We fly to Milford Sound from Queenstown.
Milford Sound Flights fly from Franktown, just outside Queenstown where a number of companies operate tourist flights. We’re on an Islander two engine prop plane. They tell us that the weather is closing in fast. The cruise up the sound which was part of our original plan has been cancelled as planes cannot wait around long enough to pick people up for the return journey.
Kevin the pilot looks, at first glance, about fifteen. I’m tempted to ask him if his dad knows he’s borrowed the plane. But he certainly knows how to handle it. It’s a windy day and the the turbulence adds to the excitement. So does the fact that I’m looking over the pilot’s shoulder at the rather old-fashioned looking instrument panel. There’s also the slightly battered door with the’exit’ sign. This, you feel, is real flying! You’re right in amongst the peaks. It’s just awesome!
The landscape between Queenstown and Milford Sound is fantastically rugged. Snowy peaks and razor-sharp ridges surround us as far as the eye can see. There are forests on the slopes. Aquamarine glacial rivers, lakes, waterfalls. All the peaks have an intricate pattern of snow on them. Mount Tutoko dominates in this region. A towering craggy mass with huge sweeps of snow and ice shelves wreathed in thin swathes of cloud. Further off even higher peaks, more snow and beyond them a beautiful pale blue sky. We fly on buffeted by the wind. If you want scenic it doesn’t get any better than this!
Eventually we approach the Sound. It has a grey, chilly look. We fly between the huge rock faces which plunge literally thousands of feet into the water. We see the detail of the rock layers. The waterfalls. The bush clinging to every available space, only stopping at the white streaked snow line. Kevin circles the plane and you can feel the strength of the wind. We approach the tiny landing strip at the end of the fiord. A bump and we’re down.
We get half an hour at Milford Sound. All the facilities are closed but it doesn’t matter. We have time to take in the enormous, brooding rock faces that plunge into the Tasman Sea. We’ve seen the photos in the guides and the brochures. They give no idea of the scale of the place. It just dwarves you. The publicity shots are usually taken in sunshine. Today the clouds are grey and menacing. The atmosphere with the bad weather approaching is heavy and oppressive. It suits this place down to the ground. Milford Sound, we feel, is a place to visit rather than to live in.
There is a photoshoot with our pilot and his gallant plane. We take off and climb up past the gargantuan crags and their forests and waterfalls. We turn to take a longer route to the north to avoid the big cloud masses which have by now built up around the high peaks. We fly over the vast areas of bush in the Westland hills. Millions upon millions of tiny green trees decorated with filaments of cloud.
Then we turn inland. down the valley of Lake McKerrow which has just missed becoming a sound itself. Down the valley of the braided river the settlers called the Dart. The valley bottom is broad and richly green. You can see why the tiny settlements of Glenorchy and Kinloch are there. Time and again we see hints of aquamarine in the water from the glacial silt. it spills out into Lake Wakatipu. The lake is boomerang shaped and we fly round the bend in pursuit of a tiny tourist plane ahead of and below us. We drop towards Queenstown and get a full appreciation of its fabulous alpine setting.
Finally we loop the mound at Kelvin Heights which I assume is the posh part of Queestown. We do this twice to loose height. Franktown is classed as an international airport. It must be one of he smallest in the world and I don’t think they do holding patterns. Then we are heading for the strip and we’re down.
It’s been a wonderful experience. Another high point in a trip full of high points. I shake hands with the young pilot and thank him.
Wow! What a day!