Flown to Champagne picnic in mountains hard to beat

Pavlova on a Peak allows for jaw-dropping views of the Wakatipu Basin.
Pavlova on a Peak allows for jaw-dropping views of the Wakatipu Basin.
With the closure of New Zealand’s borders, scenic flight operators in Queenstown have had to innovate for a domestic market. Hugh Collins goes for a ‘‘Pavlova on a Peak’’.

Throughout my 30 years on Earth, I’ve been blessed with countless plane rides, from Airbus A380s to two-seater Cessnas - but until today I’ve never had the pleasure of cruising the skies in a helicopter.

Perhaps this partially means I’m lucky enough to have not been involved in an incident where it was required I be rescued by one. While this is one way of looking at it, the truth is I’ve found it hard to justify the (usually) hefty price tag of a 20-minute scenic excursion.

Now that an opportunity has presented itself - thanks to the kind team at Over the Top helicopters - I get to step on to the tarmac of Queenstown Airport on a perfect bluebird day.

This will be no up, down and around tour. We’re off to have a Pavlova on a Peak. I first heard about the excursion in August when I caught up with Over the Top chief executive and chief pilot Louisa ‘‘Choppy’’ Patterson.

Discussing her company’s operations in the Covid-19 era, she said the trip was established as part of a reinvention for the Kiwi market.

Captain Michael Clarke prepares the treats.
Captain Michael Clarke prepares the treats.
After being introduced to pilot Michael Clarke (not an Australian cricketer), who gives a short safety introduction, our flight is soon under way. I let out a little exclamation of excitement as we lift off and turn away from the airport - a raw expression of an incredible sensation quite unlike anything felt in an aeroplane.

Soaring across the mighty Wakatipu, we’re headed for Cecil Peak. We soon touch down on a snow-covered golf green, a landing pad part of another experience offered by Over the Top, which allows flyers to take a swing or 10 at 4500ft.

Today’s excursion is purely about the views, the Champagne and the pav. Fresh snow has coated the Southern Alps and the air and lake is as calm as a millpond. Couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day!

Shortly after landing, Clarke sets up a cute wee picnic for the occasion. As we indulge, he shares stories of flying choppers around the world, from the mountains of Alaska to the carrying the royal families of the United Arab Emirates. I’m reassured I’m in safe hands.

As we return across the lake, Clarke points out the Eye In The Sky, a small gadget which sits above the cockpit. It records the nuances of what happens in the helicopter by capturing high-definition video and audio, along with GPS data and information on speed, altitude and position. The technology was developed by Patterson and several others after her son, James Patterson-Gardner (18), and an experienced OTT pilot died in a Robinson R44 crash in February 2015.

Pavlova on a Peak was tailored specifically for the Kiwi market.
Pavlova on a Peak was tailored specifically for the Kiwi market.
It has been reported by the Otago Daily Times that it was one of many cases in the general aviation sector in which Transport Accident Investigation Commission reports were unable to determine the cause due to a lack of cockpit audiovisual recordings. As a result, Patterson set about developing the device, which has now been fitted to aircraft around the world.

I have loved every second of my first helicopter experience. There is something truly miraculous about these machines, arguably one of humankind’s greatest inventions. And while they’ve undoubtedly saved millions of lives, today it has served a more simple purpose - that being generating the incredible rush of a soar above the Wakatipu Basin on a flawless spring day.

Hugh flew Pavlova on a Peak with Queenstown’s Over the Top Helicopters.


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