Photos & Story - Samoa Events
Lake Wakatipu surrounded by all the men, Mts Cecil, Crichton, Ben Lomond and Nicholas.
Plan B it was for The Cold Tour today on Day 4 and the final day of the tour. Everyone had been looking forward to the Milford Sound trip and the swim to Stirling Falls. We also planned to fly by helicopter to Lake Quill in the Fiordland National Park for a quick swim. It was not to be. High wind and low visibility put an end to the dream finish to the tour – so we thought.
So, we boarded Air Milford’s latest addition to their 5-plane fleet, a 10-seater Cessna Caravan ZK purchased new in 2016 direct from the factory in Wichita, Kansas. The seating arrangement today had me sit directly behind the pilot with Kerren directly across, Simon was in the co-chair. Duncan, the mouthpiece and laugh-machine of the tour sat behind me and the ladies occupied the rest of the seats behind us. It was a squeeze with all our luggage, but everyone had a window view.
Our pilot today is Antony (Ant) Sproull, GM and Chief pilot of this beautiful family airline. Air Milford was founded by Ant’s father Hank who still works the business and helped load our gear. The airline has a 100% safety record with all aircraft being personally maintained by the owners.
There is a connection between Air Milford and Samoa, Ant told me that he flew to Samoa with his father Hank in 1992 to purchase a topdressing Cessna from the Samoa Government. That aircraft was a casualty of Cyclone Valelia (1991) and they picked up a bargain. Ant told me that he sat in the co-pilot’s seat as a little boy next to his father flying that plane which was repaired and sold for a nice little margin. The profit from the sale helped launch Air Milford in 1998.
There were plenty of similar stories from Ant as he flew us to Te Anau. He showed us where his grandfather camped on the shores of Lake Te Anau hunting game and he told of how his father would drop him and sibling off sometimes at a remote lake to fish and play while Hank went off to do a job. That was his childhood. He has been in aviation ever since.
We were met with a warm welcome at Air Milford where we were given a thorough briefing of our flight path by pilot Antony Sproull who is General Manager and Chief pilot of the family-run airline.
Ant was a safe pair of hands, not that a few of us cared. For some in our crew, this was their very first flight in a small aircraft and there were nerves. We took off from Queenstown airport with a great view of Lake Hayes and the Remarkables. Wakatipu below us was surrounded by snow-capped mountains was a visual feast. It helped that today was the best weather-day of the tour and the sun was out giving colour and light to water, mountains and sheep stations below.
We flew southward for a short distance with Queenstown town to our right. All the boys are dressed in their Sunday best gleaming in the morning sun with snow flowing mountains to 500 meters; Mounts Cecil to our left, Ben Lomond and Crichton to our right and the remarkable Remarkables now fast receding on our left seemed to be keeping everyone in best behaviour. We also saw in context the sites of the two of the earlier swims of the tour on Days 1 and 2. Whatever we did in those two swims, it was barely a drop in what we were now witnessing, Lake Wakatipu in a long big stretch from north to south in the shape of Matau the Taniwha (See blog for Day 1 yet to be written).
As we came parallel with Mt Crichton, Ant nosed the Cessna to our left to follow the Von basin to Lake Te Anau. The Von river and valley, and Mt Nicholas were named after Nicholas von Tunzelmann who together with William Rees were the first Europeans to settle the Wakatipu Basin. The Von valley runs 35 km from Wakatipu to the Mavora lakes, the source of the Oreti river that flows in the opposite direction. The Von flows northeast and empties into Lake Wakatipu and the Oreti flows the other way all the way to Foveaux Strait. The Von valley is narrow at an average of 1.3 km between stiff cliffs on both sides of what essentially is a wind gully.
The small Cessna was now a toy as we flew southwest toward Te Anau against the wind. The fear of flying small planes for jittery passengers was now more defined as the Cessna flew within meters of snowy mountains and rough country in the valley.
We followed the Von river basin southwest to Te Anau against what seemed like a stiff southwesterly wind.
It didn’t matter who flew the Cessna, whether it was Ant or Neil Armstrong there were now serious doubts for our safety. We had been warned to expect a few bumps not that we expected any. The aircraft began to sway left and right as we entered Von valley. Ant informed us on the intercom that the best way to handle these conditions if we were nervous is to focus on the beautiful views. The stunning beauty we were witnessing however was a brief pacifier. Then there was a sudden drop of the plane in a vacuum of air. It was a big one. We were going to die for sure now. A few heads touched the roof and screams were heard quickly followed by nervous laughter. Duncan, who was behind me was now silent. Ant might be a great pilot but his travel-whispering skills was of little effect to nervous travellers.
The Cessna followed the Von river basin south and soon we saw Mt Turnbull to our right and Mt Nicholas to the left, the two guardians of Von valley. Then followed another river, the Oreti until the sole female-named height came into view, Jane Peak on the left of the basin overlooking the Mavora north and south lakes to our right. Left and right and everywhere in sight there was unbelievable beauty. Ant kept us informed of names of Sheep stations below us and of landscapes and landmarks. He pointed to where scenes of The Lord of the Rings were filmed.
That's how close we were flying to the mountains on both sides of the Von valley.
As we left the Von valley, we were met by a snowstorm and visibility was reduced. We were now flying just a few meters above the top of beech-covered mountains. The combination of fast flowing mist over green mountains made for great filming. Kerren and I were in our element. Afterall, we had a documentary to put together.
We have now crossed over to Southland from Otago. The township of Mossburn came into view to our left and we could see Lake Te Anau ahead. Fears and worries eased. Duncan was still silent. Our destination was just ahead. Ant told us he was going to do a double pass to make sure the wind was right for the actual landing on a private airstrip that is used solely by Air Milford. Once we landed the Cessna came to a stop at the end of the grassy airstrip and we walked a short distance to Lake Te Anau Downs for coffee and to relive everything about the flight from Queenstown to Lake Te Anau. Duncan was indeed overcome with nausea and was pacified enough not to speak for the next 60 minutes. New jokes at his expense didn’t take long to be laughed at loudly. We are back to normal.
Stage 2 was to come.
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