Air­borne

Whether win­ter or sum­mer, the scenery at Ao­raki Mount Cook is al­ways stun­ning

Go Travel New Zealand - - Westland Mackenzie -

The Ao­raki Mount Cook re­gion boasts some of the most stun­ning scenery in New Zealand. Win­ter and sum­mer the vis­tas are mind blow­ing.

As you ven­ture into the Macken­zie Basin, the alps pro­vide a dra­matic back­drop against the vi­brant turquoise glacial lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki. Both these lakes are rem­nants of the last ma­jor ice age, over 14000 years ago, that shaped the landscape.

The best way to truly ap­pre­ci­ate the area and see all the sights is by air.

We dis­cov­ered one of the most pop­u­lar trips is the Grand Tra­verse tour with Air Sa­faris, based in Lake Tekapo. This fam­ily owned and op­er­ated com­pany has been flying around the Ao­raki Mount Cook & West­land Na­tional Parks for nearly 50 years and with­out a doubt pro­vides the best view­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The com­pany’s main base at Lake Tekapo is im­pres­sive, with its own air­port and a fleet of mod­ern air­craft de­part­ing ½ hourly through­out

the sum­mer on tours. In the win­ter, flights depart ev­ery one to two hours.

On ar­rival, some in­cred­i­bly friendly staff met us and be­fore we knew it we were climb­ing on board a new Cessna Grand Car­a­van to be­gin our Grand Tra­verse. The in­te­rior of the air­craft was great, and each per­son had their own win­dow.

Our pi­lot for the trip, Tim Ray­ward, has been flying around the area for over 30 years. His fa­ther Richard started the com­pany in 1970 and Tim grew up shar­ing the same pas­sion for the moun­tains.

Be­fore we knew it we were air­borne and pass­ing the Lake Tekapo town­ship (pop ~400) and look­ing up at the stun­ning glacial lake. Tim points out the Mount John Ob­ser­va­tory, fa­mous world­wide for star gaz­ing, run by the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury. In 2012, an area of 430,000 hectares sur­round­ing Mount John was de­clared the Ao­raki Macken­zie In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Re­serve. The ob­ser­va­tory houses NZ’s largest tele­scope , the 1.8m MOA.

We are amazed by the view from the air and how much more you can see than from ground level. The lake stretches 27km up to the God­ley Val­ley and the vi­brant blue colour is sim­ply in­de­scrib­able. Tim ex­plains the rea­son for the colour is the glacial silt or “rock flour” that re­mains in sus­pen­sion in the water and re­flects sun­light. The silt is formed up in the glaciers as the ice grinds away at the bedrock un­der­neath and boul­ders within the ice are tum­bled to­gether. The finely ground rock par­ti­cles are then washed down the rivers into the lake.

As we con­tin­ued, Tim talks about the large high country sheep farms, some up to 20,000 hectares in size and farm­ing 8000 or more merino sheep for the very fine wool they pro­duce. It is amaz­ing to see the steep rugged moun­tain val­leys that the sheep live up through in the sum­mer time. In late April, the farms carry out au­tumn musters us­ing sheep dogs to bring all the sheep down to the lower parts of the farms where they can easily feed out dur­ing the win­ter. There is so much to look at it is hard to take it all in as Tim gen­tly weaves the air­craft (to give both sides good view­ing) to­wards the alps.

Climb­ing up the God­ley Val­ley, Tim ex­plains we will be lev­el­ing off shortly at about 9500’ above sea level as we en­ter the Ao­raki Mount Cook Na­tional Park. The park was formed in 1953 and cov­ers a lit­tle over 700sq km. Nine­teen of NZ’s moun­tain peaks over 3000m can be found in the park and glaciers cover 40 per cent of the to­tal area. In the head of

the God­ley Val­ley we start to get our first glimpses of the glaciers. The God­ley lakes are fed by a large num­ber of ice­fields and glaciers and it is easy to see the pro­cesses form­ing all the silt Tim talked about early in the flight.

The change as we en­ter the Na­tional Park is no­tice­able; sud­denly the moun­tains are larger, more rugged and cov­ered in snow.

We were do­ing the flight in the mid­dle of sum­mer and it is amaz­ing how much snow and ice there is around – much more than we thought look­ing from Tekapo. Ev­ery­thing ap­pears so close you feel let you can touch it as the Car­a­van tra­verses around the tops of the Murchi­son & Tas­man glaciers.

Ev­ery­one on board the air­craft looked awe struck by the hang­ing ice and deep blue crevasses. We were so en­grossed we nearly missed the com­men­tary telling us the Tas­man glacier is NZ’s long­est at 27km, is up to 4km wide and 600m thick. It starts at a height of 3000m above sea level and cov­ers 101 sq km.

As Tim headed over the main di­vide to the Franz Josef & Fox glaciers, he brought the Car­a­van around un­der Mt Elie de Beau­mont, dom­i­neer­ing the head of the Tas­man glacier it is com­pletely cov­ered in snow and ice, we were lucky enough to spot some climbers half way up. In­ter­est­ingly, Tim says the alps are still grow­ing at a rate of 5-10mm per year and are con­sid­ered quite young at less than 10 mil­lion years old.

The “Grand Tra­verse” flight path took us right around the Franz Josef and Fox neves, from both sides of the air­craft we could see right down into the ice­falls and out to the rain­for­est cov­ered low­lands – the to­tal length of the glaciers is about 12km. The ice in the neves is well over 500m deep and moves up to 3 me­tres a day in the steep­est parts of the ice­falls.

As if it couldn’t get any bet­ter we were sud­denly up along­side Ao­raki Mount Cook & Mount Tas­man N.Z’s two high­est peaks at 3724m & 3497m re­spec­tively. Tim has climbed the Car­a­van and we get a won­der­ful view of the sum­mits of both peaks. Over the PA system we hear Tim talk­ing about the first as­cent of Mount Cook on Christ­mas Day 1894 by Tom Fyfe (18yrs), Jack Clarke & Ge­orge Gra­ham.

On the eastern side of Mount Cook, as the air­craft banks to re­peat the view for pas­sen­gers seated on the opposite side, we got a tremen­dous view down into the Hochstet­ter Ice­fall and lower parts of the Tas­man glacier.

We never ap­pre­ci­ated the size of the ice­berg filled Tas­man lake which Tim says is grow­ing at a rapid rate. Even from our al­ti­tude we can see a num­ber of small in­flat­able boats on the lake do­ing tours.

The last 10mins of the flight was a magical de­scent through high country val­leys pop­u­lar for heli ski­ing in the win­ter months but this time of year the do­main of the merino sheep.

On our ap­proach to land, Tim took us right over the spring wa­ters of Lake Alexan­d­rina with its dark blue con­trast­ing dra­mat­i­cally with the bril­liant turquoise of Lake Tekapo - a fa­mous trout fish­ing area dur­ing the sum­mer.

As Tim set­tles the Car­a­van back on the run­way at Tekapo, you couldn’t imag­ine a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence in NZ. The sheer beauty of this re­gion is ab­so­lutely breath­tak­ing.

The photo op­por­tu­ni­ties are end­less but also take the view in with your own eyes. The team at Air Sa­faris men­tioned they get a lot of peo­ple choos­ing to do the flight a sec­ond time and leave their cam­era behind!

Open all year around ex­cept Christ­mas day, you must visit Air Sa­faris if you are travelling through the Ao­raki Mount Cook Re­gion. The Grand Tra­verse is a once in a life time ex­pe­ri­ence.

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