Checking Out Vintage Planes in Mandeville

The Gore District holds many surprises: a museum dedicated to making illicit whisky, an art gallery filled with huge African statues, an art-deco cinema, and a cheap as chips campsite with heaps of walks in the native bush (Ok, that last one isn’t too surprising in New Zealand). Today, our exploration of Gore is taking us to Mandeville which just happens to hold a vintage aircraft museum. What’s more, you can actually throw on the goggles, put on the leather jacket and experience a flight in one of these bi-planes… But that’s weather dependent and subject to pilot availability, which is exactly our issue today. Nevertheless, we thought we’d check out the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre anyway!

Manderville is about a 15-minute drive from Gore and 20 from Dolamore Park, the beautiful campground where we have been parking our campervan for the night. We drive down the characteristically long straight roads of Southland until Manderville just pops up out of nowhere, right next to the main highway.

Welcome to Mandeville

It doesn’t look like much: a grass airstrip, a cafe, and two warehouse buildings that we are guessing hides the collection of vintage aircraft. However, the whole “town” is an experience.

The story of a train

We head straight for the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre, which weirdly enough has a huge steam train outside of the warehouse building. You guys do know that can’t fly right? We meet Rose of the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre who explains that this old steam train was fished out of the river and restored! The train was used as foundations for a bridge after the train was done, well, being a train.

Rose explains why the train and the airstrip itself is here in Mandeville: “Well, you’ve been to the Moonshine Museum, haven’t you?” Yes… Mandeville was a place where people could drink legally in the Gore District so some better transport connections were set up… That’s right, people would fly into Mandeville or take the train just so they could get drunk! Ah, humanity, you are a funny one.

Out of this funny history, the development of the Croydon Aircraft Company came about restoring vintage planes for people all over the world. Not only can you watch the Croydon team working on current restorations, but their end products are on display in the Croydon Aviation Centre.

The wings of the past The wings of the past
Where the passengers get cosy... Where the passengers get cosy...
A model of New Zealand's original passenger aircraft A model of New Zealand's original passenger aircraft
Yep, this plane has a zip Yep, this plane has a zip

Exhibitions, art and a farmer’s aircraft

The foyer of the Aviation Centre has a few small exhibitions of old pilot uniforms, you know the classic goggles, leather hat and something that looks like a rugby helmet. There’s also an art exhibition of paintings to feast your eyes on non-plane related but pretty to look at nonetheless. They also have one of the very early aircraft made in New Zealand, made by a local farmer. If you look closely, you can see how it was put together by fencing and even an old dog collar serving whatever purpose. Perhaps a seatbelt?

Vintage planes galore!

Then we enter the warehouse… This place is crammed with vintage planes! We have to duck under wings and squeeze between propellers to get around. Although there are information boards about each aircraft, Rose gives us a quick explanation about each one.

The Tiger Moth is one that does regular flights with passengers. The bright yellow bi-plane is an impressive sight, still having the logos of the Royal Mail from when it used to deliver mail to rural areas. Man, now we get a pang of disappointment that we can’t fly in one of these aircraft today! It would certainly be an interesting experience where the passenger rides upfront while the pilot sits on top.

Surrounded by the most retro vehicles to grace the sky!

Controls? What controls?

The open doors and hatches on each plane allows us to peak inside at some of the controls the pilot uses. For these early planes there are barely any!! A wooden joystick, a few buttons here and there… On the other end of the scale, the Aviation Centre also holds a fighter jet with so many buttons that we’re surprised the pilots don’t just use the ejection seat straight away! How can planes go from so simple to so complex?! That’s the great thing about the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre, you can appreciate how far technology has come.

A passenger aircraft with a zip

The next bi-plane you can actually fly with is the original passenger aircraft experience, the Dominie. The silver plane with red stripes dons the name “Tui” and sits up to eight passengers. This Dominie/Rapide used to fly passengers around New Zealand and a minimum of six passengers can be flown over Mandeville in it today. This sounds like all fun and games until we discover that underneath the aircraft is held together by a zip. A ZIP! Rose explains that this is so mechanics can quickly and easily reach the engine for repairs. Oh, Ok…

Robin checks out the crazy amount of controls in the fighter jet Robin checks out the crazy amount of controls in the fighter jet
What goes on underneath a plane What goes on underneath a plane
Walking around the workshop of the Croydon Aircraft Company Walking around the workshop of the Croydon Aircraft Company

The Croydon Aircraft company workshop

After a look around at the vast collection of restored aircraft, we go to see where the magic happens… Across the grass airstrip is the workshop of the Croydon Aircraft Company. These are the guys who have restored the magnificent gathering of vintage planes. We say hi to the owner who lets us wander about the workshop.

About six different planes are being worked on, all at different stages of their restoration. The frames of wings lean up against the wall, skeletons of aircraft made with the lightest of wood are on stands – some even held together with newspaper!?! Paint pots lie half used on top of a wing that seems to have been given the status of “table” rather than air-worthy. It reminds us of those sets you can buy of “build your own plane” but on a much MUCH bigger scale. It’s scary but impressive at the same time to see how simple these planes from the 1930s are, yet people are still flying in them for thrills today!

New Zealand: a lover of vintage things

Only two people from a usually much larger team are tinkering away at the planes today, only spotted for a second between wings or heard with some sort of power sander. We are just left to our own devices, photographing in such a unique environment – one that never in a million years we would expect to be in during a gap year in New Zealand! But, just as we are discovering almost everyday, New Zealanders love vintage things! How many museums have we seen holding onto relics of a not-so-recent history?! In Gore itself, the locals have proudly shown us the old movie projector on display at the cinema from the early days, for instance. There is a whole museum dedicated to whisky-making and a mini museum of items used by Gore’s early pioneers! This is a theme throughout New Zealand, and where ever you go you can always rely on a museum or “heritage centre” to provide you with an activity of the day!

Tomorrow, The Catlins

On that note, we are leaving social history behind for a while when our next stint of our Southland adventure is taking us to the Catlins – a place filled with natural history! Petrified forests, waterfall after waterfall, heaps of wildlife… It’s all in the works for the next part of New Zealand’s Biggest Gap Year. Join us tomorrow!

Laura and Robin

Inside the vintage aircraft workshop
Inside the vintage aircraft workshop Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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