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Helicopter 3, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

On our last day in New Zealand we cranked up the intensity of our nature experience by taking what they call a Heli-Cruise-Fly tour of Milford Sound. In about 4 hours we sqeezed in more wows (and yikes) than in the last 3 weeks of traveling around New Zealand.

The first part was the helicopter trip from Queenstown to Te Anau. The craft was pretty much a glass bubble. It fit two people in front and three in the back. Michael sat up front and I was in the right rear seat behind the pilot. It was a very clear day and there were dozens of these helicopters buzzing around the city. We saw the pilot Nigel land neatly in the row of 6 or 7 heli-pads at the tour place in Queenstown, and a few people hopped out. He gassed up and we all buckled in and lifted off. We wore headsets and could hear the air traffic control for the area. There was so much kiwi-accent chatter! It smelled like gas the entire time, and there was a little window on the right side of the craft cracked open the whole trip. Also it was very loud.

Takeoff is very strange in a helicopter. Just about the opposite of a plane. It’s very slow and smooth and not too scary. I find this hard to believe but one of the two women who went with us said she was too afraid to ride the gondola up the Queenstown mountain but had no problems with the helicopter.

It’s difficult to describe how spectacular the views were. We came quite close to the sides of mountains and to the tops of the mountain peaks. I think it seemed closer than it was. We would approach a mountain top, creep over it, and all of a sudden the ground would just vanish beneath us!

We flew over and around the Routeburn track we hiked, and the pilot pointed out a few particular peaks and lakes. None of the passengers had asked questions until this point, and Michael asked over the intercom which one was Conical Hill because we hiked to the top of it. So the pilot grabbed a map from the dashboard and started reading it. We were nearing the next peak, and I was thinking, “Let the man drive pleeeease!!!” He eventually abandoned the hunt and we’re not exactly sure which was Conical Hill, but I feel pretty OK that one of them we saw was the one.

About 15 minutes into the flight we landed on a glacier on top of Mount Tuteko. We hopped out and walked around for a few minutes in the snow. It was bright, and the chopper was still going so it was really loud. I told the pilot the ride was fantastic. He was clearly unimpressed by it all and said he makes this trip a few times a day.

From the glacier it’s a five or so minute trip down the other side of the mountain to Te Anau. Not having ridden in a helicopter, I would have thought that we would just sort of float down to the ground horizontally, but apparently that’s unsafe and creates some sort of crazy vortex or wind tunnel or something. Instead the pilot did a “spiral descent,” which if it had lasted about one second longer would have made me vomit. It looks just like it sounds, and from the inside looking out you see sky, tree, side of mountain, ground and then that same sequence over and over every second until you level back out. Nuts!

After that we were pretty much there. We hopped on a boat and cruised around Milford Sound, and then got on a 7-seat plane for a bumpy ride back to Queenstown. All of this lasted about 4 hours. We found the nearest bar and sat for awhile before doing anything else.