The local for the week is one of my favourite Queenstown tour operators. I first flew with Glenorchy air a few years ago to Milford Sound, you can read about that here, this time we were off somewhere new.
I had never flown to or over Mount Cook and have always said it sits firmly at the top of my New Zealand bucket list. If you don’t know Aoraki, Mount Cook National Park is my favourite place in New Zealand. We have explored here, hiked here, camped here and to top it off last year we got engaged here. It is magical. I don’t think I can put it into words, it’s a little like Milford Sound in the sense you can’t explain it, you must just go down there and see for yourself.
I got the text. The flight was confirmed. After a couple of weeks of back and forth with the team due to space and weather hold-ups, it was finally happening. I was finally about to fly over my beloved mountain. The day started early which is a bonus for shooting. Flying early means the harsh midday sun doesn’t make an appearance, another tip for shooting on a scenic flight, wear black, oh and take your camera strap off, this stops any unwanted reflections in the plane window.
Check-in at the airport I sat and waited for our fellow passengers. A lovely English couple rolled in, looking like they just stepped out of an outdoor clothing campaign, perfect attire for this mission and they were on board for us using them as models for the day. After a quick safety brief in the terminal, our pilot James took the group out to the hanger where our beautiful new little plane was waiting. This particular plane was new to the fleet and perfect for flying to Mount Cook. Smaller in size meaning only 6 seats including the pilot. I jumped in the back so I could shoot out all windows and our friends took up the middle. We popped on our headsets and sat back taking off quickly into the sky above Queenstown. As soon as you’re flying high you get a real sense for how grand and majestic this land is.
We took a turn for Arrowtown and Wanaka skimming past Cardrona in a matter of minutes and then Lake Wanaka came into view. The blue of the lake and the surrounding mountains were truly breathtaking. Having the back seat meant I had pretty much a 360 view of the scenes unfolding below and what my fellow passengers couldn’t see was my happy dance in the back row.
We quickly passed over Wanaka, Lake Hawea and cruised over Mount Aspiring National Park. My oh, oh my. This is where the landscape changed, the mountains got a whole lot sharper and alpine lakes started making an appearance. It was bloody incredible. I have never explored Mount Aspiring on foot, although I long to. The scenes below just made me hungry for adventures in the national park. It was wild, river braids, vast open valleys, and snow-capped mountains as far as the eye could see. Even the tip of Tititea, Mount Aspiring made a brief show through the clouds.
Wow, this is where I cried. I cried while sat in the back of a plane with my camera pressed to my face, silently pinching myself watching the mountains float on by underneath us.
If you have been to Mount Cook, driven past or even seen an image online you will recognize the blue of Lake Pukaki like no other. The turquoise water broke through the cloud letting me know we were close to our destination. Slowly but surely we flew over Red Tarns, over the braided river and hit the runway at Mount Cook airport. I felt like I had floated here, it was a surreal feeling to be on the tarmac. We exited the plane and jumped in the Glenorchy Air minibus. As we had a little extra time James took us for a coffee at the old mountaineers café in the village. This is one of my favourite cafes. Privately owned and operated, incredible views and awesome little mountain trinkets adorn the walls.
We hopped back in the van back to the airport. I was blissfully unaware of what would be happening next, there was talk that we would be going heli-hiking. There might not be room for me so I thought I would take a walk around and wait for the couple to return. Oh no, there was room. Hannah, the beautiful lady who works for Mount Cook Ski planes and heli’s squeezed me in and before I knew it I was lacing my boots and ducking my head while clambering into the front seat of the helicopter.
Off into the sky, we go. Flying low, hugging the mountainside and climbing higher up the Tasman Glacier. When visiting Mount Cook you must walk round to the Tasman glacier, here you will see New Zealand’s longest glacier, 27kms long, 4kms wide and incredibly powerful. I remember once we hiked to the view point and the whole lake was peppered with icebergs as a skyscraper-sized piece had broken off in the night.
We landed on the ice, ran out of the heli like we were extras in some kinda action film, held on to our belongings and each other as the blades whipped up the ice and snow around us. Less than ten-seconds later we were alone on the glacier, our guide, an absolute character teaching us all we need to know about not losing our footing while traversing this giant. Crampons secure and hiking poles at the ready we set off on foot over the ice. Our guide made ice stairs with his axe, picked a route and showed us deep into ice caves carved by the glacier. We listened for avalanches and braved some pretty big gaps in the ice as we looped back to the helipad/landing spot. I lagged behind a lot, one because I was shooting and needed the landscape to dwarf our models but two I needed a moment to process where I was, again, a pinch-me moment. The backside of Mount Cook loomed in the distance and the sound of our helicopter could be faintly heard echoing around the valley.
I took my place in the middle seat of the heli and watched as the mountains slowly disappeared out of view. The Tasman lake floated on by and we could see the faint blues of Pukaki in the distance. On route back to the Glenorchy Air aircraft I knew our adventure was nearly over. James, our pilot flew back through central Otago, we cruised over the Lindis Pass, over central and Ben Ohau station.
Familiar scenes quickly came around. Lake Wakatipu and the mountains I so happily call home went by as we cruised back into Queenstown airport. This truly was one of the most magical experiences of my life & I can’t recommend the team at Glenorchy air enough.
Thank you Glenorchy Air for the memories & fulfilling one of my biggest dreams.