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Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 8, 2007

If you get yourself a big map of New Zealand's South Island, one thing you'll see is the vast expanse of land with no decent roads running through it.

It's a fact that goes largely unnoticed as you take the main highways down and across the country. That's because the routes you can actually drive down offer such fabulous scenery. So you don't think to consider just what you might be missing through a lack of access.

Majestic mountain scenery

Stupendous as the roadside scenery may be, you should leave the safety of wheeled transport and travel into some of the undiscovered parts of New Zealand. To witness the kind of landscapes reserved for TV documentaries and films by Peter Jackson.

That doesn't mean donning hiking boots and all-weather clothing; nobody says you have to keep your feet on the ground. A more comfortable alternative is to take to the air on one of the many scenic flights offered by plane and helicopter operators throughout the island.

Several of these air tours are at home in glacier territory, flying from airfields near Hokitika, Franz Josef and Fox on the west coast. We booked ours at Aoraki Mount Cook Ski Planes, who have a counter on the main road running through Franz Josef, and fly from a small private airfield just to the south of the town.

Cessna cockpit

By definition, scenic flights through the mountains don't depart from multi-terminal international airports. Check-in took us about 20 seconds, just long enough for the pilot to shake our hands and work out which of us should sit up front.

We were in a small Cessna flown by Kerry, who introduced the plane and flight before squeezing us into our seats and showing us where to hold on if the going got rough.

There then followed a safety briefing. Not your usual pointers to life jackets and emergency exits, but simply an explanation of where to find the satellite radio, first-aid kit and survival clothing in the event of an unplanned landing.

Anyone used to jumbo jets might start to feel a little uncertain at this point. Especially sitting up next to the pilot. The landing gear is cranked up and down by hand, and the rattle of the engines is not masked by the squeaky wheels of a drinks trolley and in flight entertainment.

Glacial runoff from the Franz Josef Glacier

But then who needs drinks and movies when you have the Southern Alps? After a short taxi down the gravel runway, we were in the air and immediately soaring over the icy runoff from the Franz Josef glacier.

It was then that the true majesty of the landscape revealed itself. Rivers and lakes transformed from patches of water into glittering networks of silver that cut through the countryside. The three dimensions of air flight dwarfed all things man-made, with the vastness of the mountains casting ego-crushing aspersions on any feeling of superiority we might once have had over nature.

For the first few minutes, we wove back and forth along the coastline, getting a prime view of forests marching down almost into the ocean, then headed straight towards and over Fox Glacier.

Piercing blue glacial pools

From a distance, the glacier looked like a relatively smooth mass of grey-white ice. As we swooped lower and lower over the ice rushing past below, we began to make out fissures, ragged crags and valleys, and piercing blue "pools" of hardened pack ice.

Seen up close, the glacier showed its true colors, both literally (with the cobalt blue taint) and figuratively (with its untamed topography contrasting with our preconceptions of smooth icy surfaces).

The highlight of the flight was yet to come, though. After lowering the ski landing gear, Kerry sent us plunging towards a smooth stretch of snow partially covering the face of the glacier. One second we were airborne, the next we were bumping along as if taking part in a giant ski race.

We slid over the snow for several hundred meters, skimming the surface like a pebble bouncing across a pond. An exhilarating experience, dulled only by the growing realization that we were approaching the edge. Or Edge, as it should truly be written.

Franz Josef Glacier, up close and personal

After reaching the sheer drop at the end of the snow ledge, the plane dipped dramatically before we resumed our flight over the intervening mountain slopes towards Franz Josef glacier. In the distance, the foothills of Mount Cook were just peeking out of the ground...the summit was some 8,000ft above us.

We strafed the surface of the second glacier as our stomachs and nerves recovered from the skiing experience, only to be treated to scare-the-tourists time as we went into a series of steep banking dives, playing "chicken" with the mountainside.

That proved to be the final highlight of our 30 minute trip, as Kerry slowly guided the plane gently back onto the gravel runway, taxiing to a stop within a few feet of our takeoff point.

We left quietly, each of us reflecting inwardly on the rugged magnificence of the past half an hour. The roadside scenery was pretty good. But it left us a little flat for a day or two, if you know what I mean.

Bonus tip: Take plenty of photos because sudden air movements, wings and changes of direction can ruin the otherwise perfect shot. The more you take, the better your chances of a beauty.

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