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Marlborough Wineries Kaikoura Peninsula

31st December 2011

Stepping Back in Time to World War I, and Seal Spotting Towards Kaikoura

Some of the Planes at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre:    Left to Right    ....    DH-4, Albatross B.II and Etrich Taube
    What's the difference between a New Zealand summer and a British winter? The temperature of the rain. I stepped out into a puddle this morning, had a shower on my way to the showers and had a third shower on my way back.
    Things in the car were getting pretty damp by now, not just because I was peeling off wet clothing inside the car, but my exhalations through the nights were leaving surprisingly large quantities of condensation on all the windows.
Dioramas at the Centre
    After a hasty bowl of cereal, I headed off to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre just to the south of Blenheim. It was based on the second oldest airfield in New Zealand, and housed an absolutely superb collection of World War I aircraft and memorabilia.
    I opted for the guided tour, together with a Canadian couple. They were spending three weeks in New Zealand playing golf, a far cheaper affair here than back in Canada. They had a nice system of lunch at a winery followed by golf, which sounded fair to me. Dave Simms, our silver haired guide, was totally passionate about aviation history and hugely proud of the centre. He explained how the collection had started off with a couple of old hangers with several original and reproduction aircraft plus a sizeable amount of memorabilia. It had been tootling along quite nicely, but not really going anywhere since it hadn't the finances to expand. Then, Peter Jackson, the New Zealand film director, got wind of the collection. Jackson is passionate about old aircraft and has his own collection, and he is, unknown to many, a keen supporter of many museums. He put forward an idea to the museum based on a framework for a 1914-18 Trust. The museum examined his proposal and bought into it since it would allow them to expand, and an additional bonus was that Jackson wanted to keep some of his collection of aircraft and memorabilia at the centre.
Salt Ponds on Lake Grasmere
    Jackson also provided all the very realistic manikins, all at around $6k each (from his film sets I guess) and one of his props guys for a year to build the extremely realistic dioramas in the centre, all for free. Quite a kind chap really.
    Currently 80 aircraft are stored at the centre, quite a few of which are original and the rest are reproductions. Many are capable of flying, and every other year they are up in the skies during the Flying Weekend. Some had starred in films such as the Pfalz D.III, star of "The Blue Max" movie, or the Hurricane plane outside the centre which starred in the "Battle of Britain" film.
    Dave took us around the exhibits, and we saw how quickly the planes had developed during the war. Initially aircraft were used just for observation purposes, and eventually radio contact with the artillery allowed for more accurate gunfire. Harassment by opposing aircraft soon led to pot shots being taken at each other using pistols or rifles. Forward facing machine-guns soon followed, the guns relying on mechanical synchronisation with the propellers to ensure the bullets didn't rip their own props to pieces. This wasn't always successful, and it took a while to perfect the technology.
Seaward Kaikoura Ranges Meet the Pacific Ocean
    Airframes were covered in fabric tightened up by dope. However, they were prone to bursting into flames. Early aircraft had endurances of 2-4 hours, and speeds of 72-120 mph. All through the war the technology advanced rapidly, opposing forces leap-frogging each other in the capabilities of their aircraft. As soon as a new enemy aircraft was shot down, engineers quickly examined it and cribbed any advances in technology. When the Germans first spotted a British Sopwith triplane, all their manufacturers quickly moved on to triplane manufacture. Fokker, a Dutch designer, was the quickest to bring a German triplane into manufacture, the Fokker triplane of course. Having shorter and narrower wingspans, they gave pilots greater visibility in the air. and superior manoeuvrability. The centre housed four Fokker triplanes, the largest group collection in the world, and all were air worthy.
    The dioramas were all stunning, and it was obvious that they had all been created by somebody well versed in the movie industry. They all told a story too, for example one told the story of the death of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, showing soldiers tearing off parts of his aircraft for souveniers while others removed his fox fur boots. Another diorama showed a Nieuport 27 stuck up a tree, with its pilot shaking hands with the enemy pilot who shot him down, with the latter's Siemens Schuckert standing nearby. In those days chivalry existed between opposing aircrew. My Canadian compatriots were amazed by this chivalry, and were staggered that the British buried von Richthofen with full military honours. Opposing forces usually took souveniers from opposition aircraft, particularly the pilots who shot them down. In particular, German pilots were always keen to deprive British pilots of their superior flying gear. In the early days, pilots were not allowed parachutes in order to discourage them baling out and losing their planes. One diorama portrayed a true story of a Kiwi pilot nicknamed "Grid", who on realising his plane was doomed got out onto the wing and used his weight to steer the craft over friendly territory before jumping off. He survived the fall and went on to spearhead a drinking competition down near the trenches before being returned to his unit.
Fur Seals at Ohau Point
    The memorabilia was also an impressive display in its own right, with exhibits such as G�ring's World War I uniform and associated artefacts, plus a touching display that came from the Richthofen family. There was no bias to either side of the war, just a balanced approach to the whole affair, which was astutely done. How the centre had managed to acquire all this stuff is anybody's guess, but I imagine Peter Jackson had a huge part to play. He employs a team full time just to scour the planet for old aircraft, parts and memorabilia.
    This was indeed a remarkable collection of aircraft and memorabilia which I could have spent hours browsing around. At the end of our tour we thanked Dave, he had really brought the collection alive for us, and then we busied ourselves revisiting displays and taking photos. I had totally enjoyed it all.
    Having had my culture fix for the day, I left the vineyards behind me, and headed south dragging the rain clouds behind me. The road climbed over a series of undulating hills, all straw coloured despite the heavy rains over the last few days. A sign on the way pointed to Molesworth Station, New Zealand's largest farm occupying 1800 square kilometres. By Clifford Bay lay Lake Grassmere. This was not a patch on my home county Grasmere Lake, so loved by Wordsworth, it was instead an expansive salt lake yielding 70,000 tons of salt each year. Just south of it lay Lake Elterwater, named after another English Lake District attraction. Soon I found myself travelling down a spectacular, panoramic coastal road to Kaikoura, twisting itself around the coast with the railway, hemmed in between the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and the spectacular Seaward Kaikoura Ranges.
Beach at Kaikoura
    At Ohau Point, I pulled of the road to take a peek at the scores of Fur Seals scattered on the rocks and beach below. The brown adults lay comatose while their young black pups scampered about the rocks, gazing into pools at big black eyes gazing back. The pups did look cute, and the girl of the young couple standing next to me oohed and aahed. I would be doing the same if my grandson had been with me.
    Then, all of a sudden, my prayers were answered, and the rain eased up a bit. I carried on with my journey into Kaikoura, a non-descript one street seaside town. I pulled into the nearest campsite to the town centre, a run-down affair at the back of a motel. The grass had been turned into a sea of mud by the deluge of rain, and my allotted space was of course in the middle of it. The centimetre of water on the grass at Blenheim didn't seem too bad after all. Beggars can't be choosers.
    I met a Scottish guy in the communal kitchen, he was doing the cooking. He arrived 17 years ago and lived down in Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, working in the aluminium smelting plant where the money was good, he told me. "I love cooking," he said, adding, "I was a contestant on the New Zealand version of Masterchef." "How did you get on?" I asked. "I got to the quarter finals," he replied. He found New Zealand, particularly the further south you go, so laid back and friendly that he would never consider leaving here. "Here, if I go to buy fuel, they are always chatty in the garages, cleaning my screen, checking this and that. Back in Britain all I would get is, "�15!"," he added. He had not lost his thick Scottish accent, and I found it hard to follow him at times, but he seemed content with life.
    I had heard that the Adelphi Pub was the place to be in in Kaikoura on New Year's Eve, so that was to be my venue during the bewitching hour. I arrived shortly after 10pm, and there were about two dozen people playing pool or just milling around with their drinks. As the evening progressed, more and more folk poured in, and I started to do some mental calculations which put me about 35 years older than the average age in this establishment. Occasionally a complete stranger would shake hands and wish me a Happy New Year, and one or two others I managed to exchange a few sentences before they got swallowed up in the crowd who all seemed to know each other. One large guy, with an accent so thick I couldn't understand a word, almost crushed my hand as he tossed it about enthusiastically.
    Soon it became standing room only, and the two guys on the bar couldn't really cope with the sheer volume of numbers trying to buy drinks, half of which were being spilled on the floor. I sent text messages back home wishing family a Happy New Year a little before midnight, assuming all lines would be clogged at midnight. Then, at five minutes to go, the two bar guys went off and said they would be back at 00:15; this was their chosen break time. Well, this certainly caused uproar in the room.
    The countdown came and went, and all were shouting Happy New Year, hugging and kissing each other, all bar me. It all felt a bit surreal to me, it was as if I was an invisible fly on the wall. It didn't bother me at all, I was just there and not there, totally divorced from it all. Then a woman wearing a black jacket, black trousers and a black bowler hat covering a mop of jet black hair approached me slowly. She had very dark skin and the proud handsome features of a Maori woman. She slowly offered her hand, and we shook hands, and she wished me Happy New Year. That was my first contact with the New Year. She smiled and off she went to perform the same ritual with others, some of whom would reciprocate, and some would back away.
    The big guy, who nearly crushed my hand earlier, was doing his party trick. This consisted of picking women up by the hips and holding them high in the air. He thought it was hilarious, the women screamed when caught unawares from behind. I exchanged a few more Happy New Years with folks, some of whom probably had no idea of what year it was judging the state of them. Movement was a bit restricted, the carpet was so sodden my trainers were beginning to stick to it. I picked up a conversation with a chap who had pushed past me a few times to get to the bar, exchanging a few words as he did. He hailed from Invercargill, and was here with two pals who live in Kaikoura, and had now cleared off. He bought me a beer, and then I got the story about how he was quarter Maori. "I can trace my roots back through 2,000 years of Maori records and my British blood all the way back to the Vikings," he said. "No way can you do that," I remarked, trying to put his feet back on the ground. "See that woman over there," he said, pointing to the woman who had shook hands with me earlier, "we have the same mana, we all belong to one big family." With that, he dragged me off to visit the woman, and introduced us. Her English name was Jacqueline, her Maori name went straight over my head. She gave me the Maori version of my name, and that sounded like Rowrie. We had a convoluted conversation about how we were just one big happy family now, she speaking for most of the time in Maori, and the guy translating. I raised the prickly issue of Waitangi Day, the day the treaties were signed between the Maori and British. She immediately raised the gross unfairness of how the Maori were exploited, but went on to reiterate on how we were now just one big happy family. She started telling me about her family. Her husband died when he was 26 years old, and by then she had 9 children, of whom two sons had died. I worked out she must be in her mid-forties by now. I had no idea how old she was when she had her first child, but she must have been young. She was keen to point out that she did not rely on the state to support her and her children, she drove a truck in order to put bread on the table. Good for her.
    I was going to call my son Dan to wish him Happy New Year, and check what his plans were since he was staying at my house on his own, according to a text he sent. I excused myself to the two who were yattering away in Maori, and stepped outside to make the call. As it turned out, I couldn't get through to him, and then the gorilla on the door refused to allow me back in the building. He was not a man to be argued with. The law stated that nobody was to be allowed back into the building after 1am, and it was now 1:30am. I explained that the guy had just bought me a drink etc., but he was not going to budge. In the end one of his underlings went in to apologise to the two I had just been chatting to, telling them that I was not allowed re-entry.
    And off I strolled home, a bit aggrieved, but glad that I had gone out to see the New Year in.

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Marlborough Wineries Kaikoura Peninsula

Uploaded from Top 10 campsite, Kaikoura on 1st January at 11:15

Last updated 1.1.2012