A head for heights

Andrew Taylor takes to the skies over the stunning South Island.

Louisa "Choppy" Patterson is midway through her safety briefing, explaining why the iconic Milford Sound is sometimes a no-go area for her Over the Top fleet of black helicopters, when she takes aim across the ditch.

Air crossing Australia dries out, "particularly because of all that hot Aussie talk", she says, before soaking up moisture from the Tasman Sea and dumping it over New Zealand's Fiordland.

Wet weather means Milford Sound is tantalisingly out of reach today, she says.

But there are plenty of other stunning areas to visit with Choppy, ranging from Otago wine country and the West Coast glaciers of the South Island to off-piste heli-skiing in the Southern Alps or fishing in the waters off Stewart Island.

The chief executive of Over the Top and our pilot today, Choppy does not merely helicopter over the South Island's stunning scenery. "We take people for walks in the rainforest, the beech forests or around the high country stations to meet the farmers," she says. "It's all about immersing yourself in where we're going."

Queenstown Airport is bathed in sunshine as we take off in the six-seater Squirrel helicopter and fly over Lake Wakatipu, which is crowded between towering snowcapped mountains. In the distance, tiny dots zoom down the ski slopes at The Remarkables and Coronet Peak.

Choppy is a humorous and knowledgeable guide, pointing out landmarks as she flies us over jagged razorback mountains and past a creek fed by the "bitter tears" of a woman who waited in vain for her lover to return from war.

It's the landscape made famous by the Lord of the Rings movies and The Hobbit and looks even more impressive from the air.


However, Choppy has a surprise as she lands in a clearing of brown grass next to a river and a grove of beeches. The ground is spongy and damp as we walk through the forest, hugging a tree to work out its age and learning the medicinal properties of the moss and lichen that carpet the forest.

It's also eerily silent until we reach the edge of a high country river, which is teeming with well-fed brown and rainbow trout.

It's Choppy's secret fly-fishing spot – known only to her and the fisherman whose supplies, including a bottle of whisky, are stashed beneath a pile of wood. "They say that time spent fishing is not deducted from man's allotted span," she says, "which means the more you fish, the longer you live."

Later, she lands us on the top of a mountain covered in snow, sets up what she says are "eco" golf balls on a tee and hands us a golf club to whack them with.

After a swing-and-a-miss, I sideswipe the ball across the snow and watch it dribble down the cliffs towards the lake far below.

Indulgent? Probably. Fun? Absolutely.

The writer was a guest of Air New Zealand and Destination Queenstown.



Over the Top operates two Eurocopters, a Squirrel and a Raven helicopter from Queenstown Airport.


Helicopter trips start from $265 for a 30-minute flight and landing on The Remarkables and range from alpine snow and glacier landings to longer journeys to Milford Sound and Fiordland. Over the Top also offers tailored heli-skiing and fishing and wine country trips.


See flynz.co.nz.