In this article, Bonnie and Bill takes us to a luxurious helicopter ride to a New Zealand glacier.
TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE
RELEASE: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2017
Take a Helicopter Ride to a New Zealand Glacier
By Bonnie and Bill Neely
New Zealand was recently declared the eighth continent and named Zealandia, so it seemed the perfect time to visit. With a population of about 4 million, half of whom live in the capital city of Auckland, the countryside drives, villages and towns throughout the North and South islands are like none in other countries. The roads are well-paved and maintained but most are two narrow lanes with one “S” curve after another and no shoulder.
Some highways are banked on one side by a cliff towering above and on the other side by the ocean below. Others are through pastoral scenes of small farms and grassy rolling hills dotted with thousands of sheep. The air is so pure and clear that the surrounding colors appear brilliant and true. Lakes and rivers abound in this bottom-of-the-world continent, and the water is as pure as the air, not yet contaminated by huge populations.
The country is modern and has all of the 21st-century conveniences, but it also maintains its rich cultural history of the Maori tribes. A majority of the streets and towns are named in the native tribal language. Schoolchildren are taught both languages, and many tourist spots demonstrate the original customs, food and dance. The land is still in its creation infancy, and volcanoes and earthquakes sometimes erupt, but this adds to the adventure of the unusual landscape.
We drove more than 3,000 miles to see and do as much as we possibly could in three weeks during the winter, which is summer below the equator. We encountered super-clean hotels and B&Bs, good cars to rent, excellent food and friendly, welcoming people. However, with the necessity to import many of modern life’s necessities, food and gasoline are expensive.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was landing on a glacier in a helicopter. We first tried to fly from the village of Franz Joseph, but the weather did not cooperate. The Helicopter Line New Zealand service takes no chances with danger. They can only confirm trips a half-hour before boarding time because the winds and rain during this season are fickle. The company’s helicopters go out in pairs, and each one has well-trained and highly experienced pilots, emergency equipment, and good phone/radio communications with each other and with the control tower below.
Our tickets would be good at the company’s next location, which for us was Fox Glacier. Again the late-spring/early summer weather in the Southern Hemisphere prevented our takeoff. We enjoyed hiking to see the glacier from a distance and then journeyed on and stopped at Wanaka to enjoy the lake activities there.
On our third chance for the glacier trip we had a sunny day and little wind. We packed food, first aid, a change of warm clothes (in case of emergency encampment in a frozen atmosphere thousands of feet above sea level), binoculars and camera in a backpack. We didn’t realize we had to weigh in about an hour before boarding while we were awaiting the final verdict about the weather, and that’s when we learned the 20-pound backpack had to be left behind. But we needn’t have worried – the pilot had everything we needed, including heavy coats for anyone who had arrived in summer clothes. The only items we needed besides proper clothing and shoes were sunglasses and camera.
We piled in with five young people from South Korea and our excellent pilot, Peter, who makes this trip about 14 times each day when weather permits. Everyone brought out cameras and phones that began clicking as we took off with the thrilling whir of the propeller above us. Each passenger had a headset of ear phones and microphone with which to communicate with the pilot.
We ascended quickly above the Remarkables, mountains that are the backdrop to Queenstown. These knife-edged mountains appeared from above to have jabbed through the earth with a rugged rock surface at the back and beautiful lush vegetation on the side facing the city. Soon we were over an enormous valley with a large river winding through it. We flew over several of the Southern Alps, each with a different landscape and of varying huge size. The scenery changed from green spring-summer lushness to jagged rocky cliffs, then snowy peaks and then many glaciers appeared.
In many of the highest crags and valleys of these high peaks there were vast accumulations of snow that had never melted in centuries and had become compacted into glaciers. Peter and the other pilot landed one after the other on the glacier, which was larger than a football field and just as flat.
As soon as the propeller stilled we emerged onto the glacier to explore and take pictures. We hadn’t expected soft new snow on the surface of the ancient frozen plateau of ice. We had sunny, vividly blue sky all around us to the horizon at our feet, only interrupted by mountain peaks in various places.
The time was over far too quickly, and we piled reluctantly back into the helicopter and lifted away between mountains with new scenery below. Because we were the second helicopter we could look at the other one and see what ours looked like — a tiny speck by comparison to every mountaintop around and below us.
WHEN YOU GO
Bonnie and Bill Neely are freelance writers. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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