Most of us agree that this tiny province produces some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc but I was unprepared for the scale of the wine industry in the region. You’d struggle to comprehend that there are some 150 vineyards here, unless of course you get yourself airborne, as I did, in a vintage aeroplane! The rush of fresh air from the open cockpit and the crystal clear skies was quite an eye opener. It also allowed me to gain a sense of the vast spread of parallel rows of colour, seen at their brilliant best on this beautiful autumn morning.
Venturing to the north you find yourself over the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. Most visitors get a glimpse of this aquatic wonderland as they sail into Queen Charlotte Sound aboard the ferry or fly into Marlborough on one of the small commercial flights that provide regular services into Blenheim Airport. If however, you are able to fly over the ‘Sounds and spend some time venturing around these beautiful waterways, you are once again prone to pleasant surprise as you get the impression that this vast snakes and ladders board of waterways
could keep a boat owner occupied for several lifetimes without ever becoming repetitive. It would be very difficult to find a more attractive maze to serve as a playground for those with a love of the water.
Now the vintage aircraft flights available in Marlborough operate not from the main airport but from the historic all-over grass covered Omaka Airfield to the southwest of the city. And here we find another of Marlborough’s unique surprises.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a museum like no other I’ve ever seen before. I have been to many museums, including aviation museums, but this is something entirely different. It is not so much a collection of old aeroplanes, that would not describe it at all, but instead, an immersion experience in which the visitor is taken on a four year journey back into The Great War of 1914-18, when aviation was still in its infancy and the war was a proving ground for radical new technology.
Entering the main display building affords another surprise, as the visitor is plunged into near darkness, allowing dramatic theatrical lighting to highlight the individual displays. I was literally gob-smacked by the mix of over 20 aircraft from the WW-I period, some of them originals in ‘time-capsule’ condition, and others replicas, not just capable of flight, but actually flown at times, especially during the biennial ‘Classic Fighters’ Easter airshow that occurs here during the odd years. Other aircraft are displayed in wonderfully creative dioramas that depict in very powerful realism, some of the challenges that these young airborne adventurers were asked to face in the skies above France and Belgium a hundred years ago. These displays are remarkably realistic and the many mannequins that feature within the scenes are so realistic as to be almost scary. No surprise then to learn that these were supplied by Sir Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshops, supporting the theatrical displays produced by Wingnut Films. It transpires that one of the founding Trustees of this organization was Peter Jackson (long before adding the ‘Sir’) and the aircraft belong to
the 14-18 Heritage Trust, of which Sir Peter is Chairman.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this remarkable facility is the collection of utterly priceless original WW-I memorabilia that can be seen in the display cases. Flying apparel, medals and trophies belonging to the greatest pilots of the Great War, can be seen beautifully presented in the cabinets. Museum staff told me that it is often the visitors from the USA, UK and Europe who are the most surprised by these exhibits, simply because they are here in Marlborough, New Zealand, rather than in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. or at the Imperial War Museum in London.
That theme of surprise was wonderfully well illustrated by Prime Minister John Key when he first visited the museum in 2012. After a whirlwind visit on a tight timetable he emerged from the display hall with a huge smile on his face and uttered the words “I had no idea!” More recently, Mr. Key returned with his lovely wife Bronagh and gave her a tour of the displays as the couple
formed part of the entourage that joined their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their visit here on 10th April. Sir Peter Jackson was there in person to serve as tour guide on this occasion, taking the Royal couple through the facility and explaining what was behind the aircraft and other displays. This one museum in small-town New Zealand attracted quite a gathering of significant people and now I have seen the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre for myself, I can totally understand why.
As I leave Marlborough, there is one more element of surprise that I can’t ignore. I’d planned to be here for just a couple of days but I have stayed for nearly a week. There is a surprising range of things to do here in Marlborough, and the quality of food, wine, accommodation, activities and attractions will ensure that I shall be returning before too long, to be surprised all over again!