South Westland aerial access
Some of the volunteers on the Gorge River airstrip with the results of their coastal cleanup efforts—everything from tractor wheels to fish bins and buoys.
With its large areas of wilderness, much of it contained within the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage region, the southwestern South Island has long held potential for aviation. Essentially roadless until the connection through Haast Pass and northwards was completed in the mid-1960s, even now just that single thread with few side roads serves a sparse population living in an area of increasing tourism activity.
Until the early 1930s, aerial access to South Westland was confined to a few exploratory flights based on beaches and riverbeds, but airfields were established and at the end of 1934 Air Travel began New Zealand’s first scheduled air service in the (relatively) modern era. Remote homesteads and settlements were at last not dependent solely on an erratic shipping service, and the local airline continued through a couple of changes in operator until the need for its services dwindled after the road was put through.
Enterprising farmers such as the Nolan family established airstrips and used light aeroplanes to access some of the more remote river valleys for running half-wild cattle and carrying out whitebait in season, but the major impetus came from commercial deer hunting, with a side order of commercial whitebaiting. Large numbers of airstrips, most of them rudimentary in the extreme, were established and used mainly for flying out deer carcasses.
As helicopters were increasingly used for shooting, the deer were hauled out under them to those strips and then flown by fixed wing aeroplanes to the freezers at the bigger roadside facilities at Mussel Point and Haast.
Commercial fixed wing activities dropped off after the hectic years of deer shooting, although many airstrips are still maintained for increasing numbers of tourist facilities. Some of the basic tramping huts of yore are growing into comfortable lodges, the idea having been pioneered by the likes of Jules Tapper’s Hollyford Tourist and Travel, an operation expanded in the mid-1970s with its bush flying subsidiary Hollyfordair Travel.
But those basic strips still hold enormous appeal for the more enterprising (and capable) private pilot. Last year the Recreational Backcountry Pilots Association (RBPA) came into being and announced the success of negotiations with the Department of Conservation, to the extent that the keeper of the conservation estate now recognises recreational aviation as a legitimate user. After 20 years of inaction, DoC will finally consider the needs of recreational aviation in future policy development.
Not that it’s open slather. The concession is not for just anybody to fly into these strips. RBPA membership and strict access conditions are required and, combined with the short, difficult, undeveloped and remote nature of the strips, demand local knowledge and a high level of pilot skill as well as the right sort of aeroplane.
The rotary side
Over the years New Zealand has developed the world’s highest per capita level of helicopters, and nowhere is their potential better recognised than in Fiordland and South Westland. The helicopter concentration has reduced somewhat from the hectic—and cowboy—days of commercial venison shooting and, later, live recovery, but there is still a need for the rotary wing machine’s unique capabilities.
One of the pioneers of the area was Dave Saxton, who cut his teeth as a ground hunter based at Lake Alabaster, then used an Auster to fly his meat out. He later set up HeliVentures at Haast, offering the expected services of scenic and charter flights to the better-known destinations as well as hunting and fishing safaris.
Dave and his pilot son Morgan were convicted in 2007 of unlawfully retrieving pounamu (greenstone) some years earlier from the Cascade Plateau, well south of Haast, in a case that still generates some heat in the district. Their appeal failed, and after Morgan died in the November 2008 crash of his R22 in Lake Wanaka the company appeared to cease trading.
That left a considerable gap in a region of considerable potential, and steps were later taken to plug that gap.
Geoff Robson has lived in the Jackson Bay area for more than 40 years, building up businesses based on longline fishing and processing shark fin oil after first being involved in helicopters while commercial shooting and jet boating. Having earned his CPL(H) in 2004 with Wanaka Helicopters, he later approached that company with the idea that an offshoot should be set up at Haast and his own base at Neils Beach, the airfield 15min by R44 or 30min by road south of Haast.
Geoff’s extensive geological knowledge of the area (“you can’t carry geologists around for years and not have some of that rub off on you”, he says) and where the best deposits are led to the suggestion of the company name. The pounamu mainland resource is owned, and vigorously guarded, by Ngai Tahu, but it is legal to pick up smaller amounts from West Coast beaches below the high tide mark.
Greenstone Helicopters (the irony of the name is not lost on the Saxton family) was set up in 2011 and runs as a Wanaka Helicopters subsidiary, with Simon Spencer-Bower as chief pilot. Recognised internationally as one of the world’s best helicopter flight instructors with special expertise in Robinsons and mountain flying, Simon was last month presented with a Helicopter Association International (HAI) Salute to Excellence award in Orlando, Florida.
Both Spencer-Bower sons fly helicopters commercially, having had to earn their place in the fraternity. Chris is currently working up his flying career in the USA and brother Peter, while still developing the family farm at West Eyreton, Canterbury, is Greenstone Helicopters’ manager and one of its pilots. Their artistic sister Charlotte designed the company logo.
Also on the flying staff is Will Simpson-Shaw, and the pilot complement is two permanent with one on call, flying a pair of Robinson R44s based at Haast and Neils Beach, plus a leased MD/Hughes 500E.
“It would be difficult to start a business without the overseeing company,” admits Pete Spencer-Bower. “It’s taken a fair bit to get used to the weather and a big learning curve, although we’ve been taught well.”
He says the R44 is well suited to the task, with good economy at half the cost of a Squirrel. “With a payload of around 300kg we can carry two hunters and their gear.”
The April roar is a busy time in South Westland. On the western side of the main divide between Big Bay in the south and the Landsborough and Moeraki valleys, the region is split into 72 hunter ballot blocks plus some open blocks, with permits valid for a week at a time. The hunters, predominantly New Zealanders, are after trophy heads and venison, and the logistics of ferrying hunters and all their supplies and equipment, then hauling them back out again with their heads and haunches—but less in the way of supplies and beer—keeps the planning as well as the flying side of the company busy.
Apart from the annual roar, red deer, chamois and tahr hunting is facilitated by helicopter, some of it for DoC control as the animals are regarded as pests and thrive in the predator-free Southern Alps. Chamois originated in the central European alpine region and the larger tahr in the central Himalayan ranges. As tahr, which can weigh up to 180kg, inhabit the alpine grassland zone they are particularly destructive to the fragile alpine environment.
Flying anglers into the region’s trout fishing spots is also an important part of the company’s operations, although Pete is reluctant to divulge any location specifics. Brown trout were introduced in the late 1860s for recreational fishing and quickly established themselves without any need for hatchery support south of Coromandel.
Predominantly river fish, although they are also found in diverse habitats from estuaries to subalpine lakes, brown trout are able to swim out to sea and so have spread to most New Zealand river systems.
“It’s quite a fragile fishery,” says Pete, “but as the only operator we can manage it well.”
Scenic flights also come into it, particularly “if the glaciers up north are claggy”. As a small company it’s easier to offer a personal service, and most of such passengers are overseas tourists.
One popular scenic destination is only a few minutes’ flying time from the Haast base, on the southern side of the 1500m Marks Range. Lakes Eggeling and Douglas (at 642m) are joined by Staircase Creek in an otherwise inaccessible spot locally known as Forgotten Valley, from where the Douglas Falls cascade into the Okuru River.
Access to Mount Aspiring National Parks and other DoC stewardship land is strictly controlled—Fiordland is not accessible from Haast—and each has its own rules and concessions.
“We do a lot of work for and with DoC,” says Pete. “We shift huts and monitor kiwi, the rare Haast tokoeka sub-group, and we sponsor some DoC and Deerstalkers Association efforts such as the Tawaki Project on the Fiordland crested penguin.”
Some of Greenstone Helicopters’ more public-spirited efforts are a result of Geoff Robson’s long residence in the area and his desire to put something back into the community. Tired of watching rubbish, most of it broken and discarded commercial fishing gear, pile up along the coast from Jackson Head south to Big Bay, a remote stretch of otherwise untouched coastline, he approached DoC in 2011 for assistance in organising the first major cleanup.
In February 2012 a team of eight volunteers walked 40km of the coastline between Big Bay’s Awarua Point and the Cascade River, filling 25 wool fadges for the Greenstone helicopter pilots to lift out to the Cascade road end for removal. The exercise was repeated in March 2014, this time extended northwards to Stafford Bay, south of Jackson Head, with 12 volunteers collecting another 2.5t of rubbish.
Regular projects of this nature are thought to be necessary, an excellent example of another use of helicopters in a unique part of New Zealand. Rotary wing machines have been through several stages of operational development, from resource extraction to conservation efforts, and are well suited to the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage region.
- Report by John King, photographs by John King & Rina Thompson.
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