The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

Whilst I like writing the blog, you will have noticed that we publish in blocks of time, generally with a significant change in scenery being a driver for a new post. I like writing only so much! During our stay with the Sells in Blenheim, Emma and Paul suggested that we make time to visit the air museum at the edge of town and on our last full day with them, we decided to do so, taking Cloe with us whilst the grown ups went back to work.

I can’t say I was expecting much. What we did find blew me away and gets the Centre a blog post all to itself. Here is the link to its webpage. 


The exhibition halls are split into WWI and WWII. It isn’t a cheap museum – a family pass costs $99 for both halls, $79 if you only want to see one war zone – and I was biting at laying out so much for a single activity. In the end we stumped up the extra $20 for both halls.

Once I walked into the start of the WWI, saw the first working plane, my jaw dropped, I had the first of a great many wow moments and I ceased complaining.

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The museum has had the Sir Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings Director fame) treatment.   He is a very keen plane collector and wanting to do his bit back into his native NZ, has lodged some of his collection at the museum. He also provided the museum with his entire Great War artefact collection which is simply magnificent.  Then he got his film company and friends involved in making everything come to life. Wonderfully set tableaus are built around every plane. There is even a rebuild of the Red Baron’s crash site. Each manikins is to Madame Tousaud standard. The artefacts, photos and information are beautifully presented and of great rarity. There are several Blue Max medals (the highest award the Germans gave out in WWI), huge number of panels detailing, more often than not, the short, tragic but spectacular lives of the aces of WWI. There is even one of the wing panels with a German Cross cut from the Red Barons plane after it was shot down. The place is a gem and I have never seen a better collection nor a better presented collection anywhere. Did you know that Air Marshal Goering of WWII infamy was the third and last commander of the Flying Circus of WWI? I didn’t. The white jacket he is famous for reflects his choice of white painted aircraft he flew in WWI.

Omaka Avaition Heritage Centre

We took three and a half hours just for the WWI collection. It was staggeringly good.

The WWII hall had less aircraft but all are working, each with a drip tray under the engine. Again Sir Peter obviously had a great time doing the place up. There was even a very noisy room with huge double surround screens where you got eight minutes of being under air attack whilst being in the rubble of Stalingrad. Tagged on to that was a short film on just how many casualties there were in the War. Sickening. Did you know it is thought that the Russians lost as many souls at Stalingrad as the UK and US together did in the whole war?

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The last exhibit was a Spitfire, a later Mk XIV that was used after the war in the Far East. It is used sparingly now after a crash landing some ten years ago in which the pilot was badly injured. Omaka Avaition Heritage Centre

If you happen ever to be in the area of Blenheim, can I respectfully suggest you spend a day here at the Centre. You won’t regret it. Your kids and you will come away enthralled, educated and thoughtful.

 Omaka Avaition Heritage Centre

The Sell family of Blenheim

It was nice to know that there was a bed waiting for us when we left the ferry at dark o’clock. We had been invited to stay with Emma and Paul Sell, both ex UK Army, who had emigrated to NZ some four years ago. Emma had been a term above Lou at RMAS and they were on the Regimental Administrative Officers’ Course together in 2002. Before leaving the UK, Paul had retrained as an osteopath. He bought a going concern, moved it to a better location, expanded and is going great guns and is the only multiple practitioner practise in the local area. Emma now runs a massage therapist business from home. They took a long view before emigrating, using a seven year plan to take them to where they are now, the town of Blenheim, the town which records the highest amount of sun in NZ annually. They have a lovely daughter, Chloe who is nine. We think they have achieved an excellent work/lifestyle balance. Certainly, I’m a little jealous!

The trip across the Cook Strait was quite pleasant. We got on the ferry and the girls found out that the cinema was playing Moana, the new Disney film. $5 each and off they went leaving Lou and I to watch the seas from one of the seated areas. Lou would have happily joined the girls watching Moana but there were only two seats and there would have been a mutiny had she taken one! We had following waves and wind which in a yacht might have been a bit cheeky but in the ferry, gave us an easy crossing.

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We stayed with the Sells for three nights and two full days. It was very kind of them to give up the equivalent of a Bank Holiday to look after us the first day. It was great too, to be back in a proper double bed, the comfiest we have slept in since we left the UK. In a lovely dark room and very quiet at the back of the house, it was wonderfully soporific! It was so comfortable that we slept through a 5.5 earthquake, an aftershock of the Kiakoura earthquake. Maybe we were just tired…..

With rain in the air and being overcast, day one was a trip to one of the local vineyards. Yealands Estates is an interesting place. Established by Peter Yealands, a man who believes there is always a way around a problem, it gave us a fascinating insight to his goal of making wine in a more sustainable way. Rather than have tractors to keep the grass and weeds down between the rows of vines, Peter decided to employ mini sheep. They aren’t big enough to damage the vines and work a treat. There are now 1500 around the vineyards, markedly reducing the businesses diesel emissions. There are a range of complimentary plants and flowers grown around the blocks, which gives the vines protection from a variety of bugs and ailments. Just smart, novel solutions. The wine was excellent too!

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Day Two was clear and we headed up to the Wither Hills, a park on the edge of town from where we were able to look over the whole of the town in the valley underneath us. Like all NZ towns we have visited, the majority of buildings are single storey and spread out. Emma and Paul’s house was lovely. I wish we could transport it back to the UK but I fear it would be well out of our budget anywhere in England.

The afternoon activity was the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, and that, we decided, deserved a blog all to itself.  Check it out.

S Island

After yet another lovely evening meal, we spent the last night getting some great steers from Emma and Paul for our travels in the South Island. We headed off early on the morning of the 5th Jan to head down towards Hanmer Springs where we were to regroup with Gill and Alasdair.  Our sincere thanks to Emma and Paul for all their hospitality. It was great seeing them again.

S Island

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We left Auckland having decided to spend one extra day in the Air BnB house. The delay was probably for the best as we were no way ready to push off on the 26th!

We pushed S towards Martinborough to meet up with Gill and Alastair in one of the top 10 campsites. The location was chosen due to its closeness to Wellington where we would get the ferry across to S island. There was also that small matter of being bang in the middle of an excellent wine region with winery after winery within easy walking distance of the campsite.

There is, however, a good deal of N island between Auckland and Wellington and we managed to make a couple of stops on the way.

First on the list was Lake Tapou. About half way down the N island, this enormous lake is the remnants of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last 750,000 years which possibly helped to start off the last Ice Age. The last big eruption was around 180AD and is rated as one of the top 3 or 4 violent eruptions in the last 20000years.  Both the Chinese and the Romans recorded a period when the skies went red and it has been linked to this eruption. The volcano is classed as dormant but the lake is constantly measured as the S end rises with the slowly building internal pressures. On the lake’s shore there was a posh chipping range. I sadly didn’t manage to score a hole in one to give us the $10k prize but the girls did have a great time doing summersaults on one of those bouncy machines whilst I (I’m proud to say) peppered the floating green.New Year 2017New Year 2017

The weather stayed fair as we moved down to the Tongariro National Park. Situated with several active volcano (last eruption in the 80’s) the park provides some glorious walks. The one that we did took us a couple of hours and, as we found out later at the information hut, took us on to the foot of Mt Doom of Lord of the Ring fame and around to the lovely Taranaki waterfalls.

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Hannah, of course, had to go behind the falls and got a little wet but the walk back down was warm and she soon dried out.

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Continuing S, we moved to a locally run campsite called the Ruatiti Domain. You had to travel 10 miles off the main road, on to a dirt track and then further on rough track to get down beside a beautiful river. It is, without doubt, the best campsite we have been at in terms of privacy, quiet, beauty and is the only place we have been allowed to light a fire. The loos were long drop, the river your shower. The night sky was brilliant. I have no idea where the nearest light source was but it was long way away. Our pitch was large, dry and within 50m of the river. We watched numerous fishermen pull brown and rainbow trout out and I wished I had brought a fishing rod. We stayed for an extra night and if we hadn’t had to move on to meet Starcharger, I think we would have been there as long as the food lasted, playing in the swimming pool just above us.

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It was a long drive from there down to Martinborough, where we had arranged to meet up with Starcharger to celebrate New Year. We decided to get through the miles as quick as we could. We stopped and admired the view at Stormy Point and were surprised to be able to look back at Mt Doom (otherwise known as Mt Ruapehu) some 60miles away at that point. One thing I have enjoyed about New Zealand is the clarity and quality of air. You can see a long long way and with all the detail there. There is rarely any haze to bother a perfect view.

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Martinborough is a fun place. Overshadowed by the Big Brother of NZ wine, the Malborough district of S island, it has a large number of small but quality vineyards. The town is quaint too. We were surprised to read that the town had been planned using the Union Jack as the pattern for the roads and they have managed to hold a late 19C feel to the buildings around the main square, protecting many of the original buildings.

We stayed at the Top 10 campsite, right beside an unheated free swimming pool, which of course the girls saw, screamed and headed off to meet like minded kids. They came back blue but happy. The adults made the most of the local facilities and we visited a number of vineyards for tastings. The kids got helpful at one of them and, whilst the lady presented us with nice wine to taste, they assembled the bike rack she had been struggling with. Eleanor took control and the girls got a free drink out of it. My favourite yard was the smallest yard of all, making a few thousand cases a year, named Cabbage Tree, which is a firm favourite of Sir Ian Botham when he visits to commentate. We bought a couple of bottles to savour.The Cabbage Tree will export. Have a look here. The wine is excellent

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New Year was held quite quietly in the campsite kitchen. Bizarrely we were warned at 2230hrs by one of the camp staff that we really should make sure we were being quiet (which we were). We moved back across to our tent. The Kiwi in the tent site opposite us was horrified we had been spoken too . “ Not the Kiwi way, mate!” However, we faired better than the group of Irish that were in. Before the evening had even started they had been informed their party size was too big and that they should either go into town to celebrate New Year or leave the campsite. I rather think the people running this particular campsite are lacking in a bit of personality! In the end, we had a good group first foot us, Kiwis, two Irish and a group from the UK, and we enjoyed a very quiet rowdiness until we retired.

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We recovered on New Years Day by heading N to what was promoted as a model railway which had taken Alastair’s fancy. It was a good place to be as the rain poured down. Cwmglyn Farm is an interesting place and is run by a husband and wife team. The rail track has been constructed over 40 years by the husband. Biddy, the wife, started a small farm dairy making live culture cheese with four cows. She has fought a battle with NZ regulations and frankly, government departmental stupidity for years in regard to the amount of testing she is needs to do. Required to use the same testing regime as a large scale commercial producer, 3/4 of her income goes in paying the testing labs meaning very little profit for an awful lot of work. Her cheese is excellent, recognised internationally as being such but unfortunately she is just too small for the bureaucrats to be bothered about. My bet is they will simply be waiting for her to peg out. Not nice to say and short sighted as well. I would have thought that small and cottage industry should be promoted and helped with the current unemployment figures of NZ being as they are.With the farming industry needing help in its survival, they should be assisting any business that helps to re-establish farming and internal food producing industries. Have a look at the farm website to see the cheese making process in photos.

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Both Alasdair and Gill and ourselves had ferries to catch to the South Island booked for the 2nd Jan. We had a half a day in Wellington and visited the excellent  Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Well laid out, it has excellent modern displays and we filled our time up very easily. We could have spend another day there exploring and we have decided that we will do exactly that on our return. Highlights for me must include the SheepCam (only in NZ!) and the Maori displays and artefacts.

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Our ferry left late afternoon and after failing miserably to find an open chippy for a snack before we left, we had to rush to get booked in in time.

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