Queenstown’s aluminum roofs shrink to bread boxes, then postcards, as we gain height; at 4,500 feet, it’s a crumb-sized civilization clinging to Lake Wakatipu’s eastern shore.
Mountains hedge in these neighborhoods from the uninhabited land beyond, and I cannot decide if I’m terrified of what I see (always have been a nervous flier) or enraptured (only a handful of eyes have witnessed this view today).
For some reason, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s classic quote, “Not all who wander are lost.”
There are five helicopter companies in town, each one offering some variation of a Lord of The Rings tour and winging visitors over the improbably real landscapes used for filming.
But we are ignoring his wisdom and trying to fall off the map today.
It’s my thirtieth birthday present: an unspecified length of afternoon at an undisclosed location, accessible only by rotor blade.
And even though locals moan about Queenstown’s busy roundabouts, and visitors complain about it’s over-crowded sidewalks, all that human bustle disappears if you venture just a few miles from town.
One moment, my hands clench the leather seat cushion as Over The Top’s black chopper zooms illogically upward. Seconds later, confident fingers click the camera as Cecil Peak’s rocky stubble passes beneath us.
It’s an awkward scramble out of the helicopter. Though my shoulders are far from the circling blades, their impatient wind tickles my neck and turns me into a hunchback.
“See you in a few hours,” the pilot shouts over the engine and waves goodbye.
As the black underbelly flies off like some unnatural insect, we become strangers planted on foreign soil. Our only form of communication is a walkie talkie left behind.
Is this what abandonment felt like to the country’s original settlers?
But Hadyn has packed a picnic lunch with all the comforts of our Kiwi home: Just Juice bubbles, brie and smoked chicken, water crackers and hummus, cider and Donovan’s feijoa chocolate.
Mid-February means late afternoon shivers, but this high up, I have to roll back the sleeves of my sweater. Forever aware of the Southern Hemisphere’s fickle ozone, we build a base camp with golfing umbrella and blanket.
The beverages are stowed among pebbles, in water so clear it is almost imperceptible. My eyes casually search for the forgotten debris of other visitors, but all we find is a rusty can, many meters away. Again, I feel that we are the first explorers to leave footprints on this part of the mountain.
“How many people do you think have been here?” I wonder aloud. My boyfriend is not sure. Could I count them on one hand? “Possibly,” he assumes.
Had the helicopter remained on the peak, our pilot would have silenced the machine – its hum quickly replaced by wind through bushes, the occasional cry of a hungry gull, the distant splash of a small mountain waterfall.
Even our daughter, typically a chatterbox, would rather gnaw on the heli earphones than add her squawking to the near-silence.
She’s been amazing thus far, another unexpected birthday gift. “How many babies have been in helicopters?” I ask my boyfriend. Again, he knows no definite numbers, but we’re both sure the total would be low.
It’s too bad she won’t remember this special location, or that I had to change her diaper on one of Wakatipu’s most recognized landmarks.
The peak is named after a son of William Rees, Welsh pioneer and Queenstown founder. But the little lake we’ve used as a fridge has no title. None of these humps and outcroppings, as far as we know, appear on any atlas.
I love that. To be here with my family, in a secret square of my favorite country, has created a new standard of birthday surprise. Where will we go for my 31st? What untrod ground will we discover?
The very very best part of the celebration is another surprise: the realization that, though we’ve moved to Queenstown for the indefinite future, we have by no means exhausted our list of things ‘to-do’. Every good pioneer pushes into new environments, especially when doubts linger.
Over The Top helicopters – famous for their excursions to the world’s highest golf hole – offers a range of regional scenic flights, as well as bespoke tours for special interests and events. Flights run year-round; visit their website for more information on all the places you can get lost in New Zealand.
Some photos courtesy of Hadyn Fitzpatrick.