As we sat in our little seats, noses pressed against the window, our tiny 6-seater plane started to taxi down the runway. The next minute, we were up in the air peering down at the toy cars and houses of Wanaka.
We were heading west, over the Southern Alps and towards Milford Sound, on the South Island’s west coast.
If you’re a geography and landscape nerd like me, you love seeing the land from above. I just can’t get enough of it – flying from Auckland to Queenstown a few days prior I had paid extra to sit next to the window just to see the mountains!
So when we had the opportunity to do a scenic flight with Southern Alps Air, I knew it would be a highlight of our trip down South. And so it was.
Remember to check out our video at the end of this post!
We climbed high above the teal waters of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake. Our pilot, Nick, pointed out local sights such as Roy’s Peak (a tough 5 hour hike with amazing views), Treble Cone Ski Field, and Glendhu Bay – now empty but come summer will be full of campervans and holidaymakers.
Looking out to the north, we flew past Mt Aspiring, the highest peak outside the Aoraki/Mt Cook region at a lofty 3033m. The glaciers on the mountain faces were almost close enough to touch.
By now we were well among the Southern Alps, with snowy mountains stretching as far as the eye could see. It sounds stupid, but I just didn’t realise how many mountains there were in that part of the country! It’s not until you’re eye-level with them that they just seem to go forever.
Heading further west, we flew out of Aspiring National Park and into Fiordland National Park, and flew over a bunch of lakes and forested valleys before popping out at the coast just north of Milford Sound. It looked pretty windy down there!
Buzzing into the gaping maw of Milford Sound was unforgettable. We flew past sheer tree-lined cliffs and numerous waterfalls plunging straight into the navy blue waters of the fiord. After landing at Milford Sound’s teeny weeny airport, we were shuttled to the wharf and hopped on our Mitre Peak Cruises boat for a 2-hour cruise.
The boats that Mitre Peak Cruises run are much smaller than those of other companies, and so you get a more personal experience – rather than having a hundred or so people around, we had about ten on our boat!
It was great seeing Milford Sound from the air and then from the water. Although we have been to Milford before, it was special being one of only two boats on the fiord – owing to our late afternoon departure, all the bus tourists had left hours before – and the soft afternoon light was just gorgeous.
Our boat drove into a couple of waterfalls, spraying mist all over the boat and the passengers on the deck. We saw a colony of New Zealand fur seals basking on a rock in the last warm rays of the day. The captain gave us a history lesson on why the fiord is named as a sound (a sound is a drowned river valley, whereas a fiord is a drowned glacial valley – a bit of a mistake in the naming there!), and eventually we headed back to the dock.
What a place! We could have stayed there for much longer. With views like this, who would want to leave? But alas, we had to climb back into our little plane and head back to Wanaka. Sniff.
It’s hard to believe that the views could get any better on our way back. With the sun setting the mountain tops were lit up and the shadows spilled into the valleys. We flew across the Routeburn Range (where the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, traverses) and the Dart River, which drains into Lake Wakatipu (the lake that Queenstown sits beside).
All too soon, we were descending over Lake Wanaka towards the little airport. Bumpedy-bump, touchdown!
Well, I am lost for words for how to wrap up this post. The scenic flight was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done – and I don’t say that lightly. Soaring over those snowy peaks and into Milford Sound was just incredible. Sorry about all the superlatives I’ve used in this post – but this experience really justifies them!
I know that hashtag #nzmustdo gets thrown around a lot on Instagram – over 100,000 times, apparently – but this experience is truly something that visitors to New Zealand – and New Zealanders of course – should most definitely do. Seeing New Zealand’s amazing landscapes from the ground is fantastic but seeing them from the air in a tiny plane, well, it’s indescribable. Just do it.
Thanks to Southern Alps Air and Mitre Peak Cruises for hosting us. As always, you’ll receive our honest opinion regardless of who foots the bill. Like Southern Alps Air and Mitre Peak Cruises on Facebook!
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Have you ever done a scenic flight? Where was it – and would you recommend we do it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!