Otago: Soar over clouds in Wanaka

On a scenic flight in the south, Elizabeth Carlson gets into the pilot's seat.

Elizabeth Carlson (left) takes a flying lesson over Wanaka. Photo / Elizabeth Carlson
Elizabeth Carlson (left) takes a flying lesson over Wanaka. Photo / Elizabeth Carlson

The sun was just setting on an average Monday evening in Wanaka when I made my way to the airport. That morning's inversion cloud had almost burnt off and the lake was taking on a yellow glow, indicating the end of the day was near. Making my way inside the U-Fly office, I rubbed my cold hands together for warmth.

Today was the day I would learn to fly.

The raw untamed beauty of Wanaka is fact, and anywhere you stand guarantees a spectacular view of the glacial lake and snowcapped mountains. If it's that stunning when you're on the ground, imagine what it's like from the air.

The mountainous skyline that dominates the Wanaka horizon is the tip of the iceberg. Right on the doorstep of Mt Aspiring National Park, people come to Wanaka for many things, but they stay for the views. I'd stuck around for four months, though I was yet to lay eyes on Wanaka's pride and joy - Tititea/Mt Aspiring, New Zealand's highest peak outside the Mt Cook region.

That would change today.

After meeting the pilot, Roger, and the plane, a Robin DR 220 that looked like a World War II bomber complete with dome glass roof, I scrambled up the wing and hopped in.

After explaining all the dials (promptly forgotten), Roger started her up and I resisted the urge to say "Roger that" to everything. Although there are plenty of companies offering scenic flights, few allow the experience of piloting the plane yourself like U-Fly.

Before long, we were lined up on the runway staring into the sunset and I was helping pull back on the joystick, catapulting us into the skies. We made our way along the Clutha River and over Lake Wanaka, flying into the sunset.

This flier was soon abandoning her co-pilot duties for photography. As we climbed higher, we passed the iconic Roy's Peak and the twinkling lights of Treble Cone before winding our way towards mountains that had just begun to turn gold in the setting sun.

Gazing at the enormity of the Southern Alps, I tried to absorb the sense of sheer remoteness and solitude you can find at 10,000 feet.

Presently, Roger asked if I was ready, then swept into a huge right arc, delivering my first glimpse of Mt Aspiring. Lording it above the surrounding mountains, it juts up to 3000m, a perfect horned peak reminiscent of the Matterhorn. Pristine white and sparkling in the setting sun, it took my breath away. As we circled I put away my camera, recognising that I was in a position few get to experience.

As we made our way back, I found myself peering over my shoulder for one last glimpse of Wanaka's most famous peak. Soon I was helping land the plane under a pink sky, secure in the knowledge I had just witnessed something extraordinary. When can I fly again?

- NZ Herald

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