Round the World – New Zealand 2, Part 12

Round the World – New Zealand 2, Part 12

Farm life starts early, and Iain’s house was no exception. That was fine by me, as once again I had a lot of places to go today, and a lot of new things to see! I was elated to see that weather conditions were looking fine for my day’s flying, which would take me through the mountains to the west coast and back with numerous stops along the way. After a breakfast of Weetbix I said my goodbyes, and departed downhill into the morning sun.

My first couple of stops were fairly close to Longridge, and my first leg took me slightly backwards, northwest up the North Opuha river valley, over Lake Opuha. I was heading for the farm strip at Clayton Station; this strip is made up of two long grass runways alongside a farm track. My initial fly-by to inspect the runways revealed a couple of horses grazing on the strip, but plenty of room to land without getting too close, so I came around again and lined up on final approach, touching down on the strip closer to the farm buildings.

The horses wandered closer for a quick look, but soon walked off again un-phased. Nobody was around so I decided to take off again and continue south, back over Lake Opuha and the South Opuha river towards the private strip at Cricklewood. The strip runs along the peak of a hill, splitting a large field, with a hangar situated at one end making it a little easier to spot. I landed to the east, as a gentle breeze was now blowing from that direction, and taxied back to park outside the hangar; as I did, a silver sedan pulled up, with the strip owner inside. I’d spoken to him by phone, so he knew I was coming, and he gave me a ride back to his house where I met his lovely wife and was treated to a cup of tea and breakfast! One is never short of hospitality when flying into little strips like this.

They had just returned from a trip to the west coast for whitebait fishing, in fact to the very airport at Neil’s Beach which I was planning to fly into today. They’d left early to beat some poor weather that was coming in, and I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t end up running into it myself. After a few slices of delicious avocado and vegemite toast they gave me a lift back to the strip, and I was on my way again.

I continued to the southwest, to the private strip known as Smalls. The terrain was starting to become a little more rugged, and I climbed over the Conservation ranges before descending into the Hakataramea river valley. Everything was quiet at the Smalls strip, so I made it a fairly short stop before continuing. A few contented-looking sheep watched me as I landed and taxied in, chewing lazily and entirely unfazed by my arrival.

This was to be the last I would see of the somewhat flat lands of the east coast for a while. Departing from Smalls, I first had to fly southwest to gain altitude and get clearance around the Kirkliston mountain ranges, before turning back to the west on course for the Geordie Hills farm strip. I followed the lower ground, meandering a little around the peaks as I flew. I threaded the needle between Lake Benmore to my north, and Lake Aviemore to my south, before passing close to Omarama and through the Lindis Pass to my destination.

A busy day of mountain flying

Geordie Hills is the home base of FlyInn, a business offering New Zealand self-fly holidays. It’s owned by Matt and Jo, operated out of their 5,500 acre sheep and cattle station which has been in their family for over 100 years. FlyInn operate a fleet of two Cessna 172s, and have a number of instructors available to offer training in mountain and bush strip flying. They’d happily given me permission to fly in, and as I parked up I saw Matt’s truck coming along the track to pick me up, and drive me back to the farmhouse.

Staying fed was not a problem on my adventures; after a lovely breakfast earlier with the Pridhams I was now treated to a delicious farmhouse lunch with Matt and Jo! Matt and Jo regaled me with stories about their part of the world, and helped me with a bit of planning for my upcoming push into the mountains and the west coast. After an enjoyable stop, we all made our way back down to the airstrip and they waved me off as I departed west off their 900 meter grass runway and hopped over the hill to Wanaka. It was time to refuel, and the commercial operator helped me out yet again with a loan of their fuel card! The duty pilot also told me about another strip, halfway up the lake, that he suggested might be fun to stop at. It was owned by the owner of one of the helicopter operators, so I walked over to ask for permission to land there; he wasn’t in, but they put me through on the phone and he gave me a briefing and told me to have fun!

I departed to the north, over the town of Wanaka, and flew up the middle of Lake Wanaka towards Wallis airstrip. I’d looked up the runway using satellite pictures in advance, and it was a good thing that I had because I’m not sure I’d have found it otherwise; it really did just look like a nondescript strip of grass for farming, with a fairly steep upslope to the north. After my strip inspection I came around and touched down on the uphill, needing quite a bit of power to keep rolling to the top and park at the peak of the hill.

After a short look around and some photographs, I roared back down the hill and turned out left over the lake. I was making for “The Neck”, the small piece of low ground that sits between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, where the main highway runs through. I slipped through, with hills towering on either side of me, and performed a brief flyover of one private strip which I’d been unable to make contact with the owners of. It was really just a large field, running steeply up a hillside, and I definitely wasn’t feeling confident enough to attempt a landing without a briefing in advance! I continued to the other side of the lake, and Dingleburn airstrip.

This strip is another fairly steep uphill, and is tucked in between hills on most sides. One can land fairly easily from the south, over the low ground, and the uphill is then in your favour as you roll out; this is what I did. The grass was pretty long and brought me to a quick halt. If you need to go around, the only real option is a hard bank to the left and fly off down the Dingleburn Creek towards the lake.

I traipsed around a little in the grass, getting my shoes thoroughly wet and walking my planned taxi route to check for any holes. Nobody was at the strip, so it was yet another brief stop. My departure was downhill again, given the light winds, and I swooped out over Lake Hawea and made my way back to the neck. A right turn took me up Lake Wanaka, and positioned me for a strip inspection and left circuit into Makarora airstrip.

My inspection revealed that the runway was looking a bit wet. I decided to perform a soft field landing to check the surface conditions, and be ready to go around if things seemed soft. A nice gentle approach saw me touching down near the threshold and it was immediately clear that things were a bit softer than I was comfortable with; I pushed the throttle in and climbed out, watched by some bikers who were relaxing with a beer on the patio of the roadhouse overlooking the strip.

I headed north again, and into the Haast Pass once more, this time in the opposite direction to my previous crossing. The ceiling became gradually lower as I flew, and light rainshowers started to appear. I slowed down a little, giving myself time to react in the reduced visibilities, and kept a close look out for anybody coming the other way! I didn’t have to worry, as I was apparently the only one heading through the pass at this point, and as I approached the “Gates of the Haast” the visibility began to improve and the ceiling lifted. The bad weather was behind me, for now!

After overflying Haast I continued south along the coast to Neils Beach. This strip is short and narrow, but has a good gravel surface so it’s a comfortable destination for a Cessna 182. It was clear that heavy rain showers had passed through recently, as the area surrounding the airstrip was sodden with standing water everywhere. I was extra careful not to drop a tire into the mushy grass as I parked up at the end of the strip, and went to explore a little.

I wandered down the taxiway towards the beach, saying hello to the strip manager who greeted me as I passed. A brief stroll along the beach was bracing, with a strong cold wind coming off of the Tasman Sea, and I was glad for my warm jacket and hat! A few families were out walking dogs, and enjoying the break in the rain. I turned around when I reached the mouth of the Arawhata river, and explored the village a little on my way back to the airplane. There wasn’t a lot to see.

Takeoff was towards the water, into the strong breeze coming off the sea, and turned out to the right; a standard left turn would have had me a bit close to the hills for comfort! Weather conditions had picked up and allowed me to plot a route over slightly higher country for my trip back, so I set off up the Arawhata River valley, climbing hard as I went. There was just enough cloud around to make for some very picturesque views as I snaked my way between Mt Ionia and Mt Aspiring before beginning a descent down the famous Shotover River towards the strip of Branches.

When I had called the owner of Branches station to ask for landing permission, I’d spoken to a lady who seemed very puzzled and a bit suspicious at the concept of just wanting to land somewhere for the fun of it. Permission had nonetheless been received. As I stood by the aircraft admiring the scenery, I saw a truck coming down the farm track towards me; this was the farm manager, and he was much more relaxed with the idea of someone just stopping in on a joy ride! We chatted for a while about the station, a true high-country sheep station where the animals spent the summers up on the mountains before being mustered in by helicopter. He told me about an interesting feature to the north of the strip, a natural tunnel through a small mountain that carried much of a large river into the Shotover. I decided that this was something I must check out on departure.

I took off to the south and circled back overhead the field, heading for the tunnel. It wasn’t hard to find, with a huge plume of water shooting out one side of a cliff face and tumbling into the river below! It gave me chills to think about swimming or kayaking in the source river, not knowing that an enormous gouge in the earth was lurking ready to suck me in.

I circled back to the south, now at a sufficient altitude to fly through the pass north of Mount Aurum and make my way towards Lake Wakatipu. This lake extends all the way down to Queenstown; my stop on the shores was to be the grass strip at Glenorchy. The day was getting on, and I still had quite a few strips to visit; somewhat fortunately, all the remaining stops of the day were deserted and I didn’t get delayed by one of the very enjoyable, but also time consuming, chats that I was finding so commonly when I arrived somewhere! I parked up at Glenorchy for a few minutes and sat at a picnic bench in the sun, eating an apple, before taking off and heading down the lake.

I followed the course of Lake Wakatipu, keeping well clear of the hills that towered above me on either side. Queenstown was quiet, and gave me clearance through their zone without hesitation. I flew down the Kawarau river valley (a much smoother ride than last time I’d come this way in a screaming westerly) and was soon overhead the town of Cromwell, circling to land at the racecourse strip. It seemed like it was going to be a race weekend and the paddocks alongside the strip were filling up with horses and their attendants.

I felt a bit guilty to be disturbing everybody with my big noisy machine, and worried about spooking the horses; but to be fair, they were all right next to an airstrip so the presence of an airplane shouldn’t be a big surprise. Nobody seemed at all worried by the noise, thankfully, and I took off again and headed a few miles northeast to the strip of Cromwell.

The out-of-town strip at Cromwell is unusually large, and in great condition. On the runway are large markers proclaiming the strip to be exactly halfway between the equator and the south pole (2,700nm in each direction) and exactly halfway across the South Island (70nm to each coast). I stopped for a photo next to these, as they seemed like a significant landmark.

I did decide to check this claim later on. The strip is only 1 nautical mile north of 45 degrees South, so the equidistance between pole and equator claim seems reasonable. The other claim, 70nm to each coast, is way off!

The sun was now getting low in the sky, and would soon be invisible below the peaks of the southern alps. I would soon need a place to stay for the night, and I had a feeling it was going to involve my tent! I flew east back towards the coast, stopping initially at the hillstop strip of Galloway, before continuing over the hills to Kokonga. This farm strip has three runways, and is therefore well set up for any wind direction; it also had a great many sheep on the field. They cleared smartly out of the way as I arrived, and I taxied towards the two hangars that sat at the western side of the field and shut down between them. I set my campsite up under the wing, nicely sheltered by the wind break hedge surrounding the hangar area, and settled in for a quiet night. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of gentle baa-ing.

I was woken by the sound of a vehicle approaching, and hangar doors opening. I peered out of the tent, and saw that the farmer had arrived and was busy preparing his Robinson R22 helicopter for a morning flight. He told me that he was off to carry out mustering for sheep in a far off paddock; he had learned to fly specifically to perform farm tasks like this. Before he departed he invited me to take a look around the hangar, which had a few interesting items tucked within.

He started up the R22 and was soon airborne, disappearing off to the east. I spent a while in the hangar checking out the treasures he had in there, including an interesting old military trainer.

The sheep had all wandered off to the other end of the paddock, so departure was entirely sheep-free. This would, all going to plan, be my last day of flying in New Zealand before departing for Australia – quite a bittersweet thought! I set course directly for Dunedin international, as it was time to deliver the airplane part which I’d been carrying down from Loburn Abbey. I flew direct to Outram, over the rolling hills of the southeast south island, and was cleared into the Dunedin zone for a left base arrival. I taxied in to the GA area, and wandered into the flight school to hand over the part. Very kindly, the recipient paid my landing fee for me!

Dunedin hangar

I grabbed a drink of water and set out for Balclutha. There was a strong wind blowing out of the west, giving me a pretty slow ground speed as I headed in that direction. Happily, the wind at Balclutha was straight down the runway and I rolled to a stop very quickly, parking up near the clubhouse and hangar. A cheery “Hello!” wafted down from an open window on the upper floor of the clubhouse; it was the resident instructor, who had very little to do as the wind conditions really weren’t appropriate for students. He kindly gave me a lift into town to grab a sandwich for lunch, and a couple of items from the hardware store, before taking me back to the airport. A club member had shown up together with a guest, and I joined them as they checked out the hangar, which held a very nice club fleet and a few privately owned aircraft.

The final day of flying in New Zealand

After a short take-off run, I turned north and slowly converged with highway 8. My next stop was Roxburgh, a small town tucked into the Clutha River valley. It was a bumpy approach to landing, with the wind spilling off the tall hills to the west of the field; I didn’t hang around too long before I was on my way again. I had to circle a couple of times, making use of the updrafts on the hills east of town, before I had sufficient altitude to set off into the wind across the hills and to the private strip at Nokomai Station.

Nokomai station sits in the Nokomai River valley in Southland, a little way south of the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu. The strip is about 600m; it looks longer, but on closer inspection one sees that the couple of hundred meters at the far end are fenced off! I parked at the northern end close to the hangars, and could see the owner Brian driving along the track towards me. We’d exchanged some emails and he’d been extremely welcoming. We jumped into his car and headed to his house for a cup of tea and cookies.

He told me a bit about his flying experiences, many of which were in Cessna 206s including all around Australia with the 200-series Cessna club over there. We headed back out to the hangars to have a look around the impressive collection of aircraft therein; the larger one held a couple of turbine helicopters and a rather nice looking boat. The helicopters were leftover from a commercial operation which Brian’s son had been running until recently. The smaller hangar held a shiny new Cessna 206 and the wreckage of a rather less shiny looking Cessna 206! Brian told me he’d bought it to get the tip tanks off of it, but was now looking at rebuilding it. It remained a work in progress. We also checked out the office which was full of all kind of interesting photos from the helicopter operation.

The strong winds had led to my burning a bit more fuel than originally planned for the day, and it was starting to look like I’d be eating into my reserves. Brian came to my rescue and donated 40 liters of fuel from his stash, refusing any payment and simply asking that I donate to African Promise on his behalf; I was delighted to do so! Some friends of his had arrived and they helped me to decant the fuel into the wing tanks, before waving me goodbye as I set off down the runway and headed along the valley towards the Oreti river, and Mossburn strip.

Mossburn is an agricultural strip, primarily for crop dusters; I didn’t stay long before taking off again and heading east. My next stop was Balfour, a private strip with pretty long grass; I decided to fly a touch and go, as I didn’t want to end up bogged down anywhere! I actually visited another strip on this leg, but decided that the combination of strong winds and trees, and the layout of the strip, would have made a landing attempt foolish. The strip owner did come outside and wave at me as I circled; I’m not sure if it was a greeting, or a suggestion not to land!

From Balfour I headed southeast, to the municipal airstrip of Gore. A couple of other pilots were hanging out on the apron, one of whom had stopped in on his way home to grab some fuel. They recognised me from social media and came over to chat, also directing me to a hose where I could give Planey a wash again. He’d picked up a lot more “biological matter” on the various farm strips in the last couple of days, and I didn’t want biosecurity in Australia to have a problem with the airplane!

The end of the New Zealand adventure was fast approaching; I took off behind the other visiting pilot, and set off on my penultimate flight towards the farm strip at Thornbury. It was another struggle against the headwind and I was really hoping that the wind direction and strength would be a little more friendly for the upcoming Tasman crossing. As I overflew the strip I saw a couple of men standing by a truck near the far threshold. They watched me land and taxi in, and as I shut down they got in the truck and buggered off. Oh well – I made it a short stop, and headed out on a final fast downwind leg to Invercargill.

Air traffic control cleared me onto a right downwind, and I was soon touching down for the very last time on New Zealand soil. I pulled into the same parking spot as on my previous visit to Invercargill, tied Planey down, and headed for the exit gate. It was time to turn my mind to the next big adventure…

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