EAA Chapter 25

A Community of Aviation Enthusiasts in the Twin Cities

Part One: Discovering New Zealand

Filed under: Member Stories — admin at 2:43 am on Friday, March 11, 2005

Article and photos by Dan Carroll

from On Final March 2005

It all started about three years ago at Oshkosh when I met Matt and Jo McCaughan, who own and operate Flyinn Tours and Geordie Hill Station (a sheep and cattle farm) in Central Otago, New Zealand. I listened to their pitch about flying in the remote back country, and how seeing Mt. Cook, Milford Sound , the magnificent fiords, the rugged coastlines and the whole country from the air and ground, if you wanted, was unbeatable. They said they catered to pilots who wanted something different out of their travels and that they offered several different mountain and coastal itineraries flying their Cessna 172s or the leased Cessna 206 that are based at Geordie Hill Station.

I asked about getting a New Zealand pilots license and if it would be difficult. Matt assured me that it wouldn’t be an issue as long as my pilot certificate was current and I had a valid medical certificate. He would even handle the paperwork required by the New Zealand CAA. What a deal! It all sounded too good to be true, but I was sold on giving it a go if I could find a couple of friends to go along with me to bring the trip costs into the “affordable” category.

Finding a couple of pilots with similar interests did take some time, like two years. Finally, it all came together soon after the 2004 Oshkosh convention. David and Linda Hatfield from Minneapolis and fellow pilots at Anoka County Airport and Jim and Julie Regan, two non-pilot friends from San Diego agreed to make the trip to New Zealand in January 2005. I emailed Matt and Jo to confirm some dates and reserved the Cessna 172 and the 206 for a January 12th start from Queenstown in South Island.

I had no real sense of what I was in for, but I laid awake several months before the trip thinking about what it would be like to explore one of the southern most islands in the world from the air. My imagination ran wild, particularly given Peter Jackson’s (the Hollywood film director) hype over the filming of the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (a good deal of the scenery in the movies was filmed in the mountainous areas not far from Queenstown). Jackson said, “Tolkien’s world was one of deep hidden valleys, barren wastelands, remote majestic mountains and lush low valleys”. Based on what I’ve read and heard about New Zealand, it would be every bit as he described.

After several months of planning and talking about New Zealand, I left for Los Angeles on the 3rd of January with all the anticipation and excitement of a school boy. The flight from L.A. to Auckland on an Air New Zealand flight left at 7:30 P.M. the following day. I thought the 12 hour flight would be tolerable sitting in steerage and that I’d be able to get some shut-eye. Well, I kinda knew better because of past experiences, but I convinced myself that I could make it without getting too grumpy. After all, I was saving a bunch of money with the cheap airfare.

The night flight was uneventful and I arrived in Auckland none the worse for wear, tired but excited about the adventure that was just beginning. After finally clearing customs and immigration (the hounds used by the customs folks tagged my backpack as having contraband in it — seems like the dogs easily picked up the scent of the beef jerky and fruit that I snacked on during the long flight), I grabbed a cab and headed for the Sheraton in downtown Auckland.

Before leaving the states our group had exchanged itineraries. Jim and Julie were already in Auckland and we had prearranged to meet for dinner somewhere down by the wharf my first night in town. Linda and David were still in the states and were not expected to arrive until the 11th, so I had lots of time to kill and explore on my own.

I had only scheduled one night in Auckland and other than having dinner with the Regans, the rest of the day was mine to see some of the city . I spent the day doing the tourist thing and saw the local sights. I really wasn’t up for long walks or big crowds, so it was an easy decision to buy a ticket for one of the 2 hour harbor cruises. The air was crisp that day and the wind was blowing 30 to 40 knots on the open water. No wonder they call this part of the world the roaring 40s (a reference to the southern 40 degree latitudes). I was told the polar winds almost always bring a nice “stiff” ocean breeze to this part of the world, particularly the “northwesters” that come off the Tasman Sea. ( Little did I know that in a few days, I’d find out why flying in the back country would be one of my more challenging flying experiences. The combination of high winds and the short grass strips that we would be using would test my skills to new limits.)

The day in Auckland slipped away and by the time dinner came around, the long hours without sleep began taking its toll. I couldn’t miss dinner with the Regans though and pushed myself. I’m glad I did. We enjoyed a brief reunion and a terrific seafood dinner along with a great glass of New Zealand’s red wine at a swank restaurant on the wharf. All of us were tired and were looking forward to calling it an early night. I’d see Jim and Julie again in Queenstown in a day or so.

Auckland was an interesting port city for its size (1.2 million people, which by the way is one third of the country’s population) and is rich in its Maori history and of course, famous for its world class sailing (remember, Auckland hosted several past Americas Cup Races). I was struck by the relaxed lifestyle, its diversity and the good food, but was anxious to leave this North Island city and head for Queenstown in the morning.

The next morning’s departure was uneventful and the clear skies on takeoff from Auckland provided a great view of the coastline of North Island on our way down to Queenstown. The Qantas captain told us on departure that South Island was mostly overcast and that the Southern Alps would be obscured. The weather at Queenstown was reported broken to overcast with light rain and good visibility. I already knew that there was an NDB serving the Queenstown airport, no radar and that all approaches to land were under visual conditions because of the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys.

I wasn’t prepared for the unusual visual approach that the Qantas pilots made into Queenstown. This was the first time in my world travels that I thought I was being delivered to my destination by a couple of Alaskan bush pilots. The objective seemed to be, find that hole, get underneath the cloud cover, stay clear of clouds and mountains, land safely and don’t scare the passengers too much. These guys were good and believe me, they handled that 737 as if it was a fighter. Little did I know that I would be performing the same maneuvers in a few days in the 206 with my designated CAA pilot.

For a mid summer day in Queenstown the weather conditions on arrival were more like early Spring in Minnesota, wet and cold. Oh well, Matt wasn’t scheduled to meet the group for a few days, so I checked into the Heritage Resort at Queenstown and planned to do a little exploring by foot and by car for the next few days.

I read somewhere that Queenstown was said to be to New Zealand what Aspen was to Colorado in the 1970s, but I thought it was more like Lake Tahoe. The Remarkables mountain range frames this quaint little resort town and Lake Wakatipu. It has a reputation for great skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer and is known as the gateway to the fiordlands, and Milford Sound. The glacier lake waters are as pristine as any I’ve ever seen and frigid. The mountains were as majestic as any in North America except for perhaps Alaska. Matt was right. This place is heavenly.

You could ski, jetboat down the Shotover or Dart rivers, visit the boutique wineries long the river valleys, or visit the local formal gardens, lawn bowl (it’s a British thing), ride the old steam locomotive train from Kings River, or ride the Lake Wakatipu coal steamer to Walter’s Station for a sense of what it’s like to live and work on a sheep station, bungee jump, shop or do all those other tourist things. Queenstown is a great little place with some 10,000 inhabitants and has all the commercial trappings of a tourist town, but I had a low tolerance for such things. I was chomping at the bit to get up in the air and couldn’t wait for the time to pass and the real adventure to begin.

(Stay tuned for the next installment on “Discovering New Zealand” and some fantastic pictures of DeHavilland Moths at Mandeville, and the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.)

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