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