Ever dream of flightseeing over New Zealand's mystic mountain? Here's my experience in the sky over...
KIWI COUNTRY
Christchurch seems to lie somewhere between Heaven and Middle Earth

We were hovering over a Tolkienesque landscape, where clusters of mountains rose like fat fingers from deep valleys, when Jim, our helicopter pilot, posed the question:
“Ready to touch down?”

“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous that he’d hazard stopping precariously on a jagged fingertip of land.

“No worries,” he laughed pleasantly. “This high in the sky on a sun-shiny day, we’re blessed by the protectors of Middle Earth.”

Deftly, Jim maneuvered the whirring bubble to descend on a plateau, where he urged us to hop out. To our jaw-dropping delight, we found ourselves facing – though still hundreds of miles away from – a mountainous netherworld that could have been a digitally contrived film backdrop, but was truly real and natural. Centuries ago, this vision of Aoraki Mount Cook – its mammoth base darkened by a long, cumulous swath suspended over its peak – inspired the first arriving Maori tribes to call New Zealand “Aotearoa,” meaning “Cloud Piercer,” and “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

The highest peak in all Austral-asia at 12,000 feet, Aoraki Mount Cook had been our intended destination for a flight-seeing day-trip from Christchurch. We also would land on the Tasman Glacier and tramp on rainforest trails to see indigenous flora and birds, and the ancient rock art left by early Maori moa hunters. But our driver Sean’s traditional Kiwi greeting – “Kia Ora” – was quickly followed by notice of a change in plans due to dense fog and rain in the high alpine region – hard to fathom as the sky was brilliant blue.

“Never mind, mates, you’ll never be bored,” Sean said, promising some “amazing local experiences” to enhance a shortened flight.

Tucked into Sean’s 4x4 we were soon en route to Christchurch’s famed International Arctic Centre – a scientific campus for Antarctic programs conducted by researchers from the United States, Italy and New Zealand.

As the largest city on New Zealand’s 500-mile-long South Island and strategically located halfway down its eastern coast, Christchurch is the world’s aerial gateway to Antarctica. At the International Arctic Centre, we approximated the Antarctic experience in an environmental simulation capsule. After donning special boots and thermal outfits, we were immersed in a minus-30-degree climate, weathering a “windy snowstorm” and vying to survive the tempest without slipping on glassy ice. Then, outdoors, we climbed into a Hagglund amphibian vehicle, armored with traction like a war tank, to navigate a thrilling adventure course that replicates the steep hills, streams and crevasses of icy terrain.

From frosty white to fresh green: Fifteen minutes outside of Christchurch, the 4x4 rolled into the lush territory of Clearwater Resort. Laced over lakes and streams, grasslands and forests, the resort is a championship-caliber golf mecca with challenging hazards galore, but our ambition was to finesse the skills of fly-fishing from the resident angling expert. With one flick of the wrist, my husband, Ken, proved his talent. But by the time I could cast a line without hooking the grass or my jacket, lunch beckoned. Between a crisp glass of Seresin Estate Sauvignon Blanc (produced by Kiwi Michael Seresin, a cinematographer by profession) and a plate of delectable green-lipped mussels (a Kiwi specialty), my lack-luster attempt at fly-fishing faded into memory – just in time to see Jim land his Garden City Helicopter.

Aloft in the chopper, Christchurch came into architectural and geographical perspective: its multitude of gardens (Christchurch is known as “Garden City”) and its grand, English-inspired Victorian and neo-Gothic buildings; its orderly grid of streets and the picturesque Avon River; its flat environs, bordered by Lyttelton Harbor and the Banks Peninsula, stretching to inland hills and the Canterbury Plains.

Jim explained that the Christchurch area had figured in Maori history a thousand years before Europeans arrived. It wasn’t until 1815, some 45 years after Captain James Cook first set eyes on the place, that Europeans began whaling out of Lyttelton Harbor and migrating to the plains to raise sheep. In 1840, to foster a peaceful rapport between two clashing cultures, the Maori chiefs and the British Crown signed the Waitangi Treaty to establish New Zealand as a bi-cultural nation. And in 1856, Christchurch was chartered as New Zealand’s first city.

As Jim veered west, then south over the Canterbury Plains, we were enthralled by the glorious tapestry of changing landscapes. Emerald vineyards on terroirs similar to those found in Mediterranean regions produce New Zealand’s famed Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes. There were fields of golden canola flowers and stations with million of sheep that looked, from above, like cotton puffs dotting green pastures. Rivers meandered like turquoise ribbons and placid lakes rich with freshwater fish splashed with jet boats giving sporty thrills.

When the topography shifted dramatically from vast plains to wooded hills and barren land, we spotted the TransAlpine Train chugging through a desolate terrain rippled by breezes. “It’s rated as one of the world’s best train experiences,” Jim told us.

For more than an hour we flew, ascending above looming alps and dipping into valleys. Approaching Arthur’s Pass, every view evoked oohs and ahhs. The historic settlement built for the original railroad workers is now an alpine retreat for trampers and bushwalkers who revel in the rugged beauty of the nearby gorges and waterfalls. Then Jim landed the chopper on a lofty plateau.

Enveloped by a heavenly stillness barely interrupted by the gentle breeze and our rushing hearts – we were utterly humbled by the panorama of nature’s ancient glory: valleys sprinkled with remote villages; foothills banked by lupines thick with mauve and purple blossoms; the alps, their verdant woods thinning to rocky peaks dusted with snow; and in the distance, Aoraki Mount Cook.

As we huddled back into the chopper, I thanked Jim for giving us this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Airborne again, Jim flew toward a sheep farming station where a couple of horseback riders and a frisky dog hustled a wooly herd into line. We descended to the grassy lawn of a fairytale-perfect homestead complete with a weathervane and white wraparound porch. This was Grasmere Lodge, a luxurious, 13-suite resort nestled in an original homestead, circa 1858, where we indulged in a sumptuous, English-style afternoon tea. The 13,000-acre homestead is a working farm where guests can watch the care and breeding of Merino sheep, cattle and deer when they’re not participating in the myriad outdoor activities arranged by the lodge owners, including kayaking river-rafting, bushwalking, mountain-biking and snow-skiing.

On the way back to Christchurch, I reflected on the day. “Awesome” barely does it justice.

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