Wairarapa: Just wine?

By Shayne Currie

The scourge of homelessness appears to have hit Masterton with full force. A dozen weatherbeaten individuals are bundled up in rugs and sleeping bags on the main street. They huddle in the cold and wet, while a member of the local constabulary looks on, a tad bored. They are surrounded by what looks like crime-scene tape. This seems more akin to New York or San Francisco - something is not right, because we know Wairarapa is thriving.

Hundreds of Wellingtonians, including former MP and Herald on Sunday columnist Deborah Coddington, have packed in their Khandallah and Karori bungalows and villas to enjoy sunnier climes and a more laid-back lifestyle in the rural retreats.

Barbara Hyde made a similar move over the Rimutakas to Carterton. She's now the marketing manager for Destination Wairarapa, and is waxing lyrical about the place - until she spies the group of ragamuffins on the street.

Puzzled, she stops the car for a better look. Two young women at the head of the queue give the game away. They are Flight of the Conchords fans who have slept in the street for a good 24 hours to be first through the door of the recreation centre and into front-row seats for tonight's one-off New Zealand concert.

That's dedication, says Hyde. That's insane, I think.

But there's no doubt the concert - a fundraiser to support Conchord Jemaine Clement's former school, Makoura College in Masterton - has helped to throw a new spotlight on the town and Wairarapa generally.

When they went on sale, tickets for the show sold out in 91 minutes. The media was abuzz and the story went global - one diehard fan was willing to fly from Florida to see Clement and Bret McKenzie.

We're off to the concert, too, but will take our chances for seats closer to the 8pm start time. For now, the main attraction is beer and wine.

Nick Rogers made his own odyssey to Wairarapa in 2006, as DB Breweries' commercial manager. He's a respected member of the DB executive, who shifted south from Auckland to be closer to his children's grandparents and to enjoy the city-country balance. (He comes to Auckland for a couple of days each week on the new Air New Zealand direct service.)

"I am lucky I work for a great company and in the days of internet and wireless connections business can be conducted almost anywhere. Your geographic location is less of a barrier."

Rogers' responsibilities include being marketing manager of Tui and its brewery - he's the man behind the brains behind the billboard campaign.

Rogers tells me that it's in his Key Performance Indicators that he has to generate a legal threat from some group over a billboard every month. I'm thinking, yeah right.

Tui's Christmas billboard - "Let's take a moment this Christmas to think about Christ ... Yeah right" - generated the most complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority of any advertisement in the past 12 months. So on that basis, Rogers is doing an impeccable job.

The Tui Brewery is a bloke's idea of heaven - everything about it sings fun. Local legend has it that entrepreneur Henry Wagstaff stopped for a cup of tea on the banks of the Mangatainoka River in 1889, and found the water delicious. He stayed put, and started developing a more powerful brew.

A small museum has been established, explaining the origin of the place. There's a Tuiwood sign on the hills overlooking the site.

And then there are the famous Tui girls who, on the day I visited, were nowhere to be seen other than on some rather stunning posters.

Daily taste tours and a rather special golfing package are also on offer - or play in the annual Tui tournament: 18 holes at the local course, then hack your way through three more holes in paddocks, then have a pint at the brewery. Rogers has even grander plans to build on the 40,000-plus visitors who call in each year.

One proposal includes a flying fox off the brewery's famous gravity tower and over the river. I'm thinking yeah right again, but Rogers seems to be the sort of bloke who can pull it off.

We're on the road back into Masterton, and call in at Pukaha Mount Bruce, New Zealand's national wildlife centre for threatened species.

The centre has had a $1.4 million upgrade and revamp - complete with a stunning digital theatre show and interactive activities for children (and adults).

But the best show today is real life, thanks to the two kiwi-house inhabitants, Chelsea and Rua. Perhaps it's the dim red lights, but these two birds are both clearly on heat and happy to put on a rather pornographic and rare display of affection for each other.

It's all rather hopeless, in the long run, because Chelsea's had a hysterectomy, but the bird bonding was special.

After a glass of pinot noir and beautiful chocolate cake at the Gladstone Vineyard, courtesy of owner and winemaker Christine Kernohan, it's time to watch two more characters in action.

By the time we arrive at the events centre for the Conchords' concert the place is packed, and we cram into an aisle, with our knees up to our chins. This is insane, I say.

We're saved at the last minute when one of Hyde's colleagues comes forward, and drags us to stage right, not 20m from those who spent the night in the cold to get the best seats. Even Bret McKenzie laughs about this.

It's a superb show, with a homely touch. They take requests, and hassle the hecklers.

Clement reminisces about school days in Masterton, and the events centre, which also plays host to the famous Golden Shears: "It's an honour to be on the same stage as some of the greatest sheep I've ever seen," he deadpans.

To steal a line from their latest TV series, they came, they saw, they Conchord.

IF YOU GO

How to get there: Air New Zealand subsidiary Eagle Air operates a direct service between Auckland and Masterton six days a week. Lead-in online fares between Masterton and Auckland start from $105 one-way. For more information call at an Air New Zealand Holidays Store, ph 0800 737 000, or see the Air New Zealand website.

Where to stay: The Copthorne Hotel & Resort, Solway Park, Masterton has just had a $7m upgrade.

What to do:
* The Tui Brewery, State Highway 2, Mangatainoka. Open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm; Friday to Sunday 10am to 5pm.
* Pukaha Mt Bruce, national wildlife centre for threatened species, located on SH2, 30km north of Masterton.
* Gladstone Vineyard, Gladstone Rd, RD2, Carterton.

- Herald on Sunday

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