FLYING Magazine

When I left you hanging last month, dear reader, my wife and I and Kiwi flight instructor Matt McCaughan had just taken a Cessna 172 on a tight, slow flight circuit around a cloud-scraped, rock-walled thimble of an alpine lake in New Zealand, exiting with a rakish wingover down the enormous 2,000-foot waterfall cascading from its outlet. This was the fourth or fifth stunning sight in just the first two hours of a planned weeklong flying tour of the country’s South Island with FlyInn, McCaughan’s self-fly vacation operation.

Describing these two hours required three pages crammed with significantly more words than my usual monthly allotment, and yet I promised to cover the balance of the tour in a single additional installment.

Well, here goes nothing.

I won’t even attempt to adequately describe the remainder of the first day, which involved a lot of probing around the Fiordland’s misty maze of mountains and glacial valleys with several minimum-radius turnbacks from socked-in passes before finally finding a clear one that dropped us into perfectly named Doubtful Sound. When I finally landed ZK-WAX back in Wanaka, our home base for the week, I was thoroughly exhausted, exhilarated, and emotionally spent. It was the most visually intense day of flying in my life, not to mention a great deal more work than I’m used to putting in these days. A good cigar, glass of scotch, and eight full hours of sound sleep were in order.

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I was glad to find it wasn’t just me: Adam Broome, the North Carolinian piloting FlyInn’s other Cessna 172 (ZK-TRS) with his wife, Lissa, and FlyInn instructor Nick Taylor, confirmed that he was equally wiped out. And then McCaughan informed us that thanks to the weather window holding, we would be moving up our exploration of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps to the next day, never mind the wind forecast. This was akin to starting with the caviar and moving straight on to the crème brûlée—or perhaps more like competing in back-to-back Ironman triathlons.

The day began with calm winds, fair skies, and a short field approach into a 1,500-foot crop-duster’s strip in a cow pasture (very recently used, as I discovered soon after landing). From there we jaunted across to Lake Hawea and up the scenic Hunter River valley. The farther north we went, though, the windier and more turbulent it got.

At McCaughan’s urging, I moved farther and farther toward the downwind side of the valley until my right wing seemed to almost scrape the rocky slope— and then we were in a steady, powerful lift, riding the elevator upward at 1,500 feet per minute in relatively smooth air. My experience flying gliders came in handy, especially the bit of ridge soaring I’ve done. I became increasingly good at visualizing areas of lift and smooth air throughout our windy week and started to really enjoy surfing the ridges. Dawn, for her part, gamely endured the occasional solid thumping in the back seat, the price of admission for a whole week of world-class scenery.

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Now climbing through 10,000 feet, the immense, icy form of the Mount Cook massif rose ahead. This was familiar territory, as we had camped and hiked in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park the previous week. Mount Sefton, which had towered above our campsite in the moonlight and blazed in the morning alpenglow, slipped inconspicuously under our right wing. The Tasman, Hooker, Fox, and Franz Josef glaciers, whose gravel-strewn terminuses we had glimpsed from below, revealed themselves for the colossal blue giants they are, emerging from one enormous ice sheet draped around the shoulder of 12,218-foot Mount Cook. Climbers’ huts clinging to desolate rock ledges gave perspective to the landscape’s epic scale.

As Dawn and I gazed around, McCaughan sent a constant stream of radio position reports since flightseeing is popular here, and Mount Cook lies within a mandatory broadcast zone. There’s a standard circuit around the sights, but we were deviating to stay out of strong rotors downwind of the peaks. In any case, there weren’t too many sightseers braving the maelstrom, the conditions of which reminded me a bit of the long-ago winter I spent flying freight up California’s Owens Valley. The Southern Alps are a lot lower than the Sierra Nevada, though, and the winds aloft weren’t nearly as fearsome as during a West Coast frontal passage.

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After landing for lunch at Glentanner, we headed west to Lake Ohau and started up the fertile, ranch-dotted Hopkins Valley. As we approached Mount Glenmary the wind started really kicking again. Turning up a side tributary, we surfed up the leeward slope to clear a low saddle under Mount Huxley then ducked into the calmer Ahuriri River drainage. Working our way south, beyond Lindis Pass we descended into a gorgeous, golden valley with green fields, farm buildings, and an airstrip at the bottom.

This is Geordie Hill Station, the 5,500- acre ranch where five generations of McCaughans have raised Merino sheep and beef cattle and where Matt and his wife, Jo, started FlyInn. Originally, guests stayed at the ranch. Now accommodations are in the lake resort town of Wanaka, a 10-minute flight west. Dawn and I came to really enjoy Wanaka, but I think we would have been equally happy staying in the beautiful, peaceful surroundings of Geordie Hill Station.

One of the highlights of the FlyInn self-fly tour included an epic day at Milford Sound and Fjordland. [Courtesy: Sam Weigel]

The next day, Matt McCaughan’s ranching duties took precedence, and we were paired with affable, experienced instructor Peter Hendriks for an overnight trip to the southeastern coastal city of Dunedin. The wind was still kicking, but at least lower terrain made for a less intense workout. From the central Otago crossroads of Cromwell we crossed into the Nevis River valley and followed it down to the verdant Southland Plains. We stopped at Mandeville’s pleasant little grass strip for lunch, checked out the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre’s beautiful collection of vintage de Havilland aircraft, and made a quick flight with just Hendriks and I to complete the training requirements for my New Zealand PPL validation.

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Job done, Dawn clambered back into ZK-WAX and we headed south to the Catlins, a beautiful stretch of remote, craggy coastline straight out of western Ireland. We followed the wild coast northeastward, put in a good word with the controllers at Dunedin International Airport (NZDN), and landed at nontowered Taieri Airfield (NZTI). FlyInn put us up in a very nice hotel in central Dunedin, an atmospheric college town with a strong Scottish accent. Dawn and I had a good afternoon walkabout, then joined Hendriks, the Broomes, and Taylor for a lovely seafood dinner at an excellent restaurant tucked away by the seaport.

The next morning, we took a two-hour harbor cruise with local wildlife expert Rachel McGregor, spotting blue penguins, sea lions, and magnificent northern royal albatrosses at Taiaroa Head. A few hours later, we viewed the harbor from the air before heading up the coast to Oamaru and then inland via the Waitaki River and its series of impressive hydroelectric dams.

The weather window finally collapsed with a strong cold front bringing more wind, rain, and clouds than even a Kiwi pilot might care to tackle, giving us a Saturday off to poke around Otago wine country by car. Sunday dawned clear but windy, which we planned to mitigate by transiting Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu en route to Glenorchy. Queenstown Tower thought otherwise, given the steady stream of jets arriving down the Kawarau Gorge, so we were ordered to remain clear of controlled airspace. Alas, we bounced our way west across the mountains north of Queenstown, emerging from Monument Saddle to spiral down over the gravel-strewn Dart River on the way to landing on yet another beautiful grass runway.

After a ride into Glenorchy and a pub lunch, we headed back up the Dart River, this time via jet boat. It was a fun and beautiful journey, as the shallow draft and rapid speed took us 20 miles upriver into some rather gorgeous wilderness. It was well into the afternoon when we departed for the quick flight back to Wanaka, except there was so much interesting scenery that we dawdled and wandered, our track resembling a Family Circus cartoon. In particular, the spectacular Rob Roy Glacier near Mount Aspiring offered a perfect semicircular amphitheater to hang the flaps out and make a slow pass close inside the perimeter. ZK-TRS beat ZK-WAX back to the stable rather handily, and neither we nor Hendriks minded one bit.

Our last full day of flying circuited rural Otego, and I expected a fairly tame day out. McCaughan was back, his business with the spring lambs concluded, but he accompanied the Broomes while we nabbed Taylor, a very cheerful chap and laid-back instructor. After dropping in to visit the historic gold rush town of Clyde, we followed the popular Otago Central Rail Trail northeast to the Ida Valley and a little township called Oturehua. Now, Oturehua doesn’t have an airport, but there is a fairly level sheep paddock alongside the highway that Taylor assured me was fairly landable.

So much for a tame day out.

It seems the sheep had been absent for a few weeks as the grass was quite a bit taller than expected, but ZK-WAX handled lawn mower duties with aplomb. We visited 19th century farm-implement factory Hayes Engineering Works, with its fascinating water-powered, leather-belt-driven machine shop. Everything still works. The old-timer docent gamely powered up the shop and demonstrated use of the original lathe, press punch, shears, band saw, and more. After our visit, we enjoyed a beautiful flight surfing the ridges to Geordie Hill Station, where McCaughan gave us a longer tour, and Jo McCaughan cooked a fantastic lamb dinner. It was a really nice way to cap off our FlyInn experience.

We ended up moving our departure back by one day to do some more hiking near Wanaka and up around Rob Roy Glacier. The following morning we flew ZK-TRS to Queenstown to catch our airline flight home. True to form, New Zealand gave us a windier-and-cloudier-than forecast sendoff, with a slightly dicey ridge crossing and a good couple final thumps of turbulence.

I now hold a NZ PPL validation, which gives me solo privileges in New Zealand through June, should we care to return. We’re sorely tempted. My wife Dawn and I fell in love with the people, landscapes, and aviation scene in New Zealand, and I learned a great deal about mountain flying and NZ operations during our time with FlyInn.

If you have the time and money for a flying tour of New Zealand, I would highly recommend it. It’s a grand adventure, and a true bucket list experience.

This column first appeared in the April 2024/Issue 947 of FLYING’s print edition.

The post Part 2: Exploring New Zealand’s Grand Islands by Air appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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