Helicopters, perfect powder and luxury yachts await, writes Craig Tansley.
‘I’d have thought after 13 years I’d get sick of this,” heli-ski guide Scott Walker says, leaning in close as a bright-black Squirrel A380 helicopter hovers above us, then touches down a few metres away.
Newborn lambs scatter in the paddocks around us, and the brown tussock grass they feed on here at high-country station Mount Nicholas strains at its roots under the sudden, violent windstorm.
“But all it takes ... ” – he’s shouting now as we crouch and walk with skis and snowboards across the station’s landing strip – “ ... is the sound of the first helicopter of the season and I’m hooked all over again; this is the best six-seater chairlift on Earth.”
Helicopters have always been the sexiest mode of transportation – no matter how many times you ride in one, it’s as exciting as the first time. There’s something even more James Bond-like about taking a helicopter into some of the planet’s most inaccessible backcountry ski terrain – into more than 8500 square kilometres of New Zealand’s remote Southern Alps, spread across 11 mountain ranges, with more than 600 entirely empty ski runs.
Especially – and this is the real doozy – when you’ve only had to stroll a few easy metres to your helicopter from your own private luxury yacht, temporarily moored at Mount Nicholas’s jetty. Very Bond-like, indeed.
In a region boasting some of the world’s greatest lodges, frequented by the world’s biggest celebrities, the 24-metre Pacific Jemm belongs among them with its gourmet cuisine, fine Italian craftsmanship, jacuzzis, Italian marble, and even its handcrafted possum-skin blankets. But the Pacific Jemm also offers something other luxury lodges never can – the ability to change its clients’ outlook every day. It’s the only way you’ll get to try heli-skiing from a boat anywhere in the southern hemisphere, and it’s one of the only options to do so anywhere in the world.
I’m picked up at Queenstown Airport and driven slowly through midwinter’s peak-hour traffic to Queenstown’s wharf.
As soon as I step aboard the Pacific Jemm I’m transported to another world. My heli-guide shares a beer with me as we discuss ski options for the next five days (there’s as much heli-skiing available as your body can stand), while celebrated local chef John Pickens asks if I’d prefer filet mignon with crayfish gratin for dinner tonight, or slow-braised and crumbed Cardrona Valley lamb shoulder with honey kumara and pinot jus, or pan-seared Aoraki salmon fillet with chorizo and green pea risotto with scampi.
I’m happy to let him choose; I’m basking instead in the view across the mirrored emerald hue of Lake Wakatipu to The Remarkables mountain range on the lake’s south-east perimeter. Travelling aboard the Pacific Jemm is the only way you’ll get to sleep on top of Lake Wakatipu. When we push off from the wharf, the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s most popular ski towns is left far behind.
Skipper Blair Payne intends to find us the most peaceful anchorage available; that turns out to be 20 kilometres from Queenstown at Bob’s Cove. In the dusk I can smell the waft of manuka (tea tree) and native red beech trees that line the shore. In these sheltered waters, it’s entirely possible, even in the height of winter, to sit out on deck after the sun sets as the first stars come out.
At dawn the next day, I wake to birdsong – bellbirds, tui and wood pigeons in the nearby cove. Over breakfast, Walker explains safety. “If you’re in an avalanche, try to get to the side of it,” he says.
“If you can’t, hang on for the ride, bounce yourself around, do the funky chicken, try to rise above it. But remember, protect your face; put your face into the crook of your elbow – you’ll want to breathe if you’re stuck down there below all that snow.”
We motor across the width of Lake Wakatipu to Mount Nicholas, a 150-year-old family-run high-country station home to 30,000 merino sheep and 2200 hereford cattle spread over 40,000 hectares.
Within minutes, we’re loaded aboard the Squirrel A380. We climb above the alps behind Queenstown for a journey to the Minaret Ranges, 40 kilometres north of Wanaka. We land in boot-deep snow, the pilot balances the helicopter’s pads across a sheer ridge, and we bunker down in the white blanket as the helicopter takes off back to the heavens.
Around us, the Southern Alps stretch out in every direction. There’s nothing but silence and the occasional squawk of the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea. There’s not another skier or snowboarder around for 50 kilometres. Below us, perfect untracked powder snow drops down to hidden, uninhabited valleys. We ride across the entire side of a ridge line, leaving our marks in the soft, dry snow.
After five runs, we rest at the bottom of a glacial valley while our guide crafts a lunch table out of fresh snow and we eat a buffet of meats, cheeses, breads and soup.
After lunch we ski another four runs, each different to the one before it, so that we never cross a single track all day.
In the soft light of late afternoon, we fly back out across the mountains, hovering low above Lake Wakatipu and back onto the station’s landing pad. We make it back to the Pacific Jemm in time for cocktails as we skim across the smooth waters of the lake looking for a new anchorage.
Each day unfolds like this; as an avid snowboarder, I can’t resist the opportunity of unlimited heli-skiing – the ultimate prize for any snow enthusiast.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Ski Tourism Marketing Network NZ, Destination Queenstown and Air NZ.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop year round to Queenstown from Sydney and Melbourne with daily connections also available via Auckland and Christchurch. See airnewzealand.com.au.
The Pacific Jemm offers a five-night package with unlimited heli-skiing and meals for $8390 twin share or seven nights for $12,100 twin share (one-night packages are also available for $2450 twin share). See heliskinz.com; pacificjemm.co.nz.