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May 29, 2022 … Waikato road trip (part III) … homebound

This is the third and final in a three part series describing our road trip to the Waikato and back.
Part I covered the trip from Wellington to Mangakino
Part II covered our trip from Mangakino to Wingspan and now we cover the journey from Mangakino to Horopito, to Whanganui and home.

In one sense, our spontaneous adventure away from home was a trip to nowhere. With all due respect to its 1,200 inhabitants, Mangakino is scarcely a tourist destination. On the other hand, having spent six years as a single man in nearby Tokoroa back in the late 1960s, I was familiar with the region. I knew and loved the rhythms of life in the area at this time of year. Sharp frosts, river mists, clear days and dark brittle starlit nights characterised the early yeas of my working life. The smell of logs burning in open fireplaces so familiar back then was still familiar now, though no longer acceptable in most other places.

Our last two days in Mangakino after our memorable trip to Wingspan were characterised by soft but steady rain. That was OK by me. I had lots if image processing to do and Mary seemed happy reading or knitting when she wasn’t managing the fire or organising excellent meals for us.

There was a break in the weather on Sunday, our last day in the region, so I made one last expedition back upriver to Atiamuri and thence to Lake Ohakuri. This was new territory to me. I don’t know how I had never been to Lake Ohakuri before, but like the other lakes on the river, it seems to enjoy a sheltered situation and its surface was glassy calm. No one else was visible. I had this vast beauty all to myself. However, we were due to leave for Whanganui the next morning and there was packing to be done, so it was back to Mangakino to enjoy one last log fire.

We left Mangakino in drizzle conditions and headed Westward on SH30 towards Benneydale and Taumarunui. My love of the South Waikato landscape has been expressed several time in recent blogs. Even in these soggy conditions I find it attractive. Pouakani is not a place I have previously heard of. Nor, as we pass through it, is it a place I am likely to remember. However, according to Google Maps, the picture above was made there.

Maniaiti/Benneydale is a town in the Waitomo district that is home to about 180 people. When I lived and worked in Tokoroa in the mid 1960s, we thought of it as a frontier town on the Western edge of forestry country. It was in fact a coal mining town between the years of 1931 and the early 1990s. That has now ended. Until 2018 Benneydale was the only town in the King Country that did not have a Maori name. Local iwi applied to the Geographic Board to remedy that and it is now Maniati/Benneydale despite considerable local opposition. I photographed this same derelict house last time I came this way in 2016. Back then the green tree was just beginning to appear through the roof.

The King Country is an interesting area. While you can draw it on a map, it has no existence as a governance entity. For that, it falls partly within Waikato, and partly within Manawatu/Whanganui region. All of this is merely of passing interest, as we headed down a backroad from Benneydale to join SH4 at Ongarue. The region is heavily forested and very hilly. The only clue I have about where I made the image above through the windscreen is that it is somewhere North of Taumarunui.

We made a rest stop and had an excellent morning tea in Taumarunui. Then it was Southwards through Raurimu and National Park, heading purposefully for Horopito, home to Horopito Motors. This place is known globally as “Smash Palace” and was the setting for the 1981 Roger Donaldson film of the same name.

The last time I was there was in 2013. Back then in return for a gold coin donation, they allowed photographers and tourists to enter the 5 or so hectares and wander at will among the thousands of rusting cars.

On that occasion, we arrived early in the morning and there was no one in the office. The gate was open so I made the expected donation and began wandering about and making pictures. Mary sat in the car and knitted while I was in photography heaven. After I was done, I started to thread my way out of the maze only to be confronted by a man with a rifle and a bunch of distinctly unfriendly dogs. Awkward. He had been hunting and was a bit late back and was startled to find a wandering photographer on the premises. We resolved our differences peaceably.

This time things were done properly, and I paid the now required $10 admission fee at the office and spent a blissful hour looking at rusty textures and the shapes of cars as they used to be in my youth. There may be a pattern or system to the way in which cars are placed when they come in, but if so I could not work it out. It definitely is not brand, year, nor even the era from which the car was made. I am told that if you need a part for your old car, the staff can nevertheless tell you whether they that or a similar model.

At first I was a bit disconcerted that, near the front gate, there were many cars of recent manufacture that still had visible full-coloured paint and chrome work. I presume they were recent crashes or simple mechanical failures. They were not what I had come for, so I avoided them as much as possible.

There are estimated to be about 5,000 cars on site. As I wandered about I saw many that I have not laid eyes on for years. Mostly these would be British cars that are rarely on our roads any more. There were a few continental models , but by far, most were from Dagenham, Cowley, Solihull or the like.

“Austin of England” was the brand emblazoned on the boot of cars with that grill. There are very few bearers of that brand still running in New Zealand. And yet they remind of of a sunny childhood and I retain a certain affection for them. We once even owned a lovely three litre A110 Austin Westminster.

It was fun testing my ability to identify some of these old wrecks Across the back, a Ford Zephyr, a Ford Prefect sitting on a Standard Vanguard, a Hillman or Singer wagon. In the front row, I suspect the one on the left might be a Renault, and then a Fiat Bambina in front of who knows what.

I said there was no apparent organisation to the placement of cars. This pile seems to be an exception as there are at least three Morris Minors here. I struggle to imagine that there are many useful parts in these cars, or what economic model makes them worth keeping. I imagine that these were once someone’s pride and joy, and were probably washed and polished weekly. Now there are few if any body panels that would be of any use.

If you have seen enough rust by now, I would not hold it against you should you choose to skip this and the following two images and go straight to Whanganui. For my part, I see interest in the different patterns and textures in each image. And I wonder at the story behind each vehicle. A quote from Casablanca comes to mind: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine”. There is no way that all these vehicles belonged to families or businesses in the nearby towns. So how did each car come to be here, so far from any significant centres of population?

Not only the individual vehicles, but the way in which they are scattered around the vast property is fascinating. Occasionally you can see that an attempt has been made to group like vehicles together. It never seems to have lasted though. Three or four Morris Minors together might be the start of something and then a Ford Consul Classic 315, a Trekka, a Wolseley 6/110, a Vauxhall Velox, a few Holdens, a Bradford and an Alfa Romeo throws the pattern into confusion.

Always, the harsh climate, rain, snow and sun are breaking down the once polished paint, and red rust becomes the dominant colour. The odd car puts up a longer resistance. Or perhaps it came into that part of the plot at a different time to its neighbours. Why is that Ford Prefect in the shot above still blue? Why is the paint on the back corner of that car the only bit that hung on?

The land on which the cars are stored is uneven and though there are many flat areas, there are gulleys and small hills. Cars are strewn close together over almost all of it. The tracks left clear for access form a maze of sorts, and often you come to a dead end. Though you can see the home buildings on the other side of the stack, there is no way to get there without risking an avalanche of sharp rusting steel. And so you retrace your steps, dodging the deep puddles in the soggy ground.

Every path you take reveals a different view and models you hadn’t noticed when you came the other way. A person of my vintage keeps seeing models familiar in my younger days but not seen on the roads for many a year. The Armstrong Siddley Star Sapphire, the Vauxhall Cresta, The Ford Pilot, the Morris Oxford, the Triumph Mayflower, the Rover 3500, the Lanchester. It’s not the cars themselves that arouse the emotion, but rather the way they trigger recollection of happy times, youth, friends and family members long gone.

Enough wallowing in maudlin sentimentality. To my photographic eye, the place is a delight in any weather. Regardless of the memories, the stacks of rusting remains provide fascinating set of opportunities to capture shapes and colours, though rust is dominant. After an hour of photography, I decided that though the cars in front of me were different, I was making the same image over and over again, just with different cars. Time to resume our Southward journey.

We had an excellent picnic lunch beside the Makotuku River in Raetihi during a break in the drizzle. Then it was down the winding 95km of the Parapara. In case you didn’t know it, SH4 runs parallel to the Whanganui River from Raetihi to Whanganui and is known as the Parapara. It is notorious for its treacherous greywacke landscape. It is magnificent to look at but prone to crumbling landslips and washouts, potholes and floods. When the Parapara is closed as it is at least a few times in most winters, then it is a very long detour down SH1 to Bulls, or even around Egmont and through New Plymouth. I think I dozed off on this part of the trip.

Fortunately I wasn’t driving, and soon enough we were crossing the Dublin St bridge in Whanganui on our way to our Airbnb in Castlecliff.

The owner of our Airbnb advertised it as “quirky”. I must remember to avoid any described as such in future. Fortunately we were there for just two nights. Whanganui, along with most of the North Island was fairly wet during our brief stay. Peat Park was looking more like Park Lake. We drove up to Waverley to visit my brother and sister-in-law and that trip was even wetter. And then it was time for the journey home.

Wetness persisted all the way to Wellington. We broke the 190 km trip home with morning coffee and a magnificent cheese scone at the excellent Riverstone Cafe at the South end of Otaki. Then the final leg home is much quicker than it ever was in the past. The expressway starts at Pekapeka just North of Waikanae and from there it’s motorway all the way home. I asked Mary to drive the last bit because I wanted to snatch an image of the bush near the summit of Transmission Gully.

Just before the Southbound summit on Transmission Gully there is a forested valley on the left side. Each time I have crossed that road, I have wanted to catch it. Most of the surrounding hills are covered in pines, but here is a remnant of the native bush landscape as it once was. Not possible to photograph if you are driving, of course.

And here at last we are at the foot of the Haywards Hill, emerging into the sunshine of the Hutt Valley and Wellington and home. The distant hills are the Miramar peninsula and the prominent tower block is the former TV studios at Avalon.

I hope you have enjoyed my rambling and the images related to our trip. Now it is done. I continue to post photo-blogs on this site on random topics every two or three weeks. I advertise infrequently so if you care to, you could check back every few weeks to check for the latest. Or you can subscribe to have it emailed to you. Thanks for keeping me company, and special thanks to all who sent kind comments which warmed my soul.

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Adventure Animals Birds Mangakino Rivers Rotorua Waikato

25 May, 2022 … Waikato road trip (part II) … Wingspan

This is the part 2 of our three part road trip story. Part one ended after visiting the magnificent reserve and wildlife sanctuary at Maungatautiri. With my diminishing fitness and agility, I didn’t do Maungatautiri justice. It is a wonderful wildlife reserve well worth the visit for anyone of average mobility.

Mangakino continued to be a total delight. Morning mist on the river and bright blue afternoons and cool nights with log fires were just magic.

Having damaged my lightweight Olympus camera, I was slowly re-learning how to use the big Canon cameras after having left them idle for a year or two. Meanwhile, Mary was enjoying walking on the Waikato River trails while I enjoyed not walking the same trails. You can see how I did so poorly at Maungatautiri.

I have previously quoted Scott Kelby’s rule for making good landscape images: “first go somewhere where there is a good landscape”. There is no excuse for not finding good landscapes in the beautiful South Waikato.

This second part of our road trip is mostly about our adventure from Mangakino across to the truly wonderful Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua. If you are in the region, do not miss it (Monday to Sunday). If you are not in the region, go there. This is the best hour or 90 minutes a birder can spend.

Mangakino mist

We had learned that Wingspan had a school visit on the Thursday , so we deferred our booking until Friday. Kids should of course be encouraged to visit, but we preferred not to have to compete with them for access to the front seats. So it was that on Thursday Mary set out on the three hour walking trail from Mangakino to Whakamaru while I drove around looking for the magic of the mist. This tree appeared at just the right distance from the road.

Waikato river at Dunham’s Point

Then I went the 16 km back to Dunham Reserve where, sadly, there was no mist whatsoever. As I said last week, if you don’t capture the scene when you first see it, it is unlikely you will see the same conditions or light again. So, back to the Whakamaru Dam where I met Mary and we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the sun beside a small pond near the dam.

Arohaki in flight

Then came the day of our visit to Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre. (Check that link) They specialise in conservation, education and research for birds of prey. They also put on a superb hour long public display at 11:30 am every Thursday through Sunday. Seats are limited so book before you go.

We drove across the fondly remembered countryside from Mangakino to Atiamuri and then across SH30 to Rotorua. From there we went North on SH5 to Wingspan’s big new display area on Paradise Valley Rd in Ngongotaha. It was a beautiful morning and with our promised front row seats, we watched the show with perhaps twelve others.

The MC was Shannon, a young lady from Lower Hutt. She did an excellent job, and filled in all the gaps when the unpredictability of the birds disrupted the programme. The first bird to appear was Arohaki, a male NZ Falcon with his trainer, Heidi who is also from the Hutt Valley. Arohaki has obviously been doing this performance for quite a while, and settled himself on the wooden post set up in the field for that purpose.

Arohaki

Arohaki sits with a haughty demeanour and the certainty that, despite weighing a mere 300g, he can take on almost any bird in the neighbourhood. After chasing and catching a number of lures, he was brought closer to the audience and saw no problem in flying to perch on the head of the visitor at the end of the front row. Those are sharp claws so I advise visitors to wear a hat.

Ribbon dealing with a bait

The falcons are unapologetically and exclusively carnivores. Like me they have not developed a taste for broccoli or kale. They make short work of any chicken or duck on offer. They are not delicate eaters and quickly shred the morsels that the trainers offer for tasks achieved.

The second avian star of the show was “Ribbon”, a female who was displayed by the amazing Noel Hyde MNZM. Noel received that honour for services to wildlife conservation and research taxidermy. Ribbon weighs in at about 500 gm, almost half as much again as Arohaki. Foolishly, I went along to the end of the row for a different photographic perspective and next thing I knew was that Ribbon was sitting on my hat. It’s a lightweight fabric hat so I can testify that her claws are very sharp. Not only that, but with a long lens, its impossible to photograph a bird on your own head.

The staff brought the falcons along the row of audience seats and allowed people the opportunity to get really close. Another member of the audience caught the moment with Ribbon on my sitting on my hat as I had done for him with Arohaki on his hat, so we swapped images. I had not intended to include these two, but what the heck, it was all part of the delight in the day.

Mary gets to handle Ribbon (I think)
Ribbon sitting on my head – photo courtesy of Denis Came-Friar
Robo-magpie

The staff at Wingspan take great care for all aspects of each bird’s welfare and ensure that they get appropriate and sufficient exercise. One way they contribute to this is by the use of the “Robocrow” which was invented by the internationally renowned expert in falconry, Dr Nick Fox. Of course we don’t have crows in New Zealand so the wingspan version is dressed as a magpie. Basically it is a simple polystyrene radio controlled model aircraft, powered by an electric ducted fan, or as trainer Heidi says, a “hair dryer”. Here we see Heidi launching the Robo-magpie for Ribbon to chase.

Ribbon defeats the noisy enemy

As soon as Ribbon saw the robo-magpie, she was off. There ensued a vigorous pursuit around the skies above us, with Ribbon getting ever closer, and Heidi trying to evade capture. Ribbon won and Heidi throttled back, whereupon Ribbon took her capture up the hill into the scrub to eat the bait that was strapped to the robot’s back. Heidi and Noel had to trudge quite a way up the hill to retrieve both.

Jarli

Forgive me if I get a bit excited now. Wingspan has acquired an Australian Barn Owl whose name is Jarli. Yes, it is an Australian, but Barn Owls have been breeding here since 2008, and according to the experts at Wingspan, have thereby become our newest “native owl”. The Morepork and the Little Owl are the only other owl species in NZ and even they are not often seen. Isn’t she beautiful?

What did you say?

One of the many things that fascinate me about owls is the flexibility of their necks. If I heard correctly they can rotate through 270ยบ so it should be hard to sneak up on them.

Totally silent flight

Surprisingly (to me), owls are receptive to training in similar fashion to the falcons. Jarli put on quite a show under the guidance of Heidi. In this image, she is launching off the pole that is at the centre of the displays, and on her way to receive a reward for a job well done.

If you are squeamish, I recommend you skip the next two shots. There were a few squeals of horror from other audience members on the day, but dinner was already dead and felt no pain.

We all enjoyed this except the mouse

Apparently Jarli can swallow three or four mice a day, and it was a somewhat gruesome spectacle, even though the mouse was already dead. Well at least it was not struggling. I saw these birds described as hyper-carnivores. Their food in the wild is exclusively of other small birds and animals that they catch and occasionally carrion.

Mmmm… bliss!

I framed this image way too tightly, but couldn’t resist showing it. The expression on the bird’s face is of sublime satisfaction … a bit like me after a dozen Bluff oysters. I am sure that I am guilty of anthropomorphism, and perhaps I just caught her as she blinked. I still think she looks satisfied.

Star

Our final performance was by “Star” under the guidance of the remarkable Debbie Stewart, NZM. Debbie is the Director of Wingspan and a major force in its founding. She received her MNZM “for services to birds of prey and raptor conservation.” Jarli was theoretically the last official performer of the day, but Debbie wanted to give star, a recently acquired bird, some training time, so we got a free extra display.

Star in pursuit mode

No complaints from me. I could watch them all day. Here is Star launching from that same pole in pursuit of a lure being towed across the paddock attached to a winch. I had hoped to see Noel’s Harrier Hawk, Fran fly. Alas, Noel noted that her plumage was not in good condition on the day.

As on my previous two visits, the display was an absolute joy. I can not recommend a visit highly enough.

Pohaturoa

After a pleasant lunch on the shores of Lake Rotorua in perfect weather, we headed back towards Mangakino. I was still buzzing from Wingspan, so no lakeside images.

Like many thousands of motorists every day, we drove past Pohaturoa near Atiamuri. Did you know, as you drove unthinkingly past, that this rock is up to 500,000 years old? Or that there is a long history of fierce inter-tribal battles on the hill from about the year 1400 onwards. Its one of those landmarks that tells an old Tokoroa boy that you are near what once was home.

Pohaturoa again

As we drove beside the river towards Whakamaru, I noticed a different view of Pohaturoa in the mirror, so we paused for the last photograph of the day. And that will do for part II.

The next and final part in this three part series will take us through Benneydale and National Park to Horopito and Raetihi and thence to Whanganui and Home. Perhaps I’ll see you then.

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23 May, 2022 … Waikato road trip (part 1)

Travelling to foreign lands is but a distant memory. Even our closest neighbour presents some interesting bureaucratic hurdles these days, and I am hearing people say that going is relatively easy, but coming back can be tricky. Travel insurance is ridiculously expensive now too. The risk being trapped by the bureaucracy of a sudden lock-down due to the pandemic are, for now at least, deterring us from leaving New Zealand.

So, we decided to do a road trip. As long as there are places to walk, Mary tends to defer to my photographic obsession so asked me to choose a location. My somewhat random choice was dictated by the memory of a photograph that I should have taken in 2016 but didn’t.

Any photographer who sees something worth photographing should do it now! Those of us who say “I’ll catch it on the way back”, or “I’ll come back another time” will rarely see the same scene. Do it NOW! At this time of year, it is quite common that mornings on the Waikato river are characterised by no wind and drifting mist. In the hope of finding such conditions, we booked a week in the nearest Airbnb house to that area. And so we begin with the first part of the journey:

Hunterville in Autumn

Monday was wet in Wellington. It was wet all the way up SH1 through Levin, Bulls and Hunterville. Happily, Autumn colours were all the more vivid for being freshly washed. This image is on SH1 as it leaves Hunterville to the North. Mary was driving at this stage, and I was not at all sure that I would get a clear shot through the windscreen between the strokes of the wipers. I think I got lucky.

Following the Army through Taihape

Soon enough, we were at Taihape which claims the title of Gumboot capital of the world. It was once a significant railway town, though trains seem to pass straight through these days. It is a significant business centre for the local farming community, and has a couple of popular cafes used by both locals and long distance travellers. It is not at all uncommon to find yourself behind a convoy of trucks heading through the town towards the Army training base at Waiouru.

Ruapehu dons its cloak

Waiouru is a place of both misery and beauty. Those who have trained in the army base, especially in the winter will understand the misery aspect. The landscape provides all the beauty you could ask for, whatever the weather. Mighty Ruapehu is an active volcano that stands 2,797 metres (9,177 feet) above sea level on the volcanic plateau in the centre of the North Island. As we approached Waiouru, I could see that the mountain was wrapping itself in cloud and would soon disappear from view. A shot from the roadside in a biting breeze caught that cloud rolling over the summit.

Along the Desert Road

The “Desert Road” is the stuff of legends in New Zealand. It runs 63 km from Waiouru in the South, to Turangi in the North. It passes to the East of the mountain, through the Rangipo desert, and to the West of the Kaimanawa Forest through a wild and barren landscape. There are neither sand nor camels in this desert but its very barrenness justifies the description. Regardless of the weather, there is always something to see and appreciate. Even after the clouds blocked off the view of the mountain, I found drama in the march of the power pylons beside the road. Signs warn of army exercises with live ammunition on either side, so stay in your car or risk staring down the barrel of a 25mm cannon on an armoured fighting vehicle. The other feature of the Rangipo desert is its herd of wild horses. Those I have yet to see.

Tragedy on the Desert Road

Though it has some long straight stretches, the Desert Road has some tight and nasty bends that can bring drivers to grief in the wet and icy conditions that are common at this elevation. If you look a little to the right of the second black and yellow sign, you will see the wreck of a car that has departed from the road at speed and embedded itself in the bank. I have no information as to the fate of its occupants.

Maraetail Mist

Mangakino as it is today has its origins in the mid-late 40s as a dormitory town for the workers who were engaged in the construction of the hydro dams on the Waikato. The houses are modest but sufficient, and the one we rented for the week was very well equipped. Mary loved lighting the fire each day and using the copious supply of firewood included in the rental.

Mangakino is on the shore of the Waikato River where it becomes Lake Maraetai which provides the energy for the two power stations at the nearby Maraetai dam. When I booked the accommodation, I jokingly asked our host to arrange a week of no wind and some river mist. Well goodness gracious, she pulled it off!

Regrettably I suffered a calamity here when I dropped my Olympus camera and wrecked the mounting plate of my favourite lens. As if my insurers did not already hate me.

Dunham Reserve on Lake Whakamaru

Almost as if I anticipated the disaster, I had packed my two venerable Canon cameras (the 5DII and the 7D) so all images for the remainder of the trip were made on these huge, heavy, but still optically excellent cameras.

Anyway, back to the trip. If you are unfamiliar with the geography of the Waikato River, there are a series of hydro dams each of which creates a lake on the river. Coming downstream from Lake Taupo, they are in turn, Aratiatia, Ohakuri, Atiamuri, Whakamaru, Maraetai I and II (both on the same dam), Waipapa, Arapuni and Karapiro.

About halfway between Atiamuri and Whakamaru, there is a beautiful spot on the river called Dunham’s Reserve. This was the place that I failed to shoot back in 2016. Regrettably, on this trip, I didn’t find anything like the beautiful conditions of that earlier opportunity. Nevertheless, the river produced a scene worthy of photographing in its own right. I believe the lily pads are regarded as a pest to the hydro dams and were due to be sprayed with weed killer from the air.

Autumn tones at Dunham Reserve

As already observed, the colours of Autumn were still lingering and this clearing on the Dunham Reserve was a delight to me.

Stillness and River mist at Mangakino

The next day offered those lovely misty conditions on the river, so I went down to the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve where I took pleasure in the stillness of the water on the lake, and mystery provided by the mist. Bear in mind that this apparently still body of water is part of a river system with a mean flow rate of 340 Cumecs (12,000 cubic ft/sec)

River scene

The same morning, from a little further round the reserve edge, I found another view looking downstream towards the Maraetai dams. These are the conditions I came for.

Pastoral scene in the South Waikato

Later the same day, we drove North along the river to the stunning Maungatautiri Mountain Reserve. The South Waikato region offers some delightful scenery that ranges from heavy pine forests to soft rolling pastoral land. The reserve itself is a 3,400 hectare wildlife sanctuary on the Maungatautiri Mountain with a 47 km pest-proof perimeter fence. Within are a wonderland of native bush laced with many delightful walking tracks from which to observe the magnificent bush and the variety of birdlife.

Friendly visitor

I am less agile than I used to be and set out on the so-called Rata-trail with a view to going part of the way and then returning to the entry. The canopy is quite dark, and I struggled to catch the fast moving bird-life flitting about. Fortunately, the little North Island Robin (Toutouwai, or Petroica longipes) is not shy, and will fly around your feet chasing the insects you disturb as you walk. Many a photographer has been trapped with the bird sitting on his or her boots while having a telephoto lens that just won’t focus that close. Foolishly, I went further round the trail than I intended, and soon it seemed better to complete the loop walk than to turn back.

So that’s the end of the first part of this three-part road-trip narrative. If you like what I do, please come back soon for a trip to the amazing, the stunning, the magnificent Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre.