The day started with a ‘good’ frost, so it was just as well Matt and I had covered TRS’ wings and tail plane – you can’t fly with frost on the wings, and we needed an early start. Lynne and I set off from Geordie Hill just as the sun was arriving. Over the hill at the end of our valley, we slotted in amongst other ‘Day Out’ traffic, to land at Wanaka Airfield. Here we met Sue, and joined a sizable group from around 20 aircraft for a briefing on our first airstrip: a field at 5000′ on the winter proving grounds, Cardrona Valley Snow Farm. Shaun Gilbertson is an active member of AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and the organiser of today – the AOPA Bonspiel. He works at the Proving Grounds, and has done for many years so knows it well. This is where every automobile company in the world comes to winter-test their latest model cars. It’s a busy place and at the height of the season runs 24/7. Today the weather was perfect – still and mostly clear – and people had flown from as far as Christchurch and Hokitia especially.
Aircraft departed in staggered groups, allowing good spacing as instructed. In TRS, we waited until the majority of aircraft had gone, then allowed plenty of room between us and the aircraft ahead. It may have been easier to remain closer because finding the correct snow airstrip proved a little tricky at first. Everything was white ?? ( duh!!!) PLUS – none of us had ever flown in there before, so despite our briefing we struggled to initially recognise each landmark. But after a couple of fly-bys we were all sorted, and the landing was a pleasant surprise. It turns out landing on packed groomed snow, felt better than a mowed grass airfield. Braking was even ok – although I was tentative – and an uphill slope meant we slowed down naturally. Exhilarating stuff!!!
After good coffee and warm muffins, we were off again, meandering our way towards the back of Treble Cone skifield, and over passes to the head of the Shotover River. Then on to Lochnagar, where we circled and watched beautiful reflections change proportion in the stunning mirror-image lake. Next we followed the shotover river back down the valley, spotting huts, bridges, and cattle grazing on the hills above us, until we reached the Branches Station airstrip where we landed for picnic lunch in the sun. We three shared a huge tree stump, and over sandwiches and coffee tried to comprehend the beauty surrounding us.
The snow-capped mountains were steadfast in the sun, as if hiding secrets beyond. I found them enticing, and upon asking, no one required convincing to continue – it was too nice a day – we didn’t want to end now! So we hatched a plan to explore those valleys hidden from view. On sharing our thoughts, we found others agreed and soon five aircraft were headed to the West Coast, via Glenorcy and Paradise. We climbed above the others to 7000′ and under the expert guidance of Sue, flew along ridges to the Olivine Glacier. En-route, there are amazing views of Mt Aspiring and Rob Roy Glacier, around to the Fiordland Mountains guarding Milford Sound, then back to the Routeburn valley and Lake Wakatipu. Glistening white peaks keep erupting, upon and beyond one another, on into the distance like some enormous rendition of the pavlovas mum used to make. The Olivine Glacier is a huge smooth hollow, as though a thief took a giant spoon and scooped a hole in the pav! (As someone always did in my family).
From the Olivine, we dropped down into the Arawata River Valley and kept a steady descent past grassy flats and beautiful braided-river, all the way to Jackson Bay. Here we turned Eastward and continued along the coast to Haast Airstrip where we stopped for fuel and a walk to the Petrol Station to pay landing fees. It was time to say goodbye as aircraft dispersed in various directions, all homeward bound. Alone now, we flew inland via Haast Pass to land at Makaroa for a stroll and icecreams in the sun. Then it was home via Lake Wanaka, through ‘the neck’ to Lake Hawea. With a brief stop at Dingleburn Station our Airstrip odyssey was over, and it was back to Wanaka for Sue, then on to Geordie Hill for Lynne and I.
None of us had planned the time for such a day – but we are getting wise with our years, and simply said YES to the idea of such a great day out. Thank You Shaun. Sue and I shared the flying, but, as I am still an infant back-country-strip girl, it was Sue who made the whole day possible. Thanks Sue!! Lynne’s excitement was infectious as she absorbed all the scenery, took plenty of pictures, and later recorded the day on facebook. I’m told she has not stopped telling her hubby about it since! We all had an awesome ‘Girls Day Out’ with the only downfall being that Sue did not get the chance to do her landing at the Snow Farm. Darn. I guess that means we’ll just have to go back and do it all again next year!