On the drive to Tekapo, I was very concerned that my scenic flight with Air Safaris wouldn’t happen, or if it did, that we wouldn’t see very much because of the heavy rain and low cloud. Then something amazing happened — I turned a corner and the clouds just parted, which is apparently a pretty common occurrence around the Tekapo region. By the time I reached the airport, it was picture perfect.
The Air Safaris pilots agreed that it was a perfect day for flying so the four of us followed our pilot, Isaac, out to the plane (a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8). After being given a safety briefing and being told this was one of the safest planes we could fly on, we loaded into the plane. One major advantage of flying in a plane rather than a helicopter is that everyone is guaranteed a window seat, whereas only a few people are that lucky in a helicopter. Our windows were really quite large so we had a huge range of view.
Once we were belted and ready to go, we taxied to the end of the runway. Our pilot said that we needed to wait there for a while because when it’s colder, the plane takes a little while to warm up. I think we were all perfectly happy for him to wait as long as necessary!
Soon, we were in the air, flying over the chocolate-coloured tussock of the Mackenzie Basin. We slowly looped around the town of Tekapo and then, as we slowly gained altitude, headed north along the deep blue lake. Because the seat on the other side of the aisle was empty and I had a great view out that window as well, it was hard to tell where to look. Everywhere there was something new to look at — from the braided Godley River feeding into Lake Tekapo to the high country sheep stations to Lake Alexandria. All the while, our pilot was giving us a running commentary on what we are seeing and why these places are the way they are. For instance, Lake Tekapo gets its very unique colour from ‘rock flour,’ rocks that the glaciers feed into the lake grind up as they slowly move.
The first large mountain we saw was Mount Sibbald, which is separated from the main body of the Southern Alps by the Godley River. Even though it’s not part of the main range, Isaac pointed out that at 2811m, it’s still higher than any peaks on the North Island.
From there, we turned towards the West and began heading through the Southern Alps, where it seemed like everything just increased in size and majesty. All around us were glaciers, such as the Murchison and Hooker Glaciers, snow, and high mountain peaks.
The trip across to the West Coast got a bit bumpy, as is usually the case when flying over big mountains. The plane lurched up and down and side to side a few times but Isaac assured us that everything was perfectly normal. He was keen to fly on the West Coast side for as long as possible because the afternoon light was so nice on that side, but he was concerned it might be too bumpy for our comfort; fortunately, the air around us played nice.
I felt like a bit of a broken record, saying “woooow!” every time something new came into view. The conditions really seemed perfect — the afternoon light played on the Pacific Ocean and tufts of cloud floated around the mountain peaks to make them just that little bit more scenic (as if they weren’t enough already)! Further down the valleys, you could see the heavy cloud that so often coats the West Coast, but it was far enough down we could still see the glaciers.
The glaciers were something to truly marvel at, with all of the cracks and bright blue crevasses. We couldn’t get as close to them as you would in a helicopter, but I was fine with that — my view meant that I could see the details on the glaciers and a lot more!
It was such a clear day that, as well as seeing New Zealand’s two highest peaks in Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Tasman, we could also see as far south as Mount Aspiring in Wanaka.
The tall peaks were incredibly impressive. Snow was being lifted up and away from Mount Tasman in a plume. Mount Cook was imposing and covered in snow and rocky outcrops. I couldn’t imagine being one of the people that had conquered that peak — it all seemed much easier to just see it out of the window of an airplane!
All too soon, we had to head away from the Alps and back towards Tekapo. On the way, we flew over the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest glacier, and saw the little icebergs dotting the terminal lake (which I will be boating around tomorrow)! Then we were back over the Mackenzie Basin and again marveling at the colours, rivers, and lakes that dot the region before Isaac expertly landed the plane back at Tekapo Airport.
All in all, I believe we were up in the air for over 45 minutes. It was an absolutely fantastic flight and one I would get on again in a heartbeat. I had been a bit concerned about the bumpiness of the ride, but aside from the turbulence I’d mentioned, it was smooth and unconcerning. Plus, the views out the window are enough to take your mind off pretty much anything!
Air Safaris operate multiple flights daily out of Tekapo and Franz Josef Airports and have offices in these townships. The flight I did was the ‘Grand Traverse.’