© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

The Grand Traverse Flight Over The Southern Alps

© NZPocketGuide.com

199 Days on the Road

Having not a single cloud in the sky is always a good thing in Lake Tekapo. Usually, we like the moodiness and atmosphere of a bit of cloud cover, but we’ve been waiting two days for the clouds to shift so that we can hit the skies with Air Safaris. Finally, that morning comes today when the sun creeping between the gaps of our camper’s curtains. Wahoo!

The flight-seeing experts

Wasting no time, we’re parking up at Tekapo Airport to the sight of flights frequently going in and out, making up for the last couple of days where the weather has been too cr*p to fly. There are a mix of 15-seater Nomad planes and smaller 7-seater planes seen flying in and out from the viewing area of the runway. The pilots will come in, fuel up, gather the next load of people, and fly back out again. It’s a well-oiled machine here at Air Safaris.

Every seat’s a window seat

Five of us head out onto the next flight in one of the smaller planes. Our pilot, Leon, introduces himself and tells us that the plane is a good Australian-made plane. Kiwis might beg to differ, but Leon says this like it’s a good thing. We can’t argue when we get into the plane where every seat is a window seat – windows that large and bend outwards giving enough space for cameras and a super wide angle for optimal scenery viewing!

Not only does a safety card sit in the seat in front of us, but some photography tips as well! Yep, they know what we want.

A journey of glacial waters

A couple of minutes behind the larger aircraft, our little but surprisingly spacious plane takes off and glides over the blue waters of Lake Tekapo feeding into the power station, gaining height until we get the most magnificent view over Lake Tekapo itself. Leon gives commentary about the main sights throughout the flight, telling us about the Mount John Observatory that we were lucky enough to stargaze from just the other night. As we move up the lake, our eyes are met with the contrasting colours of the dark blue lake and green farmlands of the MacKenzie Basin. It is the fine rock flour produced by glacier grinding up rocks that feeds into the lake and gives it this unique blue colour. An example of this couldn’t be more evident when we reach the beginning of the lake where there is a dramatic change of dark blue turns an opaque turquoise where the rivers feed into the lake. Those rivers themselves can only be fully appreciated from this aerial view. Patterns are created in the flat valley where a whole network of rivers braid in and out of each other. We follow the 2km-wide Godley River into the heart of the Southern Alps.

From water to ice

At first, the peaks of the Southern Alps only have a dusting of snow and our first glimpse of glaciers leading into seemingly small terminal lakes. The more we fly, the more dramatic this alpine landscape becomes until we reach peaks permanently engulfed in snow – snow so compacted that we can see huge ice cliffs of the neve of much larger glaciers. At 16km long, the Murchison Glacier is the first of New Zealand’s giant glaciers that we see. It flows parallel to New Zealand’s largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier at 29km long. The glacier is so long and seemingly flat that it really does look like a river of ice.

Bluer than blue waters in Lake Tekapo

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Crossing over to the wild side

Crossing The Divide, the line of mountains that splits the east of the South Island from the West Coast, marks the moment when we get an overload of stunning mountain features. Between taking photos and watching the captivating views with your own eyes, it’s so much to take in. Notably, the West Coast is much cloudier than the east showcasing that famous wet weather the West Coast is known to have. With that, we see the dark green rainforest at the bottom of the snowline along the West Coast. Framed by cloud but perfectly in view, we fly above the top of Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier – an extremely special moment considering these are glaciers most backpackers explore from a completely different perspective down on the West Coast, whether it’s hiking on a glacier or walking to their terminal face.

A bumpy ride

Despite the rugged snowy mountains that we can see layers and layers of in the distance rising every year, their ruggedness also shows how the elements weather them down. The elements is also something our pilot has to deal with as we have a few bumpy sections of the flight. When some sort of siren goes off in the plane, we have a moment when the camera and the views don’t matter anymore… We freeze for a second, until the Leon sorts out whatever that was and we can assume we are safe… Phew! Although we’ve done a fair few skydives in New Zealand, we don’t think we are ready to go it alone yet.

The awesome Aoraki Mt Cook

Circling around the side of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook, is sure a highlight – a wow moment. The circular motion of the plane allows all of us to make the most of the majestic views of its sharp ridge thick with snow, and multiple glaciers streaming from the top.

Where we have seen the top of the mammoth Tasman Glacier, our loop around Aoraki Mt Cook brings us to the end of the mammoth Tasman Glacier right over the Tasman Glacier Lake dotted with icebergs. It is the moment when Leon says how the glacier was formed in 1991 and has been growing ever since that we realise how much this glacial environment is changing.

Back to Earth

From the epic mountains, we return to the peaceful aerial views of Lake Tekapo before landing back at Tekapo Airport. The diversity of New Zealand’s landscape is one of the very reasons the country is so awesome to travel in, but the diversity we’ve seen on just a 50-minute flight brings it to a whole new level.

We arrive back at the Tekapo Holiday Park not believing what we’ve seen this morning. How can we go on with the rest of the day knowing that our day peaked at the mountain peaks of the Southern Alps?!

Tomorrow, we’re back down to earth, travelling from Lake Tekapo to Fairlie, seeing a few sights along the way. Join us then!

So much beauty, not enough camera memory

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