Wētā Workshop

Having experienced the spectacle of Hobbiton, as well as myriad locations featured in The Lord of the Rings movie, our trip to new Zealand wouldn’t have been complete without a tour of Wētā Workshop. The company, based in Wellington, is the creative home of special effects and props, and they have been producing sets, costumes, armour, weapons and creatures for television and film since 1987. Sneaking past the huge stone trolls cavorting on the lawns

we made it through the Hobbit door entrance.

There was no shortage of memorabilia in the gift shop

and I wondered what was lurking under the loincloth of Lurtz.

The first part of the tour led us on a discovery of miniature effects including real television shooting stages for Thunderbirds Are Go! I remember the original TV series in the 1960s and couldn’t pass up the chance to ride up front with Virgil Tracy in Thunderbird 2.

We were then taken on a fascinating journey through the creation of props, costumes and creatures for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Photography was only allowed in designated areas throughout the tour, hence the absence thereof. At the end of the tour, we were ushered into a room, seemingly guarded by a life size figure of Orc-lord, Azog.

Here we met special effects artist, Warren Beaton, his appearance the epitome of a mad professor.

Various heads kept watch from above

as he demonstrated his expertise of making prototypes using tin foil and a spoon.

I’m sure it’s not as easy as he made it look, the results are remarkable.

With a fond farewell to Bert (stone trolls need love, too) we headed off in search of sustenance before our next adventure.

Darwin Street Art – part one

There are so many great reasons to visit Darwin, especially in the dry season. During my visit last year, I discovered another. The Darwin Street Art Festival invites local, national and international artists to transform the streets and laneways of the CBD into a giant art gallery. Eight murals were painted in the  first year, 2017, followed by sixteen in 2018. A further fifteen were added each year in 2019 and 2020. We embarked on a wondrous voyage of discovery one morning, not realising the magnitude of the undertaking. Our introduction was a colourful graphic work by Melburnian urban artist Andrew Bourke (more about him later).

Riece Ranson started as a graffiti writer in London before moving on to murals. He has paid homage to his love of the coastline and fishing in the Northern Territory with his painting of a Queensland Groper.

Belgian artist, Vexx, incorporated his signature colourful ‘doodles’ to put his own twist on Darwin’s deadly animal, the crocodile.

Beneath the crocodile, in 2020 Northern Territory based visual artist, Polly Johnstone (Miss Polly), raised the question of what the future will bring.

Vibrant graphics burst forth from drab walls and a more subtle illustration emerged from the pavement.

Roller doors provided an alternative canvas for a nature-inspired triptych.

Saltwater Home was a collaboration between Sydneysider Tim De Haan (Phibs) and Darwin-born Larrakia man, Shaun Lee (Hafleg) in 2017. Both men grew up by the ocean and have blended elements of saltwater life with a Larrakia design presented in stunning colours of the outback .

Although not part of the Street Art Festival, some quirky animation graced the walls of the Babylon Bar at the Austin Lane end of Air Raid Arcade.

At the other end of the arcade on Cavenagh Street, the recently opened Birth of Venus Bar was similarly embellished.

Melburnian Mike Maka’s (Makatron) 2017 creation, Poppies for the People, was inspired by the location adjacent to the Darwin RSL Club. The mural links and contrasts the iconic red poppies of the World War I battlefield of France to the green of the tropical vegetation in the Top End.

Explorer John McDouall Stuart was the subject of local NT artist Ryan Medlicott’s portrait in 2018.

House of Darwin is a clothing company that reinvests its profits into social programs in remote Indigenous communities. Graphic designer and illustrator Liam Milner (Luna Tunes) painted a huge building in support of the project in 2019.

Native flora of the Northern Territory feature in the vibrant 2019 work by self-taught local artist, Jason Lee.

Once an illegal graffiti artist in New York, ELLE created a collage style painting in 2018 to tell the history of Darwin. The central image of an Aboriginal woman’s face has one Chinese eye, representing the influx of Chinese during the Goldrush. ELLE was fascinated by the accounts of lightning starting fires in the bush and the Black Kite picking up twigs from the fire and dropping them to spread the fires further in order to burn out food. She has used this creature as well as local flora to symbolise resilience, beauty, strength and pride.

Phibs, once again, contributed in 2018 with an abstract impression of the diverse flora and fauna found in the Northern Territory using a colour palette as seen in Darwin sunsets.

Tom Gerrard (Aeon) has a passion for finding shapes that shape a city and in 2017, the Melbourne-based artist teamed up with locals David Collins and Les Huddleston to capture some of the Top End’s most iconic structures. Gerrard has used his distinctive minimalist colour palette of red, black and white for the work entitled Darwin.

In 2018, Andrew Bourke combined his talents with NT artist Jesse Bell to honour the memory of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The talented Aboriginal musician passed away in July 2017 and, with blessings from his family, the artists have immortalised his image with the lyrics from his song Baru (The Saltwater Crocodile) in the background.

The following year, a piece of traditional Aboriginal design by Nyanpanyapa (Wendy) Yunupingu accompanied her late brother, Gurrumul.

On the opposite wall of the car park are two more magnificent pieces that complement each other. Multidimensional Man, painted by Melburnian Peter Seaton (CTO) in 2018, is a portrait of Hilton Garnarradj an Aboriginal guide from Arnhem Land.

A year later, Brisbane based artist Russell Orrie Fenn (Sofles) added the Interdimensional Space Crab alongside using the same tones as the Aboriginal man.

Polly Johnstone’s 2017 work, For the Love of Reading, features an image of Darwin local Artia Ratahi, representing the diverse culture of the community. The background is inspired by the colours of the Top End from the soil and crystal blue waters to the pinks and purples of the sunsets.

Another Darwin resident, Emma Murphy, combined fashion and nature for her bold creation in 2019. Models faces morph into birds, inspired by the Kookaburra, Hooded Parrot and the Rainbow Bee-eater bird.

Ryan Medlicott’s 2019 mural depicts the rare Oenpelli Python, the longest snake in the NT found only in the sandstone massif of western Arnhem Land.

With a lunch date looming, we ran out of time to complete our mission and returned a few days later but that will be another post. I could find no information on these last two paintings except the second one is titled Winner.

Mangaweka Gorge

We had no particular plan for sightseeing on the drive from Motuoapa Bay to Wellington but it wasn’t long before we saw a sign indicating the presence of a historic bridge. Of course, we went to investigate and found the Mangaweka Bridge. Built in 1904, it is the only cantilever road bridge left in New Zealand.

The bridge itself is quite impressive but the views from the centre of the Mangaweka Gorge are truly magnificent.

Across the bridge we were surprised to find Awastone Riverside Haven, comprising accommodation, a campground and café. We enjoyed coffee and cake along with a different perspective of the bridge, rising 17 metres above the riverbed and the vertical white ‘papa’ cliffs.

The Rangitikei River, one of New Zealand’s longest at 253 kilometres, has cut spectacular gorges through the soft clay on its way to the Tasman Sea. The dramatic backdrop and series of rapids along the way make it a popular destination for a memorable kayaking experience.

Since our visit, a new bridge has been built to cross the river at this point because of safety concerns. The old bridge will be retained as a tourist icon for foot traffic and cyclists and those wanting to take in the majestic views.

Karlštejn Castle

The last thing I expected to see in a rural location 100km south of Darwin was a Bohemian Castle.

The town of Batchelor, with a population around 500, was established in the early 1950s following the discovery of uranium at Rum Jungle. Czech immigrant, Bernie Havlik, worked in the mines from 1954 until its closure in 1971. For the next six years he served on the town gardening crew before retiring in 1977. He had been frustrated by a stubborn rocky outcrop in a park in the town centre that had proved impossible to move, and set about creating a replica of Karlštejn Castle.

Situated an hour from Prague in Bernie’s homeland, the original castle was built between 1348 and 1357 for Emperor Charles IV, King of Bohemia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels, holy relics and other royal treasures were kept safe within the walls of the castle.

Bernie worked on his construction for five years and continued to add finishing touches and carry out repairs until his death in 1990. Havlik Park is dedicated to Bernie as a tribute to his community spirit.

Unable to travel to Bohemia, I have appropriated a photo of Karlštejn Castle from Google maps for comparison.

Swinging Gate

With more than thirty two vineyards along the Tamar Valley Wine Route to choose from, it was a difficult task to narrow down those to visit within our limited time frame. Looking for something a bit different, we headed to Swinging Gate at Sidmouth. The vines were originally planted in 1985 and, then known as Buchanan Vineyard, the fruit was sold to various Tasmanian wineries but never had an identity of its own. Fifteen years later, the plot was sold and abandoned until horticulturalist Doug Cox and his wife Corrie purchased the vineyard in 2014 and set about resurrecting it. The name is in reference to the gates swinging open again for the first time in many years.

The old machinery shed has been converted to a quirky cellar door and adjoining day spa.

Wine dog, Nellie, is happy to receive attention from visitors, although I think a little too much of the good life has ended her modelling career.

The rustic interior was instantly welcoming, with mismatched tables and chairs offering the perfect setting for an informal tasting experience.

As it was only 10.30am, we had Doug’s undivided attention as he led us through the myriad wines on offer while sharing the background of Swinging Gate. With a 30 year career in horticulture under his belt, after purchasing the vineyard Doug taught himself the winemaking process. The first year was spent rejuvenating the vines and in 2015, they produced 5,000 bottles to celebrate the 30th vintage of the vines. It appeared as though the adjoining barrel room was furnished for a tipple and quiet contemplation at the end of the day.

Swinging Gate is not just a winery. In 2019 the first geodesic dome appeared amongst the vines, and there are now three dotting the landscape.

Offering the ultimate glamping experience, each 6 metre dome is furnished with a king-size bed and, as well as private ensuites, two of the domes have outdoor bathtubs. I have just added an item to our bucket list.