No, the Southern Alps aren’t in the south of France or Italy as the name may lead you to believe. Rather, they are 12 time zones away in a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean and form the spine of the rugged South Island of New Zealand. Home to National Parks such as Mt. Aspiring, Mt. Cook, Arthur’s Pass, and Fiordland, the similarities to their European counterparts are so similar, however, that when hiking amongst sections of the Southern Alps you could swear you were outside of Chamonix, France.
It’s well known that the original Maori name for New Zealand is “Aotearoa”, a phrase which literally translates to “Long White Cloud”. Seeing as the Polynesian triangle only has a few mountains tall enough to ever receive snow, it’s understandable why a narrow, snow capped mountain range could be construed as being a long white cloud. (The only other mountain in Polynesia outside of New Zealand which regularly sees snow is Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, a name which literally translates in Hawaiian to “White Mountain”. See a trend?)
Aside from providing a picturesque backdrop for the majority of the South Island, the Southern Alps are also home to the majority of the outdoor activities in the country, which is really saying something in an outdoor haven such as New Zealand.
When it comes to the Southern Alps, even though you can hike your way through them, ski your way down them, jetboat their rivers, and fish in their lakes, the undisputed best way you’re going to actually SEE them is by getting up on top of them. Unless you plan on climbing 12,316 ft. Mt. Cook (Maori: Aoraki, “Cloud Piercer”) and are a whiz with crampons and an ice axe, your best bet is to get beneath a set of rotating blades and take a helicopter to plop you down on top of them.
That’s what I did over Mt. Aspiring, and in all seriousness, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Departing from the Wanaka Airport which lies in the foothills of Mt. Aspiring National Park, the trouble with being in a helicopter is you never know which way to look. When you have a a 270 degree view from inside a hovering glass bubble, you aren’t sure if you should focus your attention–and camera lens–on the lakes below you or the glaciers in front of you.
Either way, with the Southern Lakes region shimmering beneath our whirling metal blades, it wasn’t long before our pilot Nick had dropped us down on top of 7,700 ft. Mt. Alta, a rocky pinnacle being whipped by an alpine breeze and the type of place where you could scream and no one would hear you. Not in the scary way, but in the chest-thumping sense of freedom way.
Though standing atop Mt. Alta was invigorating in its remoteness, it was nothing when compared to the glacial flyby we were about to be treated to.
Eventually reaching the snowline, our machine hovered so closely to the melting ice fields you could practically hear the ice changing into water. Racing along ridge lines, all of that melting water suddenly made itself known in a thundering set of falls exploding off of the face of 8,600 ft. Mt Avalanche, an alpine promontory glowing in white and studded in hanging glaciers.
If ever there was a time in my life I felt like an aerial cameraman for a Lord of the Rings shoot, it was at this moment right now.
Just as Nick played a game of chicken with the approaching set of falls, he pulled up on the stick and raised the chopper just high enough above the falls to give myself and the two other passengers in the aircraft a sweeping view of a hidden turquoise lake that is among the most pristine bodies of water I have seen anywhere on the planet. And this is from a guy who grew up in Hawaii.
You can judge a good helicopter ride by the juxtaposition of adrenaline and exhaustion when you finally step back onto the tarmac, and after the 1 hour whirlwind through the glaciers of the Southern Alps there was little left to do but order up a late-morning coffee, lay down in the back of campervan, and question if what I just saw was actually a real place on this Earth.
Can’t relax for too long though, as there are many more adventures to be had in one of the world’s best countries for touring…
For the next 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.