Wanaka: On a wing and a prayer

By Michael Walsh

Heading down south by motorhome to the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow is a nostalgic, and pie-filled, journey for pilot Michael Walsh and an old buddy.

A Russian-made Yak 3 survives a mock anti-aircraft barrage during one of the spectacular displays at Warbirds Over Wanaka. Photo / Michael Walsh
A Russian-made Yak 3 survives a mock anti-aircraft barrage during one of the spectacular displays at Warbirds Over Wanaka. Photo / Michael Walsh

In a bid to relive a moment from our youth, my partner in crime Nicholas and I - both pilots - are retracing a 1992 trip to New Zealand's deep south.

This time, though, we're not flying there: our journey is much longer and slower and, best of all, we have a fridge...

DAY ONE: We're at Auckland Airport to pick up our motorhome from Maui, having arrived from Sydney late the night before. An older gentleman awaiting his camper asks what we're up to.

"We're taking this thing all the way to Wanaka."

"Where's Wanaka?" he asks ...

After loading the essential condiments, surfboard and fishing equipment into Moby, our luxury land whale, we begin our journey south, and not a moment too soon. But before we travel more than 500m our progress is halted.

"I need a coffee."

"Same here."

We stop at the first cafe we see.

Now that we're both older and wiser, our journey is planned around frequent food stops. We've agreed that food and vegetables, preferably organic, can only be bought on the roadside and that there's nothing wrong with a little dirt. Coffee must be fresh and plentiful, beers craft and wines matched.

Our journey to Warbirds Over Wanaka will take us through 1500km of territory we first covered together 20-odd years ago. We were 20 years old, learning to fly and learning how to stay out of trouble. Like last time, we have carefully assessed the weather and route, this time paying special attention to the surf and fishing reports.

It's a long journey but no trip down the North Island would be complete without a stop at Waiouru Army Museum. Forcing Dad to stop there on those long drives to Auckland is etched in my memory. Forcing Nicholas to stop proves equally difficult. We park alongside an old Army tank, comparing its sturdy construction with our camper.

After a quick fuel top-up, our own nourishment needs are attended to. Pie count = 1.

We pass the DC3 in Mangaweka. It's been repainted and they're out of pies, but the plane signals our proximity to Palmerston North. There appears to be a wall of cloud and rain surrounding the city: perhaps like John Cleese, we'll visit next time.

Most of our first day has been occupied with remembering places and "Where are they now?" questions (Shmoo, Scratch, where are you?).

The cloud clears as I quietly contemplate the last leg down the Ngauranga Gorge and the sight of Wellington Harbour. The evening is spent visiting my family. Nicholas hasn't seen them for 20 years. Not much has changed between them.

DAY TWO: Tough drive this morning: it's 400m from the Wellington waterfront motorhome park to the Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry. The weather has been a little rough and the ferry is running a bit late. But they make a great cup of coffee and I catch up on a little lost sleep.

Later I discover Nicholas has eaten a pie for breakfast. Pie count = 2.

I head to grab one myself, but they're sold out and the oven has stopped working. Pie count = 2.

Weather conditions remain unfavourable. The view I promised of the Marlborough Sounds is filtered through low cloud, heavy rain and wind. It is also cold, very cold. Dreams of sunny days on the beach fade.

My pie craving is satisfied with a quick stop at the Pelorus Bridge cafe. A great selection of pies to choose from, in fact too many. He has the apple and wild pork, I'm into the steak, kidney and mushroom. Pie count = 4.

DAY THREE: A stop in Murchison enables the purchase of two essential items. A large heavy frypan and a combination fish scaler and bottle opener. The fish won't stand a chance.

This isn't our first trip through the Buller Gorge together, but certainly the most sedate, as we snake our way down to Westport. After a nod to an old friend we stop at the Bay House Cafe at Tauranga Bay to assess the surf and accommodation options.

"We might as well have lunch while we work this one out."

Green curry, coconut cream and coriander mussels and a pizza work a treat, washed down with Omaka Estate pinot gris.

Nicholas intercepts returning surfers for the lowdown. We're surprised they describe the swell in metres, not feet. This kind of surf is not going to do it for me, never mind for him, still sporting a head injury from the week before. The stitches were removed on Monday but I feared things were still not quite right. The evening is spent gathering kai moana, watching the tide roll in and feasting.

DAY FOUR: It's been a tough morning, perhaps one too many mussels last night or a dodgy piece of lettuce. We want to stop every few kilometres to enjoy the view and surf but we must get to Wanaka tonight for tomorrow's Warbirds Over Wanaka event.

A stop at Fox township supplies sustenance for the last push to Wanaka. The great pie heist of Fox is deftly crafted within seconds of entering the service station. As the tourists ahead contemplate their food choices, a sidestep and lurch at the now open pie warmer secure the last remaining pies in Fox. This does nothing for foreign relations. We can make up for that later. Pie count = 6.

DAY FIVE: This is what our journey is all about: Warbirds Over Wanaka. Maui have secured a prime piece of Wanaka Airport for the exclusive use of its motorhome guests but I get the impression we aren't expected... or at least not with four-day stubble and bleary eyes. But the early rise is worth it, with Moby backed up to the fence, tables out and breakfast under way before the first plane idles by.

There is always debate about the appropriate way to conserve irreplaceable old machinery but seeing these old machines still flying, especially against the picture perfect Wanaka backdrop, is simply a joy.

The Kittyhawk and Corsair fighters of the Pacific Campaign were fascinating. But the biggest treat was the pair of Yak-3s. These World War II Russian fighters were unknown to us with, some say, a superior performance to the P51 Mustang.

The whole thing was thrilling. Other than a ride in a Spitfire we really couldn't ask for anything more.

Given our aviation backgrounds, it was always going to be tough to stop looking long enough to actually write this story at the air show. But that's fine, we have Monday to catch up. More importantly, pie count = 7.

DAY SIX: Our writing day starts slowly in Queenstown. There just isn't enough coffee.

"Let's check out Glenorchy!"

"But the editor won't be happy if we don't have the story finished."

"Give him the combination fish scaler and bottle opener ... it's all we have left."

After an unenthusiastic attempt at getting to Glenorchy our last few hours are spent high on the Remarkables, finishing breakfast in quiet contemplation, before descending to Queenstown, handing Moby back to the Maui team and checking in for our flight home to Auckland.

Below us is the airport where one morning, a long time ago, we removed ice from the wings of a plane with our bankcards. That was then and it was a start.

This is the end of the line. We're tired, missing our families and in need of a good salad.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

* Maui has a fleet of campervans and motorhomes for rent.
* Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries connect the North and South islands.
* Air New Zealand flies to Queenstown several times a day.

Where to stay:

* Wellington Waterfront Motorhome Park
* Aspiring Campervan & Holiday Park
* Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park

What to do: Warbirds Over Wanaka

Michael Walsh and Nicholas McDowell got to the Warbirds Over Wanaka with help from Maui, Bluebridge and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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