A helicopter flight to Mount Cook in New Zealand should be on any travellers’ wishlist. Yes, it is expensive and yes, you are dependent on the weather. But it is a truly mind-blowing experience that you will cherish forever. Read about my dream flight to Mount Cook below. Or click here to go straight to my tips for planning your helicopter flight in New Zealand.
The helicopter flight of a lifetime
This is the moment I have been dreaming of since I was thirteen years old. I remember vividly that I was 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.
My eyes feel watery of utter happiness and my heart is thumping excitedly. I hear the roaring sound of the propellers and feel goose bumps on my forearms. I feel like screaming, and jumping around. But since we are in a helicopter my mouth is agape in wonder instead. I squeeze my partner’s shoulder and sit back to take in the unreal scenery. I want to register every inch of this scenery and imprint it in my mind to become an everlasting memory.
Mount Cook from up in the air
We are flying towards the peak of Mount Cook. Through the crackling earphones the pilot informs us of the take off procedure. “You’re very lucky with the weather,” I hear him say to us. I am happy to catch this as it is an interesting statement. Although I am without doubt the happiest person on earth at this moment, this goosebump-moment did not come easy.
How the weather almost ruined our helicopter flight
After dreaming of this experience for so long, the weather had almost ruined our chances. We were informed that New Zealand is known for its four seasons in one day. But I had absolutely not anticipated that this fact could come in between my dream of soaring over mountains peaks and booking the actual helicopter flight.
After our first week of camping in New Zealand I felt so close to that dream becoming a reality. We had made it to the other side of the world and were about to drive up to New Zealand’s Alps. By the time we arrived there however, my dream felt as ungraspable as it did back at home in The Netherlands.
Franz Josef Township
We arrived in Franz Josef Township in the West of New Zealand’s South Island. The small town is 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, the glacier has retreated drastically. The only way to go ice-hiking on the glacier nowadays is by booking a heli-hike trip.
The Franz Josef township 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 choose more than the five minutes flight time included in the heli hiking activity.
The weather and the mountains
Unfortunately, clouds were hovering over the mountains. The friendly staff member of the Department of Conservation burst my dream bubble right away. 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, I thought. 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 25 km away as the crow flies, but it takes a 500 km drive to get there. And since it concerns a road trip in New Zealand, that means a 500 km drive full of beautiful stops on the way.
Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
Lake Pukaki easily stood out as the most beautiful stop. The lake has mesmerizing turquoise water. Behind it, snow-capped Mount Cook was clearly visible in the blue skies. It was pure magic. And: close to Lake Tekapo, where we would be spending the night and hoped to get on a helicopter the next day. Because of the bright blue skies and this stunning view, I was sure that we would get lucky this time.
Helicopter flight attempt nr 2
The next morning, we got up early and dressed in warm layers. When we arrived at the agency, they informed us that the pilot was about to depart for a test flight. We left our phone number so they could give us a call as soon as they had heard back from the pilot.
Unfortunately, I did not receive the message I was hoping for when I answered the phone some twenty minutes later. As it turned out, the promising bits of blue sky and sun rays could not save our day. The winds were too strong to be flying.
This message had me crying of disappointment. Literally. Sitting in our cute little camper van, I could not control my emotions. I realized that I had no real reason to be upset. Our trip had been absolutely amazing so far and we still had so much more to explore. 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 wanted to stamp my feet on the floor in desperation and sulk like a small child for the rest of the day. But thank god for adulthood. I got over myself and we made a new plan.
A madman’s thought
We had taken five weeks to explore the country, a reasonable time to get around both the North and South Island. Although the whole point of the camper van was to have the freedom to go wherever whenever, we had a rough itinerary. The route included some of the destinations that were high up on our wish list. Next on it was Abel Tasman National Park. That did mean driving away from New Zealand’s mountains up North. And while I knew that it was a madman’s thought, I was still kind of hoping we might return for another helicopter flight attempt. Knowing that it would mean driving up the same route all the way down (and then up) again without any guarantees for an actual take off.
Fast forward to three days later..
As you have possibly guessed by now I could not really get over myself and give up on my 13 year old dream. That helicopter flight over the mountains still felt within reach, even after a multi-day hike through lush forest and golden beaches. After a rewarding post-hike beer on a sunlit terrace, we decided to tart faith and hit the road south again. It took us 9 hours to drive back to Lake Tekapo. A drive during which I contacted the helicopter agency twice to check the current weather status. And during which I twice received the answer that really, they could not give any guarantees.
Attempt nr 3
Until one hour prior to our flight it was still uncertain if we would be able to fly out. The consequence of the deterring weather conditions during the rest of the week, had now resulted in limited helicopter availability. More tourists than us were on standby now that a calm day had finally arrived.
So now, hearing our pilot make a remark about this being the perfect day for a flight, sounds like music to my ears. No time for sarcasm or any smart remarks now, only for soaking up this experience. As we take flight – straight up, a very interesting experience for someone who’s in a helicopter for the first time – not only does my body get lifted, my spirit is lifted sky-high.
Majestic valleys and imposing glaciers
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. We soar over retreated glaciers that from high up still look unbelievable massive and mighty impressive. Cravasses in the glaciers show glistening blue ice. Peaks of granite giants peek out of a blanket of snow. The layer of white is patterned like a thick milkshake or whipped cream. Blue skies make a stark contrast with the white mountains.
There is too much beauty all around us for my eyes to register. I alternate my gaze from the left to the right window and back again. I am in the back seat by myself and have a perfect view of the area. My camera is on filming mode but I do not pay any attention to the screen. I only have eyes for this otherworldly landscape in which Mount Cook stands tall in front of us.
Circling around Mount Cook in a helicopter
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. The climb to the top of Mount Cook can be done within just two days, but the weather conditions can change so rapidly that 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.
Get lifted! All you need to know about booking a helicopter flight in New Zealand.
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?).
How can I book a budget helicopter flight in New Zealand?
Helicopter and propeller plane flights are incredibly expensive (which is to be expected in New Zealand). 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 you are 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.
Should I book a propeller plane flight or helicopter flight?
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 (now part of Helicopter Line) and choose the 45 minute ‘Mount Cook Encounter’.
What should I wear during a helicopter flight?
Inside the helicopter, regular pants and a warm sweater will do. If you book a flight that includes a snow-landing, you want to put on your hiking boots and thermal underwear. It is cold up there and you want to properly dressed so that all your attention can go to the incredible views.