NEW ZEALAND ADVENTURE
We don’t have any very high mountains in UK-the highest terrain I ever cross is Snowdon in Wales at 3,600 feet –so it was with considerable excitement that I viewed a week of mountain flying in the Fiordland of South Island New Zealand. We had visited these stunningly beautiful (Lord of the Rings) islands previously but had only done a couple of rather short flights, This time my wife Margaret and I had booked to stay on a farm which boasted 5,500 merino sheep, 150 Hereford cattle and a couple of upgraded Cessna 172s parked at the end of a 700 metre grass strip.
We were scheduled to meet our pilot-host Matt at Queenstown Airport at 8.30 on Monday morning and couldn’t have got off to a better start when we took the morning commuter flight from Christchurch. It was a crystal clear day with the brightness of the snow-clad Southern Alps sparkling under an azure sky and a Dash 8 captain who seemed content to wander above the many peaks giving a very laid-back commentary on all of interest.
Matt, the pilot/farmer who had organised our stay, was at the airport as arranged- I felt I already knew him well having spent so much time on the “Flyinn” web-site (www.flyinn.co.nz). We also met Carolyn and Russ, a couple of Californian aviators who were also heading for the farm.
It proved a very exciting day after an initial set-back- the Americans climbed aboard a bright yellow ZK-WAX for the 20 minute flight up to Geordie Hill Station but as “our” C172 was temporarily out of action we had to slum it by road. But either way arrival at Geordie Hill and the Gardener’s Cottage, our abode a little distance from the main farmhouse, was stunning with several thousand acres of flat valley floor enclosed by 6000 foot mountains which still bore snow in the spring sunshine.
My Australian licence was not current so along with Russ I underwent the test for a VFR NZ licence with the examiner who had flown up from Dunedin for the day. It wasn’t too testing with a lot of emphasis on low, slow flight and steep turns. Actually I found the latter a bit of a challenge being deprived of any reference horizon by the substantial masses of mountain ahead.
Tests and a delicious lunch over we decided to profit from the superb day -light winds and a clear sky, to fly around New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook (14,000 ft.) On the way we refuelled at Omaroma so had a chance to view New Zealand’s premier gliding site sitting conveniently in the lee of some large mountains.
It was all a bit surreal having breakfasted that morning in a smart hotel in a big city, then flying over the “Tout ensemble” at height, to now be pressed close to snowy peaks, heads of glaciers, snowy plateaux criss-crossed with ski plane tracks and the precipitous plunging valleys that dropped away to nowhere! No habitations were to be seen, but the radio indicated there were many other flyers, fixed wing and rotary, sharing our joys. Russ and I both opted to carry a local safety pilot all week (not obligatory): not only did their local knowledge greatly enhance the interest but they sorted out the innumerable reporting points, mainly at the passes, which would have proved confusing without a native pilot. There is no control or information service so everyone relies on R/T calls on a common frequency.
Then back to Geordie Hill for a wash and brush up before drinks at the main farmhouse followed by a gourmet dinner cooked by Matt’s wife Jo who is also a pilot. With conversation well lubricated with some excellent NZ wines I discover that Russ owns not one but two Bellancas details of which can be found on his web-site at www.bowaviation.com
It would be tedious to continue with a day by day account of our adventures, full of lush grassy plains, snow-capped mountains reflected in the glory of the capacious tinted lakes of this region, but two particular days stand out.
The first was our trip to Milford Sound. Matt wasn’t available so his locum Mike Thomas flew with us. As a man who had spent his life flying a Cessna 180 in these narrow valleys landing on tiny strips to haul hunters’ venison to market, his knowledge of mountain flying was encyclopaedic. He impressed on us the importance of staying close to the valley wall (better able to turn back and more lift for crossing passes which was always done at a 45 degree angle), where to expect curl-over and down draughts and concise R/T for position reports.
I hope the attached photos will give some idea of the arrival at Milford Sound. This Sound or fjord runs in for about 10 miles from the Tasmin Sea. It is about half a mile wide and confined by almost vertical mountain faces reaching up for about 6000 feet. The single runway 29/11 has a sealed surface and one exit/entry placed half way along it and as there are often several aircraft in the process of landing or departing it greatly facilitates traffic flow if one does not have to back-track on landing!! The join is overhead at 1500 feet and for 29 (the usual sea-breeze runway in use) one descends to circuit height whilst clinging to the Northern side. The downwind leg brings one back on the south side but the problem is that there is no room for a base leg! This is achieved by entering the adjacent Arthur’s Valley and flying an angled final approach. It’s all very stimulating!
As if this was not enough, after lunch we flew down the Sound and then northward along the rugged coast to do my first beach landing at Big Bay. Almost inevitably Mike came here regularly in the season to haul Whitebait or to pick up hunters who preferred the 40 minute flight to a 3 day walk! It seems that sand landings are all a question of surface tension of seawater; too little and the soft sand tips you over and too much and your wheels are in the sea which has the same effect. Hence the water’s edge with a receding tide is what you’re after! In fact reading the excellent “ Flying by Bradshaw” I find that regular such flights were going to Big Bay in the 1930s.
For me every remaining day in that week was special but we particularly enjoyed the trip to Stewart Island off the southern end of South Island (next stop Antarctica!). Most people reckon the pace and quality of life in NZ compares with that in the UK of 40 years ago, and in this southern appendage this was only too evident with a minimum of traffic and courtesy the reverse.
We stopped off in Mandeville on the way south- this is a must for anyone interested in the restoration of wooden aircraft (especially elderly de Havillands) and it was a joy to witness the love and expertise on display here where they welcome visitors.
The highlight of our stay on Stewart Island was a fishing trip when the blue cod practically jumped into the boat. Post fishing we had a walk on the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island while the skipper prepared and cooked our catch for a delicious al fresco lunch.
It was sad to end such a fantastic flying experience but at least we did it in style. As we squeezed ZK-TAR over the Cardrona Saddle on our way to our departure from Queenstown Airport, the other aircraft on frequency was the inbound flight which we were to take back to Christchurch and our return to England. So that we had the satisfaction of knowing that the flight would be on time, as indeed were we!
For couples where one partner is less enthusiastic than the other, the Flyinn formula really works with its “stick and carrot” approach. The stick (for the less enthusiastic partner) is a flight in a small aircraft through some fairly rugged terrain, while the carrot is the destination, which will always be interesting or stunningly beautiful, or usually both.
The photographs of Milford Sound were taken from the excellent Good Aviation Practice publication of the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority; essential study for all visiting aviators.