Auckland: Up, up and away

By Donna McIntyre

Donna McIntyre flies over Auckland in an old-school seaplane.

From the seaplane's Auckland mooring, Waiheke is but a short hop away.
From the seaplane's Auckland mooring, Waiheke is but a short hop away.

Do we have to swim in? If I take my phone will it go in the water? Mum, how wet will we get? All questions that hadn't even crossed my mind until I told my teenagers we are flying by seaplane from downtown Auckland to Man O'War Bay, Waiheke.

Maybe they're thinking of Tintin-style adventure stories they enjoyed when they were younger. And there is an exotic link in our plane's history with the de Havilland Beaver having served time in Ghana with the Canadian Air Force.

The four-door Aotearoa II is a newcomer to Auckland's skies, brought here by Auckland Seaplanes in November, to take passengers on scenic flights and island hopping, mainly in the Hauraki Gulf.

The company hopes to soon have a second seaplane in operation.

We check in with pilot Steven Newland outside the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum on the waterfront. Steven tells us the 1961 Beaver hails from Canada where, for the past 25 years, its owner used it to fly to his fishing lodge.

Today we'll start our journey from the Viaduct, taxi-ing out to Stanley Bay to take off on the harbour.

The eight-seater comfortably sits six adults plus the pilot. We are all eyeing up the co-pilot seat, but son Jamie wins this prime position in a paper-scissors-rock challenge with brother Aubin. We're given a safety briefing, don lifejackets and seatbelts and told if we feel queasy to tap our pilot on the shoulder and he'll slow down.

The plane is launched from the jetty in a similar way to a boat. On the water it has the same rights as motorboats. Before take-off, the pilot must ensure his "runway" is clear but once he's under way other boats have to stay out of his path. Once airborne, aviation rules apply.

The pilot chooses today's "runway" between Stanley Bay and Princes Wharf, taking into consideration tides, wind direction and strength, choppy water and harbour traffic.

Seaplanes co-director Chris Sattler is also on board and explains they limit flying to under 20 knots of wind and are allowed to fly between 7am and 8pm but operate 9.30am to 4pm.

"If it is too busy near Stanley Point we can go on the other side of the harbour bridge to take off or we will go out to Great Barrier, Waiheke or the Bay of Islands and fly there for the day."

Thumbs up all round as we taxi closer to Stanley Point for take off.

"Seaplane Alpha to Base, we have six POB for Waiheke at 45.

"Everyone ready to go, tally-ho."

Soon we are soaring above Auckland, over Devonport, Takapuna and freshwater Lake Pupuke. We have clear skies and the water is so clear we can spot rock formations. As we cross to Rangitoto, our pilot warns us the ride might get bumpier but we're spared turbulence as we peer out at the summit's observation deck.

Over Motutapu we go, Rakino to our left, Browns Island and Motuihe on our right and Waiheke looming in front of us. Yachts look so tiny with their tails of wake behind them.

We locate Matiatia and then the northern beaches ... Oneroa, Palm, Onetangi, Cactus Bay and then we are over Stony Batter as we change our course slightly for Man O'War Bay.

Our descent and landing is so gentle, it's like gliding to a stop on skis as we settle into this sheltered bay.

We've been up to 1500ft and now we're back, not quite on terra firma but definitely at sea level as we step out on to the plane's floats to wade a few metres ashore. Easy peasy.

Chris tells us the Man O'War trip is scheduled around low tides for best access.

"People can wade from the plane and have a tasting and a platter. We fly them back after two hours and most are pretty happy after the wine tasting."

For us the aerial journey ends here. Others will return to Auckland.

The bay is beautiful and, as we try the wines (our picks of the bunch are the lighter Gravestone sauvignon semillon and the heartier Valhalla chardonnay) and platter, the boys enjoy a juice and ginger beer before heading to the beach and jetty. Other families have set up picnics on the lawn. A few play cricket.

Not a bad way to whittle away a good part of a day.

It's great to have a seaplane back in Auckland.

NEED TO KNOW

Wear clothing and footwear that make it easy to get in and out of the plane and allow you to wade knee-depth in the sea.

Level of fitness required: must be able to walk up a flight of stairs.

Trip options start from the Rangitoto Circuit from $150 each (15 minutes flying, about a 30-minute experience).

The Man O'War winetasting and lunch trip is $390 each (about 45 minutes flying, three-hour experience).

More details: See aucklandseaplanes.com.

Donna McIntyre was a guest of Auckland Seaplanes.

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