Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A scenic flight over the Southern Alps from Milford Sound

Plane: Cessna 208 Caravan 
Weather: Clear, 45 degrees, wind 270 degrees at 3 knots

After yesterday's awesome hang gliding experience, we headed off on another breathtakingly scenic adventure this morning. Pretty much everyone recommends visiting Milford Sound (it's often called the 8th Wonder of the World for good reason) if you make it to New Zealand and having now been there, I certainly agree.  We spent the day on a great combination trip (drive out, boat cruise, fly back) with the highly-rated BBQ Bus tour company.

Since this blog is centered around flying, I'll focus more on that portion of the trip. But I can't completely ignore the beautiful four-hour drive from Queenstown to Milford sound via Te Anau, Fiordland National Park, and the Homer Tunnel. As you can see below, the drive itself has its fair share of amazing sights and the boat cruise in Milford Sound was equally stunning. We had a great lunch on the boat and spent nearly two hours on the fjord in total.

Driving into Fiordland National Park after leaving Te Anau

Stopped in the Eglinton Valley in Fiordland National Park

Milford Sound

The mouth of Milford Sound where it meets the Tasman Sea

Seals sunning on the rocks in Milford Sound

Stirling Falls

Cruising in Milford Sound - looking southeast

Cruising in Milford Sound - looking northwest

Cruising in Milford Sound - looking southeast

Lady Bowen Falls

After we returned to the marina following the cruise, we hopped a bus for the very short ride to the airport. Compared to the 4+ hour drive out, it's only 35-40 minutes back to Queenstown via airplane. The two pilots, who we had met while waiting for the bus at the marina, instructed everyone where to sit and all nine of us quickly boarded the C-208. I got lucky and was seated in the front-left seat, directly behind Air Milford's chief pilot, who did the flying today.

Within a couple minutes, we were taxiing to the end of the runway, number three for takeoff behind a two other planes. The pilot pushed the throttle in and the PT6A roared to life; we rumbled down the runway and lifted off, initially climbing northeast over the fjord. Besides the views outside, I enjoyed the very-different-from-Ohio views on the Garmin's terrain map.

I kind of wish we still called them aeroplanes on this side of the pond

We had a short taxi behind two other planes

Taking off from Runway 29 at Milford Sound Airport

Climbing over Milford Sound

Circling - continuing straight would have been a bad idea, obviously

Climbing over Milford Sound before flying over the mountains

Looking southeast towards the end of the fjord 

There is much cumulogranite to be avoided on that map!

Lady Bowen Falls from above

Cruise boat terminal at the end of the fjord

Climbing over top of Milford Sound Airport

We circled, gaining altitude and looking down upon Milford Sound, before heading into the mountains. I can't even begin to try naming all the peaks and valleys but, no matter where you turned to look, the view was marvelous. It didn't take long to appreciate having a turbine driving the propeller up front, either, considering the sheer amount of cumulogranite surrounding us for basically the entire flight.

Still a tad more terrain than Ohio but safely above enough of it

Climbing over the Arthur River

Sutherland Falls - the tallest in Fiordland

For the most part, the flight was surprisingly smooth - especially considering the terrain. We hit a few good bumps when we crossed over to the lee side of the Southern Alps but they didn't seem to bother anyone on board. At one point, we flew directly over the valley and road we took into the park this morning near Lake Gunn.

Looking south over Lake Te Anau

Looking north over Lake Gunn and Lake Fergus

Lake McKellar

Greenstone River

Leaving the Southern Alps behind, we turned south over Lake Wakatipu near Glenorchy. The perfectly clear, blue skies yielded incredible visibility in the crisp winter air. I quickly spotted the little aerodrome where we went hang gliding yesterday. The lake was calm, reflecting the mountains behind as if it were a perfect mirror. It was remarkable.

Lake Wakatipu

Glenorchy Aerodrome, where we went hang gliding yesterday

Mount Crichton and the Queenstown to Glenorchy road

Lake Wakatipu and the Queenstown to Glenorchy road

Lake Wakatipu and the Queenstown to Glenorchy road

Farmers were burning off some crops or grasses on the south shore of the lake and the smoke somewhat obscured the vivid blue waters as it drifted northeast towards Queenstown. We saw the same thing yesterday when driving back from Glenorchy so it was quite interesting to gain the aerial perspective this afternoon. Approaching town, I spotted our hotel on the west side as we continued descending towards the airport.

Looking east towards Queenstown over Lake Wakatipu

Flying over the south shore of Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown from across Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu south of Queenstown

As we made our way east towards the airport I spotted some other places we visited yesterday, including Bob's Cove. We stopped and hiked down the gravel path to a striking, calm, secluded bay on the north side of the lake. Continuing east, we were able to see to the southern end of Lake Wakatipu at Kingston, which we drove through on State Highway 6 this morning.

Queenstown Airport (NZQN)

The airport sits east of the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu

Turning final for Runway 14 at NZQN

Short final in the Cessna 208 Caravan

Back in the hangar after an awesome scenic flight

Our final approach was very smooth, circling around from the south to east to north to line up for Runway 14. The stall horn was sounding just as the pilot flared and brought the Caravan down on the asphalt for an extremely soft landing. We taxied over to Air Milford's hangar, climbed down, and chatted briefly in the office before a short van ride back to our hotel.

I took tons of photos but they truly do no justice to the sheer natural beauty you experience in person. On the one hand, the short flight absolutely beat a long drive back - and the perspective it provided was second to none. On the other hand, I could have stayed up there all day surrounded by the stunning beauty. I'd definitely make some room for this on your bucket list.