Getting up close and personal to mountains, especially snow covered ones, makes my heart do double somersaults. For quite a while now I’ve been thinking about taking the Air Safaris Grand Traverse Scenic Flight over the Southern Alps in New Zealand. Part of the reason for this was because I wanted to see the Macaulay River and part of it was just getting the chance again to see the pristine peaks of the Southern Alps from the air.
When I first came to Lake Tekapo, New Zealand in 2009, I had seen the Macaulay River on a map of the local area here and it piqued my interest. Having Mc Auley as my surname I was curious as to who the river was named after. I found out from the National Archives in Wellington that it was named after an English writer and poet called Thomas Babington Macaulay. There is also a Macaulay Hut which I’d like to see and about three weeks ago I nearly got up there to see it.
Mike Midgeley, the ex-owner of the Tailor Made Backpackers in Lake Tekapo, was going to drive up there with a radio technician to fix the radio in the hut and I had planned on going with them. But the Macaulay River was too high so the trip was cancelled.
One of my colleagues at work told me recently that she and her boyfriend had been on The Grand Traverse Flight and it was one of the highlights of their time in New Zealand. So it encouraged me to ask Air Safaris about the flight. I had Monday off work and the weather was looking very promising, with sunny blue skies and no wind – great conditions for flying.
I phoned the Air Safaris office at their airport, 5km outside of the village and they told me to call them the next morning to see if they had seats available for their 10am flight. When I phoned them the following day, they told me that they did have a free seat and to be at the village office at 9.45am. “Cool” I thought. “I’m looking forward to this”. The weather was glorious with hardly a cloud in the sky and temperatures of about 24 degrees.
I have no car so Rob, one of the Air Safaris staff, brought me and another lady, by bus from the village office in Lake Tekapo to their airport. He checked us in and we only had a few minutes to wait until all the passengers for the flight arrived. There were about eight of us and Matt, our pilot, brought us outside to give us a safety briefing before boarding the plane.
Our flying chariot was a Cessna Grand Caravan Twin Propeller aircraft. He said that we all had a window seat and that he would be taking a few turns now and again, so that people on both sides of the plane would have a great view. There were a few empty seats and he said that we could move into those seats during the flight, if we wanted to, to take photos or to just enjoy the scenery.
After takeoff we flew over flat, open Mackenzie Country, with its golden coloured tussocks, the gleaming turquoise blue water of Lake Tekapo and on towards the Southern Alps. We saw Lilybank Sheep Station at the intersection of the Godley and the Macaulay Rivers. To the right of Lilybank, you could see the Macaulay River meandering its way northwards. There is a track that you can see crossing the river and when the river gets too high, the station can be isolated for days.
The Godley and Macaulay Rivers are Braided Rivers. These sort of rivers are usually wide but shallow. They consist of multiple small channels that divide and recombine numerous times across a gravel floodplain, forming a pattern resembling the strands of a braid.
Lilybank station is one of the many high country farms that raise merino sheep for their fine wool. The farms average about 23,000 hectares in size and contain up to about 10,000 sheep. As we got closer to the Southern Alps, the terrain became more rugged with steep mountain faces covered in snow and ice. To the left was Murchison Glacier, 16 kilometres long and New Zealand’s second longest glacier. When we got to the Franz Josef Glacier, all the surrounding mountains were draped in very heavy snow which glistened in the morning sun. The peaks were razor sharp and it was like being on top of the world again.
We flew over the Fox Glacier with its multiple layers of ice on top, sloping down into the valley below. I had seen the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers before, as well as Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook, when I went on a helicopter flight over the Southern Alps with a friend in 2005. We flew lower and closer to the mountains and glaciers and I must admit, I preferred the helicopter flight because of that. The mountains were so much more “up close and personal”.
Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook were next on the itinerary. Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3,724 metres high. It looked majestic amongst all the other mountain peaks, showing its height and beauty off to anyone who cared to take notice. On our left after Mt. Cook was Mt. La Perouse. Its southern rock face was so sheer, it looked like a cake that someone had just taken a slice out of. There were 2 climbers making their way up to the top of the mountain. They were like dots on a white canvas.
On our way back to Tekapo the Tasman Glacier came into view. I saw this glacier at its terminus in the Tasman Lake a few years ago when I went on a Tasman Glacier Boat Trip in 2012. We got to see the icebergs in the lake up close and were able to touch them which was a unique experience. The views and perspectives of the glacier from both angles are so totally different and I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to experience that. The Tasman Lake is 150 metres deep. It’s amazing to think that over 100 million years ago the Southern Alps were beneath the sea. Earthquakes have pushed them over the earth’s surface and that’s still happening. There are over 11 of these major glaciers to be seen on The Grand Traverse Flight, weather permitting.
It wasn’t long before we were back in Mackenzie Country again and as we flew over Lake Alexandrina we dropped our height and landed a short while afterwards on the runway at Air Safaris airport. Even though I preferred the helicopter flight in 2005, it was still a great experience to see the snow covered mountains of the Southern Alps again – especially seeing as I got it for free!
Air Safaris have a base in Lake Tekapo, Franz Josef and Glentanner/Mt. Cook. They run Charter flights throughout New Zealand and also run scenic flights including The Grand Traverse Flight which I went on. They also provide specialised educational sightseeing tours of unique glaciated environments. Their aircraft can be configured for photography, with the doors removed if required, at the discretion of Air Safaris staff. I work in a front line position in the tourism industry in Lake Tekapo and can promote their flights. So because of this I got the flight for free. It was a very enjoyable experience all around. The staff are very friendly and professional and I would highly recommend their Grand Traverse Flight.