Flying High Above Real Middle Earth
Encompassing some of the most dramatic scenery on the planet, New Zealand’s south island is noted for its ability to inspire a longing for adventure. Alpine peaks, glacial lakes and vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness provide the perfect playground for those with the desire to down tools and reconnect with the natural world.
Defined by a mountainous backbone of snow-capped summits much of the south is rarely accessed by the few inhabitants who call it home. While the main roads carry backpackers and visiting holiday makers keen to witness New Zealand’s natural beauty, the highways of the sky provide a much more intimate route into ‘Real Middle Earth’.
Real Middle Earth
From their base in Queenstown The Helicopter Line take to the skies for an air tour that incorporates some of the most remote areas of the Queenstown Lakes region and neighboring Fiordland.
The opportunity for a rather intimate insight into the wilds of this vast uninhabited landscape, many of their flights incorporate a seasonal snow landing that permits you to step out onto terrain usually reserved for those brave enough to climb high over ice and snow.
When I heard reports from pervious clients that their 90 minute Milford Sound excursion included an altitude glacial landing, I knew it would give me the chance to comprehend the sheer scale of the surrounding alpine peaks that dominated the surrounding skyline.
AN UNFORGETTABLE AIR TOUR
As the helicopter began to levitate above the tarmacked helipad, my stomach leapt into my mouth. The alien feeling of flight in such a manner never fails to send my senses into a state of shock.
With my headset firmly over my ears I could hear the pilot’s commentary, but his words were lost on me; my thoughts were soon enveloped by the contrasting textures and color below.
High over neighboring Glenorchy we flew, to the opposite end of the vast Lake Wakatipu. Crossing the Dart River the peaks of The Divide came into view and soon the pilot was coming into land.
HIGH ABOVE THE DIVIDE
Removing my headset the noise of the revolving blades filled the air.
The door opened, I hopped out, and followed instruction to stoop low until free of the rotating hazard.
A landscape of undulating terrain stretched out before me. In the foreground jagged rock and windswept vegetation whispered a foreboding tale of isolation. We had landed in a spot so remote civilization was just a distant memory.
To the south sunlight glistened on Lake Wakatipu and to the west the snow-capped peaks of Fiordland were visible on the horizon.
FLYING OVER FIORDLAND
Taking off once more we flew further into the wild and towards the largely uninhabited Fiordland National Park.
While the view today is one of indomitable peaks reflected in the inky waters of the infinitely deep sounds, Fiordland was once enveloped by giant sheets of ice. Carving away at the rock face beneath, the glaciers of the region’s past have sculpted terrain so unique that it has become one of the most iconic landscapes on earth.
As the helicopter approaches the valley walls the scale of the environment soon becomes the focus of my thoughts. In the distance another helicopter is flying alongside a waterfall and its tiny form is all but swallowed by the mountainous form of the rock face beside it.
THE MILFORD SOUND
Coming in to land once more the pilot sets the helicopter down on the tarmacked Milford Airstrip.
Immediately apparent as I step out of the heli is the sheer magnitude of the landscape which surrounds me. I’m humbled to be looking at the picture postcard view I’ve seen so often in the pages of numerous travel magazines throughout my youth.
With the previous few days of rain fuelling the numerous waterfalls that feed into fjord, the sound of rushing water echoes in the distance and on occasion the sun lights up patches of white spray juxtaposing it against dark rock and green moss.
The beauty of the scene before me is dumbfounding.
A GLACIAL ENCOUNTER
Back in the air again we retrace our path, this time remaining at a lower altitude. Below the snow line the vegetation thrives and my view is one of vibrant greens flourishing below a band of earthy browns.
Following the route of the valley floor we begin to rise above the snow line as a rocky divide block our path. Blue icy rifts appear in marshmallow like snow eluding to the vast sheet of glacial ice below.
Once more the pilot comes into land, this time on the glacier nestling atop the frozen summit.
With instructions not to stray too far I jump out of the helicopter and sink deep into the snow. With each step I sink further into the white powder. Carefully transferring my weight from one foot to the other my muscles remain tense, anticipating a fall into the icy depths below.
I’ve found myself in a pristine world of white. On either side the view descends into the valleys below and above jagged shapes blanketed in white dominate the sky.
I resist the urge to lie in the snow; it looks like an indulgent white pillow so soft and inviting. Standing stock still for what feels like an eternity I inhale the scene before me like oxygen.
BACK DOWN TO EARTH
The blades pick up speed and we rise above the world of white. Seconds later the ground drops away into a gargantuan valley and I’m suddenly aware of just how high up we are.
Leaving Fiordland behind we return to the windswept landscape of The Divide and soon Lake Wakatipu comes into view. While I have been fortunate enough to take to the skies over New Zealand once before, my trip with The Helicopter Line has only excited my desire to see more of its landscapes from above.
While bound to terra firma you can explore the country’s unique terrain with much success, however there’s just no escaping the fact that while hovering above you are privy to a secret world of color, texture and unfettered natural form.
For those with just a few days to see the south island I highly recommend joining The Helicopter Line for their 90 minute Milford Sound excursion. Offering insight into so many of the island’s iconic landscapes this is an immersive experience that you’ll not likely better anywhere else on earth.
Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by The Helicopter Line, but all opinions expressed are my own.