The tanned backpackers lounge lakeside, watching the world go by. They appear without care, inhaling a picture-postcard scene: snow-capped peaks framing glistening blue waters.

But they are only passing through. Snapping shots and off to the next destination. Those who stay, stay close. They live on about the 45th parallel south, halfway between the South Pole and Equator, a half-cold, half-hot latitude. And after Thursday's tragedy, some feel like they are living halfway to hell.

No, no. Not again. Another helicopter down.

Soon, the worst of all news wafted across town, delivered by shaking heads and hugs. The youngest Wallis boy. Nick. Father of two little girls. Dead, along with two senior DoC rangers and eco-pioneers Scott Theobald, 59, fellow DOC senior ranger Paul Hondelink, 63, on the first day of the tahr cull. What was it, less than three months since Nick's brother, and fellow pilot Matt, died in a chopper crash, just up the lake?

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It was a sickening, seismic blow. And there were so many questions. How? How could the machine just fall out of the sky and erupt in a fireball, so soon after take-off? An investigation is launched.

But the community again rallied round. What more can be done?

"We're very fortunate in Wanaka that we really do support each other. We're really grateful for that," said Jonathan Wallis, who's lost two brothers in just a few weeks.

Stoic is a word many locals use to describe the Wallis family.

The old man, Sir Tim Wallis, who founded the popular Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow, has himself survived a reported 15 air crashes. The last, in 1996 in a World War II-era Spitfire, ended his solo flying career and nearly ended his life. Now 80, he's not been well lately, in and out of hospital, but everyone expects him to just soldier on.

Deputy Mayor Calum MacLeod called on the Wallis' matriarch, Lady Prue Wallis. Thursday was her birthday. Out of respect for her, he declined to talk to reporters the next day.

Everybody in the town has felt the blow.

Emergency services at the scene of the fatal helicopter crash. Photo / Supplied
Emergency services at the scene of the fatal helicopter crash. Photo / Supplied

"We all just really feel for all three families, but especially the Wallis family," said one shopkeeper. "I mean, how could you cope, losing two boys so close together? It breaks your heart."

Nick was known as a gentle giant – 6ft 6in, 120kg, a man's man but a real family man, too. Teaching his wee girls to water-ski behind the jet-boat, flying off to remote huts for weekends away, using the chopper like most do a car.

"He was a bloody talented pilot," said one former DoC worker who flew several times with Nick Wallis.

"He could put that machine anywhere he wanted, it was like artistry."

The flag outside the DoC visitor centre in town hung at half-mast, flapping in the rising nor'wester.

Staff and supporters dropped in to the wooden A-frame building with biscuits to split the grief over a cuppa and tell stories.

Theobald and Hondelink were both world-leaders in their chosen conservation fields.

A pioneer of predator dogs, it was said that wherever Theobald went, kiwi numbers went up.

And "Hondy", who had just moved from Wanaka to Twizel, was their top chamois and tahr shooter. He had notched up a staggering 47 years' service.

Between them, they had the "most significant conservation experience in the country – if not the world", according to DoC's director general Lou Sanson.

"Thousands of native birds are alive because of them. It's incomprehensible what's happened."

Several locals wondered just how the two surviving Wallis boys, Jonathan and Toby, could keep flying.

But it was a passing thought really.

"It's in our blood, it's in our family," Toby said.

"If someone has an accident on the road, you don't stop driving."

Ed Taylor, general manager of Warbirds Over Wanaka, has been fielding calls from aviation enthusiasts across the country.

"Everyone is just stunned at Nick's death," he said. "Nick was a great guy to work with ... Nothing was a problem."

Back at the lakeside, the wind has picked up since Thursday's crash, when it was calm, flat, and perfect.

Now whitecaps whip up, the sun has gone. The tourists pack up their rucksacks and punch Google Maps while the willows weep into the choppy waters. It suddenly feels closer to the South Pole than the Equator.