On top of the glacier and on top of the world, too

The ski plane lands on the Geikie Snowfield of Franz Josef  Glacier.
The ski plane lands on the Geikie Snowfield of Franz Josef Glacier.
Former Otago Daily Times reporter Liane Topham-Kindley made the most of some post-lockdown deals over Queen’s Birthday weekend with a scenic flight from Mt Cook to Franz Josef Glacier.

"Wow." That’s literally all I could utter as my mind processed the visual feast surrounding me when our ski plane slid to a stop atop Franz Josef Glacier, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere.

The author enjoys the sensory delights of Franz Josef Glacier. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
The author enjoys the sensory delights of Franz Josef Glacier. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Awed by the sheer scale and majesty, I repeated the word over and over again as I took in the view. The deep blue sky, the jagged mountain tops of the Great Divide and the sparkling white powder snow at the top of the Geikie Snowfield of the Franz Josef, were postcard perfect. Words really could not do it justice.

Out of the small ski plane we emerge, a bunch of Cantabrians and us Dunedinites. Surrounding us is a 360-degree panoramic visual delight for our sights and senses.

As Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters celebrates its 65th birthday this year, it’s giving back to its community — and what a gift.

Reduced rates means Kiwis can explore their own backyard and, in this case, that’s the Southern Alps.

Regular visitors to the Mount Cook National Park over the past 17 years, our family has enjoyed the spectacular scenery on offer — but always by foot. On our most recent visit, the concessions on offer encouraged us to take to the air. The usual rate of $499 per person for a 45-minute ski plane ride and stop-off on Tasman Glacier was reduced to $159.

Twizel-based pilot Dan Martin favoured the West Coast stop off over our original Tasman Glacier destination: with an early-morning flight, the top of Tasman Glacier was still a little shady while Franz Josef offered a sun-bathed stop, perfect for our morning tea cuppa and cake.

With twenty years of flying for the company, Martin is a fount of knowledge about the Southern Alps and its surrounds. "It’s hard to believe that in 30 minutes we could be down there in Hokitika having a cup of coffee," he says, nodding his forehead in the direction of the West Coast town and the Tasman Sea.

In the peak of summer, Martin will ferry about 10 flights daily, but flying had ground to a halt over lockdown, and he’s delighted to be back in the air. He’s excited about showing his fellow Kiwis a little of their own backyard, too. He jokes that many of his friends in Christchurch know he "flies planes", but really have no idea of the beauty of his daily work office. It's difficult to describe.

Squeezed tight into the 10-seater PC-6 Pilatus Porter aircraft, we take off on our scenic journey from Mt Cook airport, close to the tiny Mt Cook village. We climb over the Tasman Lake on a beautiful crisp clear autumn morning, the surrounding snow-capped mountains reflecting on the lake.

The braided rivers of the Tasman River twist and turn below us. Martin veers alongside the mountainous range, bare, rocky cliffs topped with snow, to the east of the Tasman Glacier.

Then, with the morning sunlight shining gloriously, Haupapa, the Tasman Glacier, appears, sheets of blue and green ice cascading from the summit. At 23.5km it remains New Zealand’s longest glacier, despite shrinking considerably since the 1990s.

Up and over the Great Divide we soar before nestling safely on the Geikie Snowfield of Franz Josef, Martin cleverly turning the aircraft around before we completely stop to ensure we’re poised for an easy take-off.

It was 65 years ago in September that South Canterbury man Harry (Henry) Wigley made the first landing in a ski plane of the Mount Cook Group his father founded. His first passenger was a Mount Cook Group employee, Alan McWhirter, but later that historic day Sir Edmund Hillary also made the journey.

On his return from World War 2, Wigley became the managing director of what was then the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, establishing new ski fields and facilities at Coronet Peak and Lake Ohau, while flying tourists around Mt Cook and the surrounding glaciers.

He began to study the possibility of equipping a light aircraft with retractable skis which would allow it to take off on dry land and land on snow. While fixed skis on aircraft that were used for snow take offs and landings were in existence at the time, these were not practical at Mt Cook, as snow remained on the runway for only a limited time during winter.

So, after many hours developing and designing the new skis, Wigley finally came up with the the solution: mechanically lowering the skis during flight to allow landings on the surrounding snowfields on the Tasman Glacier.

In 1976, Wigley was knighted for his services to the New Zealand tourism industry. He died in Christchurch in 1981.

Today, the company remains a New Zealand-owned business, owned by INFLITE Tourism Group, which operates similar services throughout the country.

In the Mt Cook area, it provides glacier experiences with scenic flights and guided experiences, via ski planes and helicopters. Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters has a sister company, Mt Cook Glacier Guiding, that provides heli hiking, snow-shoeing, ice climbing and skiing trips on the Tasman Glacier. Another sibling company, Mt Cook Skydive, operates at Pukaki Airport, close to Twizel.

Since its beginnings as The Mount Cook Company, the small airline has faced a number of obstacles. The Covid-19 pandemic is just another hurdle in its history.

Hannah James, INFLITE’s customer services manager at Mt Cook, says the closure of our border has had a significant effect on the business, bookings having literally stopped overnight. International visitors from China, the United States and Europe previously made up the bulk of their business.

"However, we are excited about changing our business structure for a domestic campaign and are hopeful for a transtasman bubble with Australia which would be great for our winter," James enthuses. "Mount Cook Ski Planes celebrates its 65th birthday this September, and in that time many barriers and hurdles have been overcome, so we are hopeful we can do the same with these surreal times ahead."

The move to Alert Level 2 combined with a three-day weekend over the Queen’s Birthday holiday provided the impetus to set the wheels in motion again.

"We decided with the long weekend to hit the local market, and we wanted to do it at a great price to showcase our experiences and to get the locals talking and hopefully promoting us after," James explains.

Using social media as her only marketing tool, she was blown away by the interest. The company was fully booked over the entire weekend. In total, they flew about 255 passengers in their ski plane and helicopter.

The tiny tourism village of Mount Cook and nearby towns of Twizel and Tekapo were bustling over the long weekend. Kiwis seem keen to unleash the shackles of lockdown and explore the countryside.

If there’s ever a time when you should take that iconic NZ tourism slogan "Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country" to heart, it’s now.

CHECK LIST

  • Getting there: Dunedin to Mt Cook, 290km, about a 4-hour car trip.
  • Flight operators: Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters, based at Mt Cook airport. Air Safaris also operates a flight to Franz Josef but from Lake Tekapo.

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