Our 1st helicopter ride…

So its a couple of weeks into December 2014, we just finished work on Friday and we’re cruising along the West Coast of the South Island in the first week of our journey. Its officially summer, and the weather is trying to prove the usual West Coast forecast of rain and heavy bursts of precipitation wrong. Very very wrong. its a gorgeous warm sunny day. We’re in no hurry and just enjoying the rugged beauty that is mountains and lush jungle like fauna.

Hmm, lets just explain the geography and local plant life a wee bit. The West Coast starts off rocky with cliffs at the top of the island, becoming stony beaches with cliffs and rocky pinnacles- check out Punakaiki/ Pancake Rocks- before changing to stones and flat beaches from south of Greymouth down to Jacksons Bay (Haast) and then becoming coastal cliffs and deep coves around Fiordland. (There’s a whole new vocabulary to explain Fiordland National Park- the early explorers didn’t quite get their terminology right.) But the scenery is unbelieveable. Think Norway and Canada and Alaska all rolled into one fantastic trip! There’s a very narrow margin of arable land between the mountains and the sea. And the prevailing weather fronts come from the west/ south areas of the compass. this generally means travelling across from the warm Australian/ Pacific areas  or from Antartica polar regions. Both areas involve a lot of travelling over the seas and result in a high density of water volume being transported. And once this reaches the land, it becomes precipitation in some shape or form. Usually rain. With wind. Heavy bursts of rain. And wind with a lot of force and volume. Or as snow. Or sleet. Or a combination of all three.

So the natural vegetation has grown used to being wet around the roots, and windswept. And thrives. In some cases, the only thing stopping the plants from taking over the road is the occaisonal traffic and the contractors who spray the verges, and resurface the road. Sometimes literally by scraping a dozer blade across it! Roads have 3 general classifications. Main highway which are metalled/ tarmac/ sealed, top of the line and well used and maintained. State Highway 1 for example. Then there’s the minor/ local roads, still sealed, but not as well maintained. And then there’s unsealed/ gravel roads. They are basically scraped out of the ground/ blasted out of the bedrock and levelled off. Gravel is applied from time to time to assist in traction and they are not easy to maintain. Wheel ruts, potholes and general holes and even mud lakes can occur. And throughout the whole of New Zealand, roads are at risk of subsidence, land slips, rock falls and earthquake damage. If you require pristine roads to drive on, this is not the place for you. Even the bridges are constructed out of respect to the local weather. Cast iron girders are the norm. Set up like giant meccano construction sets, they sit squarely across the gap until they are either fall when their pillars are washed out from underneath them. or the embankment gets washed away.

West Coast
West Coast “jungle”. In pioneer days, many died through a lack of respect of just how dangerous it is.
Jackson Bay road bridge replacing the original, whose concrete pillars can be seen from the roadway.
Jackson Bay road bridge replacing the original, whose concrete pillars can be seen from the roadway as you croos the bridge.

So we were enjoying the day, cruising along when we spotted a sign turning off to a reserve (Public recreation area.) up a valley. So, being curious off we turned, up a gravel road. And sitting in the middle of the valley, near the riverbank was a public park with toilet block and a helicopter with blades rotating gently.

Now, Neil had tried twice before to arrange a helicopter flight for Sharlene as it is on her bucket list. Both trips had been cancelled due to bad weather. So this seemed too good to be true. Next thing, we’re parked up and there’s a chap offering us a trip up the valley and over the peaks of the local mountains. Payment? we ask. An agreeable figure was negotiated and next thing we’re up and away. And it couldn’t have worked out better, because Sharlene was sat up the front in the cockpit next to the pilot.

Sharlene's first helicopter ride- and up front in the cockpit as well!
Sharlene’s first helicopter ride- and up front in the cockpit as well!

Now we’re not sure how many of you have had the fun of being in a ‘copter before, but here’s the thing they don’t advertise in the brochures… its fun! From the initial gut wrenching surge of power and lifting vertically from the helipad (basically postage stamp sized piece of flat on the riverbank), to clinging to the mountain valley sides, close enough to touch if the window opened, to watching puffs of snow lift off the cliff and riding above the puffs of cloud at the summits, before swooping down like an enthusiastic bird of prey before levelling off and touching down without hardly a bump…

Unlike a plane, there’s very little sensation of speed…

Rising up the valley floor...
Rising up the valley floor…

And the views are great…

Looking north up a valley floor through the window.
Looking north up a valley floor through the window.
Above the clouds as we decend.
Above the clouds as we decend.
West over the southern Alps.
West over the southern Alps.

After we landed, we went to settle the bill. Sorry, cash only at this office, or electronic payment could be made at the village10 minutes along the main road. (Quick note- about 99% of money transactions are made by electronic tranactions using a process similar to credit cards, but through bank cards instead. Most of us kiwi’s don’t carry cash at all, sometimes for weeks at a time!)

So off we went,total strangers, owing a substantial amount for our flight, looking for a certain house in a village, beside a workshop/ garage. Which we did. Find, and pay of course.

But here’s the thing. How refreshing to be trusted to leave and pay on the shake of a hand. And you have probably no idea how proud we felt after paying and continuing our journey… And still do.

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