29 January 2012

A flying visit to Blenheim

A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my final few days of liberty from the employment market before my contract recommenced by taking off for a quick two-day visit to the South Island. The main purpose of my trip to Blenheim was to take in a splendid collection of World War 1 fighters at the excellent Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre just outside of town, but there were several other sights to enjoy while in the area, and the journey to and from the South Island was also enjoyable.

I started out on a grey Wednesday morning, making my way to the Interislander terminal for the 8.25am sailing of the massive Kaitaki, formerly the Pride of Cherbourg, which has a capacity of over 1600 passengers. Given that the last time I'd crossed Cook Strait it was in the far smaller Bluebridge Santa Regina, this vessel was a whole order of magnitude greater.

Heading out of Wellington

There may have been a lively breeze blowing outside, but inside the ship there was no sensation of motion. There was a magician with balloons to detain the kids, and a bearded singer with a guitar in the bar area to detain real ale drinkers. I spent as much of the three and a half hour journey as possible on deck, admiring the views inside Wellington Harbour and along the south coast. There was a palpable shift in climate as we entered the Marlborough Sounds, with blue skies appearing and the thermometer climbing several degrees. A small pod of porpoises even flitted across the port bow, although I was too slow to grab a good photo of them. I stayed out in the sunshine and admired the lovely view as we navigated through Queen Charlotte Sound - what a sight.

The ferry Aratere, dwarfed by the magnificent Sounds

Looking back up Queen Charlotte Sound to the north

Eventually we eased into port in Picton, and I disembarked with an hour and a half to spare before my Intercity coach ride to Blenheim. I have fond memories of my first visit to Picton with friends in the mid-90s, and I can confirm that the mini-golf course and the seaplane are both still going strong. I'd also love to return with more time to revisit the remarkable remains of the Edwin Fox, which was built in 1853 and is probably the world's oldest merchant ship. I strolled up High Street in the sunshine, somewhat held back by the immensely noisy wheels on my cheap cabin bag, and secured some lunch to eat down by the waterfront.

Soon it was time to depart on the half hour coach ride into Blenheim. The Intercity dropped me at the railway station, and it was a short walk to the nearby Koanui Lodge, my accommodation for the night. I'd stumped up for a single room, which was perfectly decent. I enjoyed the fact that the Lodge was located on Main Rd, despite the fact that the thoroughfare was not actually the main road in Blenheim. Perhaps it used to be, back in the day. Now it's full of used car lots and fast-food joints with no on-street pedestrian access, and is dominated by southbound traffic heading towards Christchurch.

After dropping off my gear I walked the short distance into the centre of town to check things out. Blenheim is not replete with historic buildings, and although its CBD is perfectly pleasant it also holds little of particular interest for the casual visitor. Most people visit Blenheim for the marvellous collection of vineyards ringing the town, but I wasn't venturing out on a solo booze cruise, no matter how much I enjoy Alan Scott's riesling or a nice drop of Seresin.

It's probably worth noting that the most interesting aspect of Blenheim's history is its original name, which was actually The Beaver. The first surveyors were caught in one of the river's many floods and were required to clamber up onto their bunks 'like a lot of beavers in a dam', and the name stuck until about 1860.

The following morning I ventured out on my planned stroll to Omaka. While the Lodge apparently had cycles to borrow, I didn't want to churn through my day in Blenheim too speedily, so I decided to walk the five kilometre route to the airfield at the outskirts of town. (It's a flat, easy walk apart from the sun, and it took me about 45 minutes).

The aviation collection is located in a large modern hangar at the edge of a working airfield, and its $25 entry fee is more than good value if you're an aviation buff or just a history fan in general. The collection focuses on one- and two-man aircraft from World War One, chiefly fighters and scouts, with a healthy helping of aeronautical memorabilia thrown in. Certainly, most of the aircraft on display are replicas, but that is absolutely no reason for purists to give Omaka a miss.

The aircraft are uniformly beautiful, and the particular skill with which Weta Workshops has assisted in arranging the displays and mannequins has given the exhibits a powerful sense of realism. Last year I was fortunate to visit world-class aviation collections in Paris and Berlin, and while those museums had superb collections, the manner in which the aircraft were displayed was somewhat clinical and old-fashioned. At Omaka the aircraft are placed in context with the imagined daily life of a fighting warplane going on around them. A downed Morane-Saulnier Type BB, ditched in a muddy field, with a Ford ambulance lurching to the rescue and RFC men pulling the stricken crew from the wreckage. New Zealand's RFC air ace Keith Logan 'Grid' Caldwell perched precariously on the wing of his doomed SE5a as it skims the trenches, just before he leaps to an uncertain fate.  And there's a famous centrepiece: the gleaming Fokker Dreidecker belonging to Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, spreadeagled in the dirt, with Australian troopers carving the aircraft up for priceless souvenirs and relieving the Baron's recumbent corpse of his bespoke flying boots.

Etrich Taube (1910-15)

Morane Saulnier BB (1915-16)

Famous American ace Eddie Rickenbacker's flying suit

'Grid' Caldwell's great escape

The death of the Red Baron

There was also the chance to step aboard a piece of New Zealand aviation history outside the hangar, when museum staff opened up ZK-CPT, a vintage clamshell-doored Bristol Freighter that flew the Chathams run with Safe Air until its retirement in the 1980s.  While the aircraft generated affection from its flight crews due to its power and reliability, it must have been a rather mixed attraction for passengers. The shipping-container-like interior was frequently shared with cargoes such as live sheep or unrefrigerated seafood, and the fuselage was thin and unpressurised, so the journey was both relentlessly noisy thanks to the nearby Hercules engines and choppy because the aircraft couldn't fly above inclement weather.    

Bristol Freighter cargo doors

Next door to the aviation centre a smaller hangar contained the Omaka Classic Car Collection, which is also definitely worth a visit for car enthusiasts. It's considerably smaller than the excellent Southwards Car Museum in Paraparaumu north of Wellington, but contains one man's appealing collection of New Zealand road cars, many of which hold a certain charm for those of us old enough to remember the days when British cars ruled the roads. While I was slightly saddened by the lack of an Austin 1100 'Landcrab', I was also unreasonably pleased to spot such seemingly mundane treasures as a Hillman Alpine, a Wolseley 16/60, a two-tone 1963 Ford Anglia Super, and an oh-so-brown 1979 Austin Princess HL. The latter Austin helps to illustrate the changing of the guard in the motor world, because in 1979 and as late as 1982 Austin was still cranking out Princesses, while in another corner of the museum a sprightly pixie, the 1978 Honda Civic subcompact, showed how the rest of the automotive 20th century would belong to Japan.

Austin Princess

Ford Anglia

Aside from the charming slice of working, family cars, the museum also has its fair share of genuine stunners. Chief among those are a trio of legendary Jaguars: a two-seater open-topped XK120 from 1950, with its swooping curves extolling a boom years optimism distilled into car form; the reddest of red 1959 XK150s coupes, with a 3442cc double overhead cam straight six twin SU carburettor under the bonnet; and my ideal luxury car, a cream-toned 1969 E-Type with its marvellous wedge rear and shining spoked wheels.

Jaguar XK120 & XK150

Jaguar E-Type

After three and a half hours at Omaka I walked back towards Blenheim, happy with my visit to the aerodrome. With the sun rising higher and baking Marlborough and me along with it, I paused to visit the Marlborough Museum, which was en route. It was fine for a brief visit, but the collection seemed to be dominated by the history of the surrounding vineyards and the wine industry. This is fine if you're fascinated by viticulture, but less interesting to me - I was keener to learn about the century and a bit before the grapes took over the town. There was a nice section on the travails faced by early settlers on the journey out from Britain, with a mocked-up stateroom and steerage quarters to show the privations suffered on the months-long journey to New Zealand.

Most middle- and working-class passengers travelled in steerage

I then took a stroll around the adjacent Brayshaw Park, a curious 'frontier town' replica consisting of mock vintage shops, which was absolutely deserted apart from me. For those who remember it, Brayshaw had the same worthy but slightly decrepit feel that the Auckland Museum's 'Centennial Street' had when we visited it as school-children in the '80s. One for the kids, perhaps.

It was soon time to head back to Wellington - this was a short visit to Blenheim, after all. My only souvenir: a $15 box of Errol Flynn films from the ubiquitous Warehouse in town. I nearly ended up staying longer than I had anticipated though: the shuttle service I had booked had clearly forgotten about me, and I had to call to remind them that I was expected at the airport in approximately five minutes. Someone raced out to collect me amidst a flurry of apologies, and I made it to Woodbourne in plenty of time. This is hardly LAX we're talking about here, so the check-in lady wasn't the least bothered that I was slightly tardy.

The single-engine 12 seater Sounds Air Cessna Caravan trundled up to the gate soon after I arrived, and the pleasingly old-fashioned routine played out - the pilot helped the passengers off and helped to unload their bags too, before nipping into the terminal for a quick chat to the check-in lady (seemingly the only staff member on duty). Then he ducked back out to the plane to help shepherd us on board. I sat directly behind the pilot to gain the best view I could of the 25 minute journey back to Wellington. There's nothing like flying in a small aircraft to remind you how exciting flying must have felt in the early days. The modest breeze tugged the tail sideways immediately after takeover and we slewed around a bit until we reached the 4000 feet cruising altitude. Then it was directly on to Wellington, which I could see in the distance soon after takeoff - it was a perfectly clear day for flying. The Marlborough Sounds were to the left, and the light brown Wither Hills lay to the south, and once we approached the southern shore of the North Island the West Wind turbines provided a handy reference point. In no time the Cessna was on the ground once more, and having enjoyed a speedy inter-island journey and an appealing two days in the South Island I set off for the airport bus and the familiar western hills of Wellington City.

Cessna Caravan, Woodbourne

Wither Hills, south of Blenheim

Landing approach at WLG

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