackett

Any person who thinks it’s a good idea to tie a bungy cord round their ankles and leap from a great height must be at least a little insane. New Zealand’s Alan John Hackett turned it into an industry.

Born in Pukekohe, but raised on the North Shore, Hackett’s first bungy jump was off Auckland’s Upper Harbour Bridge. (He tested the cord with a bag of rocks first, which shows more foresight than most Kiwis.) The fact that he didn’t die encouraged him to jump off more and more bridges around New Zealand, but he wanted to get the attention of the world. What better way to do that than sneak up the Eifel Tower one evening, spend the night up there, and jump off it the next morning? That’s exactly what he did on June 26th, 1987.

He was arrested immediately afterwards, but – hey – totally worth it. The rest, as they say, is history.

4) Bill Hamilton

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

In 1974, South Islander Charles William Feilden Hamilton was knighted for his services to manufacturing. These included inventing a method of propelling oneself very quickly up very shallow rivers: the jet boat. I’ve been jet boating several times, and it really is insane – insanely fun, that is. I remember thinking, ‘The bloke who invented this must have been a right nutter.’ No, he was just a Kiwi.

From typical Kiwi bloke tinkering away in a shed to triumphant silencer of critics, Hamilton became an inspiration to mad inventors everywhere. His invention was the first boat ever to travel up and down the Grand Canyon. Like A. J. Hackett, Hamilton’s daring spawned an industry. Chances are you’ll find yourself riding a jet boat when you come to New Zealand!

5) Burt Munro

Who’s seen The World’s Fastest Indian? Well that was about this guy. (Not an Indian, a Kiwi.) Born in Invercargill – the city Mick Jagger described as ‘the arsehole of the world’ – Burt Munro had a need for speed. Growing up on a farm – New Zealand, remember – he dreamed of escaping Invercargill, because who doesn’t?

pyrotechnicscroppedIn 1920, Munro got himself an Indian ‘Scout’ motorcycle and started modifying it to go faster. Poor as he was, he’d make his own parts out of old tins, often working all through the night, as he had a full-time job. After his wife divorced him – God knows why – he gave up his job and lived in a garage with his tools.

After about 40 years of modifying and re-modifying the Indian, Munro took it all the way to Utah to test its speed on the Bonneville Salt Flats. As a man in his sixties, he set three world records, one of which stands to this day.

6) Nancy Wake

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was one of the most decorated servicewomen of World War II. As badass in her way as Charles Upham, Wake was an important guerrilla fighter in the French Resistence and the Gestapo’s most wanted. She killed a member of the SS with her bare hands for goodness’ sake!

Wake was born in Wellington in 1912. (We’ll ignore the fact that her family moved to Australia in 1914.) At the age of 16, she ran away from home. By the 1930s, she was a journalist in Europe and, as such, witness to the rise of the Nazis. In 1939, she married a Frenchman, and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. She joined the Resistance as a courier.

IMGP0121With the looks of a femme fetale, Wake had a particular talent for charming her way past guards and eluding capture. The Gestapo called her the White Mouse, which sounds pretty cool. She was forced to flee Marseille in 1943, but her husband was captured, tortured and executed. She’d soon be back with a vengeance. In 1944, working for the British Special Operations Executive, she parachuted into Auvergne to make contact with the Resistance. The local leader found her tangled up in a tree and said, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” She said, in her badass way, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Wake had no compunction about shooting people in cold blood, nor killing Nazis with her bare hands, and claimed to have never been afraid in her life. Upon being offered honours by the Australian government, she told them “they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts.” Awesome.

7) Peter Jackson

Bag End 2Now Sir Peter Jackson is completely insane. His obsession with making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films as accurate possible extended to having  the sets, costumes and props rendered in such minute detail that you’d never see it all on screen. Take the Hobbiton set, for example. It was built as an actual, proper village that could be lived in by Council standards. Most of it didn’t even make it into the films, or only made it in for second. There were trees in the village that were different to the particular trees that Tolkien mentioned in his books, so what did Jackson do? He had each individual leaf and fruit removed and replaced with thousands of individual fake leaves and fruits of the right sort. Mad!

Jackson’s earlier works include the gory Bad Taste and the even gorier Braindead. If the films themselves don’t disturb you, trying thinking about the mind they sprung from! When he was a little kid, he tried to remake King Kong with his own stop motion effects. He also dug up his parents’ lawn in an effort to recreate the Somme. Jackson is a self-taught filmmaker, showing as much of the backyard inventive genius as Burt Munro or Bill Hamilton. He’s done so much for New Zealand and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

8) Jean Batten

Tim's Graduation 029Jean Gardner Batten was one ballsy lady. Born in Rotorua, she became, in 1936, the first person ever to fly solo from England to New Zealand. Before that, she’d well and truly beaten Amy Johnson’s England-to-Australia solo flight, and afterwards she continued to break records. She was world-famous and always made sure she emerged from the cockpit perfectly made-up. She was sexy and she knew it. (She wasn’t above batting her eyelashes at men to fund her flights.)

She was ambitious and eccentric, yet despite apparently relishing attention, Batten became increasingly reclusive. She died in obscurity – no one even knew about it until five years afterwards – from a dog bite that she refused to get treatment for. Ah well. Anyone who’s ever entered Auckland Airport knows how much New Zealand loves her.

9) Richard Pearse

Richard Pearse, the South Island farmer who may well have achieved mechanical flight nine months before the Wright Brothers, was actually nicknamed ‘Mad Pearse’. People laughed at his inventions and they laughed when he crashed into hedges, but on (possibly) 31st March, 1903, he flew his monoplane (possibly) 140 metres. Before injuring his collarbone crashing into a hedge.

Culture 3croppedIt’s frustrating that his flight attempts weren’t properly recorded. He consequently died in obscurity. Even if Pearse did beat the Wright Brothers into the air, however, his flight was not controlled as theirs was. His achievement, though, was possibly more remarkable, as he had no money and no mechanical training. He was just a Kiwi in a shed working with scrap, like Burt Munro and many, many others.

10) Glenn Martin

Glenn Martin certainly fits the now-familiar crazy-Kiwi-inventing-things-by-night-in-a-garage type. You may not have heard of him, but you’re about to. The thrill-seeker from Dunedin has spent the last 30 years inventing a proper, commercially-viable jetpack.

Yes, that’s right. A jetpack.

Apparently, one night in the early ’80s, Martin was sitting around with his uni mates. They were talking about how disappointed they were that jetpacks hadn’t been invented yet and, well, Martin decided to take matters into his own hands. He’d always liked building things – a trait that had made him somewhat of a fire hazard as a kid – and by the time he left university, he’d already designed a ducted fan flying machine.

IMGP0198Soon to go on sale, (for $150,000,) the Martin Jetpack is capable flying for a full thirty minutes, reaching speeds of 74km an hour and heights of over 800 feet. Just goes to show that Kiwis can invent anything.

More NZ Top Lists

What Hobbiton’s Like

Last weekend I had a dream come true: I visited Hobbiton. And it was better than I dreamed. I absolutely loved it.

My family had some reservations about going. We’re big Lord of the Rings fans, but the Hobbiton Movie Set, located on a farm in Matamata, has a reputation as a tourist trap. It’s quite expensive and, being the height of summer, we feared it would be heaving with visitors. We didn’t know how much of the set would be left, or if the experience would be worth it. As it turned out, we were blown away.

First Hobbit HoleThe set looks exactly as it does in Peter Jackson’s films.

Still, as we drove towards the site, we couldn’t help but giggle at a sign that read Tourist Farm. Then, when we got there, we were greeted by a curious sheep.

The set is a short bus ride away from the car park. As the bus driver explained, the original set was dismantled after the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but when it came to the filming of The Hobbit, the owners of the farm asked that the set be built to last. That decision made them rich.

The Fake Oak TreeThe first magical moment of the tour was when we rounded a hill and The Green Dragon came into view. It was like sliding back in time. The pub, the mill and the stone bridge could have been straight from the Middle Ages.

The next magical moment was when we stepped off the bus and walked between two stone walls into another world. There was Hobbiton. It was so colourful, not just the emerald grass, but every petal of every flower was remarkably vivid. The gardens were beautiful. And then there were the bright, circular front doors.

ChimneyEverything was ridiculously detailed. It looked lived in; a functioning village. There were vegetables in wheelbarrows, washing lines with hobbit clothes on, tools leaning against fences and candles in windows.

The commentary our guide provided was interesting and, actually, even though there were heaps of people there, it didn’t feel crowded. If anything, seeing other tour groups in the distance added to the feeling of the living village. I felt like I was back in England!

There was so much to look at, I probably missed a lot. With every step came a new delight. Most of the stuff didn’t even make it into the films, but no detail was overlooked. What those filmmakers did was insane – such as taking all the fruit off an apple tree and replacing it with plums, because that’s what was in Tolkien’s books.

Bilbo's GateOf course, the highlight of the tour is Bag End, the house of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It did not disappoint, right down to the no admittance except on party business sign on the gate. Standing there at the top, looking out over the fields with the famous party tree in the centre, you genuinely feel as though you’re part of the films.

The Mill 3Too soon, it was time to go back down the hill. We passed more hobbit holes, including Sam Gamgee’s house, and the site of the long-expected party. Then we crossed the stone bridge by the mill – there was a village notice board with all sorts on it!

The Green Dragon 3The final magical moment was when we entered The Green Dragon. It was the most gorgeous pub I’ve ever been in, a fantasy version of the very best old pubs in England, all dark wood and rafters and fireplaces. Every visitor gets a complimentary drink in a medieval-style beaker, a choice between cider, stout, ale and ginger beer. I had the cider and it was the best I’ve ever tasted!

The Dragon

The interior of The Green Dragon is just as detailed as the rest of the village. Hobbit coats are hung up by the door and above the food bar is an amazing carving of a dragon. There’s a book of cast signatures in a glass case. I noticed that Sir Ian McKellen had put a G rune next to his name, for Gandalf.

Bag End 2The pub and the party marquee next to it are available to hire for functions. I’m already dreaming of having my wedding there! The pub garden was exquisite.

The only disappointment of the tour was that we felt a bit rushed in the pub, but it would have gotten too crowded if they hadn’t moved us on. Besides, as my dad said, “I always feel rushed when asked to leave a pub.”

Second Hobbit HoleSo it was back on the bus and to the gift shop, which has a pretty good café above it. We bought a couple of fridge magnets, (the signs of The Prancing Pony and The Green Dragon,) and the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

What a day! If you were wondering whether or not to visit Hobbiton when travelling around New Zealand then wonder no more. It’s wonderful. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, an Anglophile, a history nerd, or just someone who loves gardens, Hobbiton is definitely for you.

The Party Tree

For more Lord of the Rings locations, see 10 Places Hobbits Have Been.

Scarecrow 2