My eyes feel watery of utter happiness, my mouth’s agape in wonder, my heart is thumping excitedly. I hear the roaring sound of the propellers and feel goose bumps on my forearms. I smile the biggest of all smiles and feel like dancing, squeezing my partner’s shoulder and making photos and videos. Although at the same time I want to do nothing of all that and just watch the show that I know will only last less than an hour. I want to register every inch of this scenery, imprint it in my mind for it to become an everlasting memory. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming of since I was thirteen years old, sitting in the cinema with my dad to watch on the silver screen the film of the thickest book he ever read to me. Then, it was time for the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Two Towers. Now, it is time for the flight of a lifetime: soaring over the magical mountains of New Zealand.
“You’re very lucky with the weather,” I hear the pilot say to us, while we’re flying towards the peak of Mount Cook. I’m happy to catch this – it’s not that easy to hear everything he explains to us via the earphones – as it’s an interesting statement. Although at this very moment I am for sure the happiest person on earth, on an absolute h(e)igh(t), the weather did not make this goosebump-moment come easy. After dreaming of this experience for so long, it had felt so close knowing we would make the trip to the other side of the world, but had felt so ungraspable after only one week in the beautiful scenery of New Zealand. Four seasons in one day? No problem I thought – I was sure nothing could come between this helicopter flight and my dream of seeing great mountain peaks covered in white snow coming in and out view.
But I was ever too optimistic and found myself disappointed but still with high hopes in Franz Josef Township, a small town in the West of New Zealand’s South Island – famous for the rapidly retreating Franz Josef Glacier at the edge of town. There was a time when tourists could just walk to the base of the glacier and start ice hiking. Unfortunately, global warming has taken its toll and the glacier in its turn has taken its toll on unlucky and irresponsible tourists trying to get to the base of the glacier running the risk of getting hit by falling ice rocks. Fortunately, ropes and warning signs now prevent such tourists from entering unstable areas surrounding the glacier. Less fortunate is that there’s no remedy for global warming in terms of the state of this particular glacier. Thus, ice hiking has become heli-hiking. The Franz Josef townships thrives on tourists interested in this – crazy expensive – activity. For us that meant loads of opportunity to find an available flight. Tempting as the ice hiking was, I decided to stay true to my dream and go for more than five minutes flying included in the heli hiking activity. Unfortunately, the weather decided against this brilliant plan. Clouds were hovering over the mountains and the friendly staff member of the Department of Conservation burst my dream bubble right there by stating it would not get any better in the coming days. “But on the other side of the mountain range it can be a completely different situation. Here, the clouds come in from the ocean and hang over here. The other side is often bright while we see grey skies.” So back to the high hopes – no problem, we will get our chance when we get to the other side. I just need to wait a bit more since the other side of the mountain range is only about 25 km away as the crow flies, but getting there takes a 500 km drive with distracting must see stops on the way.
Driving into Lake Wanaka after a road side stop for the most beautiful panoramic view I’d ever seen – the bright turquoise water of Lake Pukaki set against the backdrop of the clearly visible snow-capped Mount Cook – we were sure that tomorrow would be our lucky day. Full of excitement and already dressed in warm layers for the Liebzig Dome stop in the snow, we left our phone number at the agency in Lake Tekapo so they could provide a weather update when they’d hear back from the pilot. As it turned out, bits of blue sky and sun rays could not save our day – winds were too strong to be flying. This message had me crying of disappointment in our cute little camper van. Of course, I could put things in perspective, as our trip had been absolutely amazing so far and we had so much more to explore and experience. But I was inconsolable about the fact that the destination that I had ranked my number 1 country in the world within the first 24 hours of my stay, would not give me the fulfilment of this dream. It felt so unfair, to fly to the other side of the globe and still not get this opportunity. I felt like a little child, wanting to stamp my feet on the floor in desperation.
But what’s the point in that, when you can also just get over yourself and continue with other amazing activities? We had taken reasonable time to explore the country – five weeks – and although the whole point of the camper van was to have the freedom to go wherever whenever, we had a loose schedule to be able to see the most amazing nature the country has on offer. So we were off to Abel Tasman National Park, thinking we might return for another helicopter flight attempt all the while knowing it would be a madman’s decision to drive the same route all the way down (and then up) again without any guarantees for an actual take off.
So now, hearing our pilot make this comment sounds like music to my ears. No time for sarcasm or any smart remarks now, only for the epic tune of a dream come true. As we’re taking flight – straight up, a very interesting experience for someone being in a helicopter for the first time – not only does my body get lifted, my spirit is lifted sky-high. Soaring away from the helicopter platform towards the mountain range is a prelude I can hardly bear. But within minutes we can see majestic valleys, shaped by glaciers a million years ago, retreated glaciers that from high up still look unbelievable massive and simply impressive. My eyes take in snow-capped peaks of granite giants, peeking out of a blanket of snow that’s high and patterned like a thick milkshake or whipped cream, blue ice glistening through in the bright sunlight. The blue skies make a magnificent contrast with the mountains.
There’s too much beauty all around us for my eyes to register. I’m in the back seat of the helicopter peering out of the window left, then right again, filming but not looking on the screen of my camera. I only have eyes for this otherworldly landscape in which Mount Cook stands tall in front of us. We make a full circle around the mountain top and enjoy the sight of every angle of it. What a privilege to take in this view without having to make the climb up. A climb that can be done within two days, but during which weather conditions can change so rapidly many hikers have perished on its slopes. In that perspective, driving 640 km there and back again isn’t such a bad deal in the end.
After seeing Tasman, Fox and Hooker glacier we make a stop in the Liebzig Dome and take in the view with our feet deep in the snow. “You’re not cold yet?” Our pilot asks. “On my flight earlier today there were three Chinese and after stepping in the snow they asked me to fly back as they were too cold.” “No” I hear myself saying. I never want to leave this place. At least, not until my thermal underwear stops keeping me warm.
Create your own travel story!
There are many ways to explore New Zealand’s beauty from up in the air. The two most important thing to do if this is a dream you want to come true is: 1) start saving and 2) be sure you know very well what exactly you want to experience (a heli hike or an actual scenic flight?).
Helicopter and propeller plane flights are incredibly expensive (which is to be expected in New Zealand), and the duration of your flight and the number of people on your flight are the two main factors in determining the cost of your flight. If your travelling alone or just with a couple you might want to check out if any other travellers staying at your hostel or campsite want to fly out as well. The smallest helicopter seats four persons which means the price per person goes up until you’ve reached the equal amount of those four if any seats remain empty.
A plane flight is typically cheaper as a plane seats more persons and can fly a longer distance with less fuel, but the downside is that you’ll be unable to make a mountain stop during your flight. For me, it was the first time to fly a helicopter and I was absolutely amazed by the view you have – it’s so much more than what you can see from an airplane window.
Eventually we flew with Tekapo Helicopters and choose the 50 minute ‘Mount Cook Safari’.