Over the Top

New Zealand ’17: Day 12 – Queentown (Mon)

Lodging: Matakauri Lodge
Date During Trip: July 10, 2017

This morning we got up early to be ready for our helicopter ride. Our waiter, Wyatt, the same young man that we had as our server for breakfast yesterday, greeted us and asked, “Are y’all ready for breakfast?” “Y’all?” I questioned.

He seemed embarrassed, and corrected himself, saying he was from Virginia. I certainly didn’t intend to embarrass him and told him no need to apologize since I too was from the South. I just didn’t think the Kiwi used the word “y’all.” He just graduated from college 4 weeks ago and, through connections, landed a job here for 1 year.

He said all of his friends started with jobs in finance, but he thought this job might set him apart1. Interesting. He loves it here. He’s a bright, enthusiastic young thing. Ah, to have even had the possibility of considering such an oppotunity as a youth!

We had our sight-seeing helicopter flight delayed by 30 minutes because of the intense fog. When it was time to depart, we headed out to a different helipad, again, because the one atop the hill was fogged in. This was not the “helipad” kind of thing I was expecting. It was just a small clearing in the woods back a bit from the road.

James, our pilot, landed and had 2 people already on board. Turns out they were friends of his. We paid for a shared flight, but we got the private one (choice seats) because no one else had signed up. His friends sat in the back. (Now, this is the kind of guy you want as a friend!)

James is a short, thin 30-something. He was excellent. He talked to us about everything we saw and what he was doing. We flew up the coast of Lake Wakatipu, just below the fog ceiling (which was in and of itself very beautiful), looking for a place to breach through the fog and head out/up to the mountains, Milford Sound, and the Tasman Sea.

Milford Sound from the helicopter
Milford Sound from the helicopter (Steve’s iPhone photo!)

Perspective and scale are everything. You can see three boats in Steve’s photo of the fjord: a small leisure craft (center) and a much larger boat (bottom left). I’m not sure what the third vessel (middle right) is.

The fluffy green on the mountain is a very dense canopy of fully grown (and very large) trees. The trees are so densely packed together that they interlock with one another. At times large swaths of them peal off of the vertical walls of rock to which they mysteriously cling somehow and plunge into the sea. In this photo we are flying out of the sound to Tasman Sea in the distance (top right).

As you can see, when we found the cloud canopy opening, the drama was full throttle from that point on. I was in the front seat at first. The views have no parallel. We landed on a beach, which was nothing like what I had envisioned (I was thinking Abel Tasman.). It was much warmer there. The weather was perfect: just enough cloud activity for interest but not too much at all.

Sadly, I shot very few pictures today, and none of the beach. I shot a significant amount of video, however. These dramatic visuals just demanded video footage over still imagery. Not to worry, the videos will make their appearance in a series of future posts.

We stayed at the beach for a bit until the wind began to die down and the gnats (sand flies) got really bad. The pilot/guide, James, said that most of the fjordland has never been stepped on by human foot. You can easily see this at the beach. Where the vegetation begins, about 150 feet or so from the Tasman Sea’s edge, is a completely impenetrable thicket of green–a wall of dense plant life!

The only way to get to these beaches is by helicopter. There are no roads out here at all. You can’t come by boat because the coastal area is filled with jagged, torturous rocks pounded by often and generally rough seas. Small boats attempting to come ashore would be bashed to bits.

Next we were off to land on a glacier atop one of the mountains. James picked a stunning spot. When I got out of the helicopter, I sank up to my knees in the cold snow. Yuck! Walking in it was a huge challenge. Close to a dramatic snowy ledge, I feared we would start an avalanche. I could just see us and the helicopter tumbling off of the cliff!

Apparently people take helicopters up to the snow-capped mountains and ski down. Utterly insane! The temperature was really cold with a biting wind chill. But the views. The views. The views.

This is a difficult place to describe. It’s natural beauty is intense, true. But the compacted incredible visual diversity in such a small space is hard to get your head around. You have coastal beaches jammed next to a temperate rainforest. The rainforest then butts up against mountains that drop straight down (literally) into incredibly deep fjords that join the sea combining the fresh and the salt water into two distinct layers. The top layer is very dark but not deep. It fosters the sea life of great depth (no light) at a very shallow depth. Hence the fjords ecology is studied in detail.

Next to the mountainous fjordland are the snow and glacier capped mountains. The Tasman Sea spawns the rains that create the temperate rain forest and the snow and glaciers. Few places on earth get as much rain as Milford Sound which gets a whopping 21 feet of rain a year! Almost a foot of rain can fall in a single day! This vast rainfall contributes to the ferns growing the size of enormous trees. Gorgeous.

But the rains quickly fall from the sky before going very far inland to Glenorchy and Queenstown, which look very different because of they are so much drier. So, in a very small area, you see vastly different terrain piled atop itself.

When we went back, we could see Lake Wakatipu still covered in fog. It was gorgeous. We landed where they normally take off from Matakauri Lodge. James, the pilot, said the architect who redesigned the lodge, also built himself a house just down the road from the lodge. He designed a helipad there at the lodge, but then he complained so vociferously about the noise, the lodge now uses this site.

The helicopter trip was flawless.

We learned several things: the rainfall at Milford Sound is 7x greater than Queenstown. So much fresh water falls and so much ice melts that the sound (really fjord) water is discolored. The fresh water (dark) sits atop the salt water from Tasman Sea (which is much clearer). You could see areas where the water was different colors based on its salinity.

James pointed out where they just completed filming the next James Bond movie (their basecamp) and another location where Taylor Swift shot one of her music videos. These areas are peculiarly gorgeous because they are so different from any other places.

James has worked for Over the Top, the company that Matakauri Lodge exclusively uses because they provide a superior experience, for 4 years. They are the only company that shut down the chopper when it lands at the beach and on the glacier. He was informative, easily friendly and outgoing, and knowledgeable. What a trip. If you go to Queenstown, this helicopter ride is a must. Ask for James to be your pilot.

I shot a good bit of video, but none of it with my Osmo handheld phone stabilizer—tragically. My shots will most certainly be jittery and require a lot of stabilization. I also shot video with the Canon 5D MarkIV. Can’t wait to see what I got.

Dinner was special as well. We were unexpectedly seated in a private dining room—the library. It was lovely! I had mentioned to the manager, who drove us back from the helipad, that we appreciated their seating families in a separate dining room2. Next thing I know, we have a private dining room.

The meal was fantastic, probably the best so far. Brigitte was our waitress. She was originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, went to Belgium, then France, then to Australia, and has been here now for 2 weeks. Completely new to New Zealand. She’s delightful.

Everyone who works here makes an effort to make every guest feel special. They excel at this. Currently with a staff of 35, they tend to every need. When full, with 34 guests in 12 rooms, they have a staff of 50. (We learned all of this from Emanuel when he drove us to/from the helipad.)

The wall behind the photographer (me) in the private dining room pictured above is all glass and faces Lake Wakatipu and the snow-topped Cecil Peak, though you can’t see it at night.


For a synopsis of all of the posts from this 2017 trip to both the North and the South Islands of New Zealand, with links to each post, click here. The posts listed in the OTHER RELATED POSTS HERE @ TT.US (below) may include posts from our 2014 trip.

  1. Remember, the owner of this business is a billionaire hedge fund pioneer. 

  2. The older I get, the less I can abide the noise of poorly behaved and completely un-parented children which, sadly, seems to be a new norm.