The artisans of Greytown, New Zealand: Is this New Zealand's most creative corner?

Greytown is an unlikely place for jihadists to run amok.

But the turban-clad warriors are fighting a fierce battle inside the former bootmaker's shop in this quiet corner of rural New Zealand.

Joining them in the tussle are the Camel Corps, spear-carrying dervishes and even a gun-toting Winston Churchill astride a horse.

"That's the Sudan and the Battle of Omdurman, which Churchill was in," says David Cowe. "We actually make Churchill and the 21st Lancers. But we're always selling those."

The five-centimetre high figures, painstakingly modelled and hand painted by Cowe, line the walls of his Imperial Productions, a tiny wooden shopfront just off Greytown's main thoroughfare.

In the display window, the Napoleonic Wars are in full swing with the 1st Foot Guards preparing to fire on French infantrymen as Polish and Dutch soldiers on horseback trot past.

"These women here," he says, pointing to other figures, "raised money during the Boer War."

Cowe is also putting the finishing touches on a contingent of ANZACs, although "once you mention Gallipoli to an Australian, you've got to genuflect", he says, archly. "It's a bit over-the-top sometimes." 

Cowe began making toy soldiers for his children more than three decades ago. His exquisite craftsmanship won the attention of collectors around the world from Bob Dylan's manager to the king of Spain. 

Advertisement

A wall of his workshop is covered in handwritten letters sent from customers, young and old.

"Those are letters we used to get, but email killed all that," he says. "It used to be nice getting stamps and things from other countries."

Greytown is one of a collection of small towns in the Wairarapa separated from Wellington by the imposing Rimutaka Range.

The spectacular one-hour drive on State Highway 2 winds around steep, forested valleys up to the Remutaka​ Pass before descending rapidly to the Wairarapa. 

It is an easy day trip from the Kiwi capital, but spare a thought for the poor soldiers made to march over the mountains during World War I to reach a training camp in the town of Featherston.

The camp was later used to house prisoners of war in World War II and gained notoriety after more than 100 Japanese prisoners were shot in 1943.

The Rimutaka Rail Trail traverses the mountain range along the old train line before continuing as the Rimutaka Cycle Trail past Lake Wairarapa to Ocean Beach and then along the Wild Coast to the mouth of the Orongorongo River.

The flat, green pastures of the Wairarapa are grazed by flocks of romney and suffolk sheep and angus cattle.  

But these days the district's dairy and sheep farmers queue for soy lattes or quaff pinot noir alongside visitors from Wellington and cinematic luminaries such as Sir Peter Jackson and James Cameron.

Each town has a distinctive personality: Greytown's Main Street is lined with antique stores, galleries and restaurants, while Carterton is home to a replica Stonehenge.

Featherston is home to the world's only remaining steam-powered, mountain-climbing Fell Engine as well as the gourmet shop C'est Cheese that would make a Frenchman go weak at the knees. 

The main square of Martinborough replicates the Union Jack in homage to Mother England. More importantly, the town is home to more than 20 family owned wineries and renowned for producing some of New Zealand's best pinot noir.

The Wool Shed museum in Masterton is full of woolly tales about New Zealand's sheep farming and shearing. The town is also home to the annual Golden Shears shearing and woolhandling competition, billed as the Wimbledon of wool removal.

Just outside of Masterton is the Hood Aerodrome, with its astonishing collection of vintage aircraft from World Wars I and II that take to the air in February for the Wings Over Wairarapa air show.

Made of cloth and canvas and barely half the weight of a car, it is little wonder pilots referred to their flimsy-looking aircraft as kites.

Further afield is Palliser Bay, with its picturesque cliffs, historic lighthouse and the North Island's largest colony of whiskery fur seals. 

Like almost every part of New Zealand, the nearby Putangirua Pinnacles have doubled as a film set for one of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies.

Cameron, meanwhile, makes a crust from cultivating cannabis at his farm near Featherston.

It's not to get high (so we're told), but to produce organic goodies such as hemp seed oil and hemp capsules that are sold at Food Forest Organics. 

The organic store and delicatessen housed in Greytown's colonial-era Baillie House sells all manner of dietary surprises, with vegan cheese and yoghurt, and gluten-free flours and cereals.

If pork belly and pinot are more your style, Greytown's two-storey boutique hotel The White Swan is worth a visit.

Incredibly, the hotel used to be a railway administration building in Lower Hutt on the other side of the mountains. But in 2002, it was chopped into six pieces, loaded on the back of trucks and carted over the Rimutakas to begin a new life serving sirloin and slow-cooked lamb washed down with craft beers and locally produced wines.

New Zealand's oldest pinot noir region, Martinborough's vineyards are mostly within walking or cycling distance of the town centre. 

Tirohana Estate is one of the more notable wineries, not least for its Cosmo and Pab drop named in honour of two members of AC/DC's crew.

Needless to say, the gents know their wines although their taste buds might be shocked by the curry-flavoured chocolate concocted by Murray Langham.

In a tiny cottage that was the original confectioners shop, Langham's Schoc Chocolates features more than 60 flavours, including cardamom and carrot, lavender and lemongrass, smoked paprika and sweet basil.

Langham is a convivial host, encouraging sweet-toothed visitors to forget diets and try every flavour, including his two curry-flavoured creations: a Tropical Curry white chocolate and the Curry and Pappadom dark chocolate. 

Lime chilli is the best-selling flavour but Langham admits: "Sun dried tomato and basil [was] not a runner."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

wairarapanz.com

FLY

 Air New Zealand and Qantas fly daily to Wellington from Sydney and Melbourne.

STAY

The White Swan has seven themed rooms (New York, English, hunting, the brothel style Ruby Suite) as well as a studio and garden apartment. Prices start from $NZ100 for a Park Studio. 109 Main Street, Greytown. See thewhiteswan.co.nz

Andrew Taylor was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

Comments