Waimate – Home of the Wallaby (and Norman Kirk)

Did you know that the wallaby was introduced to Waimate in 1874 for the fur trade? These cousins from Australia, like many introduced species, now threaten our native environment and instead of being transformed into coats and hats are now popular game for hunters.  Happy to report we didn’t see a single skippy whilst in Waimate. I find it very hard to feel ill will to something so cute and furry.

We stayed at the campground in Knottingley Park. What a great asset it is. At this time of  year the exotic trees were fully autumnal and the ground below the trees resembled your Granny’s axminster with full on swirls of red and gold. It is a haven for dog walkers and nature lovers alike. The locals, Harry and Jenny, gave us a rundown of the facilities and were most welcoming. The lady from the Council, Alison, was very obliging, arriving with her EFTpos machine so that we didn’t have to raid the various stashes of loose change to find the right money for the camp fees that works on an honesty system.

Town was not far from the park so we unpacked the e-bikes from the back of the moho and peddled into town. Waimate in its prime would have been impressive. A service centre for the surrounding rural community and home to a flour mill it would have been a bustling community. It is still a pretty town but many of the historical buildings are in various states of repair. The Waimate bakery and hotel stand out as recent renos. What a great job the renovators have done. We can attest that the bakery is not just a pretty face. The food and coffee were great and the croissants and sourdough that we bought to take home, worthy of any Auckland artisan baker.

Nearby is the Arcadia Theatre. What a magnificent looking building that would have been in its heyday. It’s still possible to see many of its unusual original features beneath the layers of dust and grime. It started life as Quinn’s Arcade, built from nearly 300,000 bricks and ran from High Street to the adjacent street with a dozen small shops on either side. Potentially one of the earliest versions of a shopping mall in NZ. It later became a theatre but now sadly is home to pigeons and the ghosts of days gone by. We were delighted to hear that one of the locals, Mr George Rooney, of earthmoving fame and the force behind the bakery and hotel transformations has bought the Theatre and is about to work his magic again.  Every small town needs a Mr Rooney to breathe new life into the community. We look forward to visiting Waimate and hopefully a reborn Arcadia Theatre again soon.

Although Mr Rooney is my new favourite son of Waimate, another famous New Zealander was also born here. One of our most popular leaders, Norman Kirk, the 29th Prime Minister of NZ from 1972 until his sudden death in 1974 is buried in the Waimate lawn cemetery, his wife Ruth just next door. Across the road, is the older town cemetery with a fascinating array of monuments to loved ones. They don’t make headstones like they used to.

10 minutes from the town of Waimate, lies Willowbridge. Willowbridge’s claim to fame is that in 1875 it was  the site of New Zealand’s first Grand National Steeplechase. Not too many signs of horse racing there today. It is now home to the Chicken Wire Creations Sculpture Garden. We spotted this garden on Trip Advisor and contacted the resident artist, Michelle Aplin. Although Michelle has officially shut the garden for the Winter season, she obligingly agreed to let us visit. Michelle and her husband Jason have converted part of their rural idyl into a sculpture garden to display Michelle’s chicken wire sculptures. Michelle, a trained nurse, made her first sculpture (a goat) a few years ago for her own amusement and it has grown from there. When we called in she was working on one of her new pieces, a large rabbit commissioned for Winetopia.  This will be accompanied by a life size woman, her backless dress elegantly draped, a wine glass in hand;  Bacchus the wine god, an imposing form snacking on a bunch of grapes and what Michelle described as her goofy dog – a large hound about to water a wine barrel.   If you are planning to go to Winetopia you are bound to be blown away by Michelle’s work.

Chicken wire doesn’t strike you as the easiest medium to create forms especially capturing such a fluidity of movement.  However this is exactly what Michelle does and what’s more she does it with her bare hands.  No gloves here.  They just get in the way.  Her people and animals are ghostly versions of themselves.  Not in a creepy way, more ethereal and captivating, capturing the essence of the creature.  From the horse leaping a fence, the piglet taking a bath, the man with suitcase waiting for a train that never comes, all of Michelle’s sculptures look like they could come to life.  It would seem impossible to believe you could create feathers with chicken wire,  but that is exactly what Michelle does.  She is very clever.

Michelle’s Chicken Wire Sculpture Garden will reopen in the Spring. You can follow her on  FaceBook  or visit her website