Learning to Fly: New Zealand 2011

New Zealand, August 2003…

Overlooking the vines of Mudbrick Vineyard on Waiheke Island, out to the Hauraki Gulf, I started crying. It wasn’t like I wanted to be crying…it was a completely involuntary response to my surroundings. I couldn’t believe it…I was just in absolute awe. Look where I was, where I was standing. I had never seen anything so beautiful, the country, the people, the moment in time.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to travel. When I was a little girl, my Grandmother used to travel periodically and would bring me home little souvenirs. I still remember most of them…but one always stood out in my mind. It was a doll…a native mom, wearing a grass skirt, a necklace that looked like a crazy tiki and her face was painted with swirl designs…it was the coolest thing as a little girl. She seemed so exotic, like she was from a far away world. I was too young to know that she was a Maori doll from New Zealand.

Central Otago Wine Country

I’ve always had the bug, but never had the money, the time, or even really knew where or how to travel, when I was younger. But, I suppose most Americans don’t, we are a nation of non-travelers. There never seems to be the right time or enough money. Work gets in the way. Life ticks by…

Eight years and 17 countries later…Ray and I planned a trip with Ed and Jenny for their 20th anniversary to New Zealand. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about going back. I mean, the first time I was there, I was a rookie traveler, it was my first country (outside of Mexico), so of course it was amazing to finally be living out my lifelong dream to travel. Would it be as magical as I remembered it being? That moment on Waiheke Island has forever changed me. It’s like chasing the dragon…would I ever get that feeling again? Would it be as good as the last time?

Arriving in Auckland on Saturday, we spent the next four days exploring, eating and attempting to try just about every producer and variety of wine in New Zealand. I’m pretty sure the GDP of New Zealand took a dramatic plunge after the four of us left it’s soil.

On Sunday we met up with an old BASE jumping friend of Ray’s and his friend. From Piha Beach on the rugged West Coast to the calm beaches of the East Coast and stops in between…including a few vineyards (I told you, didn’t I?). It was an awesome day that was capped off by a BBQ at their house with some of their friends. As much as I love to travel, at heart, I am a homebody. There is nothing like that feeling of a little piece of familiar, of home, when you are thousands of miles away. I don’t know how we can ever repay their hospitality.

Our time in Auckland was over way too soon and we moved on to the South Island…and Ray’s Disneyland, Queenstown. A part of the world so serenely beautiful, amidst just about any type of adrenaline activity you can imagine.

Since coming to NZ all those years ago, I have wanted to go to Milford Sound…it was a bucket list item for me (as was The French Laundry). I’m not even exactly sure why, it just always struck a chord with me. We decided to book a private helicopter tour of the Sound and do it up right.

Weather patterns in Milford Sound are not exactly condusive to flying a heli. They get over 150 days of rain per year, with another 50 days of weather that is just too poor to fly in. It was a roll of the dice if we were going to get to go or not. Apparently the weather God’s were on our side that day, despite all predictions of declining weather…it was a gorgeous, very fly-able day.

The next four hours of my life were a dream sequence of the most perfect moments in time strung together like a beautifully edited movie. I’m still pinching myself.

Our flight began with views of the mountains surrounding Queenstown…one of the ranges is called the Remarkables, and they don’t call them that for nothing. We had views that were like a watercolor painting…the bluest blue sky; big, white, puffy clouds; the greenest of green grass; fire yellow and orange leaves on the trees.

Flying incredibly close proximity through the mountains, the visuals were sick…I felt like I was in an IMAX movie. Soaring close to mountaintops and ledges…coming over the other side to a broad expanse of nothing. From glaciers to mountains to rainforests, finally to the coast of the Tasman Sea with water so unbelievably blue. We landed on a stretch of beach.

Piha Beach, North Island

I’m 100% positive that I could use every adjective in the English language and still never convey to you how awesome of an experience it was. How many people had laid eyes on that beach, let alone walk along it or land there with a helicopter? Probably not many…

We meandered along the beach, picking rocks that had been tumbled by the ocean, so smooth and perfectly round. Walked through the lush rainforest, laughing at Coolio the chicken (shout out to Local Three for letting us take their mascot on his first of, hopefully many, fantastic voyages.). By the way, anybody else surprised that there are rainforests in fiordland? Yea, I was too…

We took off, flying over a fur seal colony that was happily playing and swimming in the water, then finally reached the mouth of Milford Sound. Flying into it much the same way that Captain Cook sailed into it all those centuries ago, although I have to argue we had much more spectacular visuals , not to mention a way cooler ride.

Entering the Sound, it was like somebody opened the curtain to the most awe-inspiring movie backdrop. Enormous, sheer cliffs jutting out of the perfect, crystal clear sea. Waterfalls three times larger than Niagra Falls were dwarfed by the gigantic fiords. Simply put, it was perfection.

A pod of dolphins were jumping near the wake of a ship, we circled low, flying over them to get a better view…and there it was…that feeling. That feeling I had way back in 2003, that feeling I write about so often when I write about our travels. I was so thankful for my big sunglasses. I couldn’t dream up anything more absolutely amazing and perfect and magical than that moment in time.

That is, until, the take off after our next landing. After zooming around the dolphins and past the waterfalls, we stopped for a quick nature walk in Milford Sound, where I tied a knot in a baby Lancewood tree. Choppy explained to us that these trees grow super straight, and the story is that if you tie a knot it a tree when it is newly sprouting and you are young, in 50 years, it will be the perfect height for your walking cane. Well, let’s just hope I don’t have to wait 50 years to go back…I will probably be beyond the point of a walking cane. At any rate, I do have the GPS coordinates on it…just in case, you can’t count on insurance these days after all.

Back to our take off…

Our pilot, “Choppy” is a legend, not only in Queenstown, but through the whole of New Zealand. She is the only female helicopter pilot in New Zealand and works with the Department of Conservation on eco projects, donating her heli time to ensure that the area remains pristine. She knows her stuff, knows the best spots and knows how to show her clients a fantastic experience. She was pretty much done telling us about the area by the time we took off from Milford…words can really only say so much, sometimes you have to let the place do the talking. So she asked us, “How about some music? Pink Floyd okay?”

Was it ever.

Close your eyes, well, after you read this…and imagine your Eden, your most pristine, ideal place, the one place in the world you have always wanted to see. A place before this moment in time you thought could only be created in your mind’s eye. Time slows. A song plays as if it was orchestrated for this exact moment. It’s perfect.

It’s like that…but about a million times more incredible.

Learning to Fly by Pink Floyd played as we took off. I was floating in sheer and utter contentment. I never though, in my wildest dreams, that they day could have gotten any better than it already was. I’ll never forget the visuals, that moment, that feeling. There’s no sensation to compare with this…suspended animation, a state of bliss.

Sorry, dolphins, the dragon has been chased and caught…THIS was THE moment; this was that incredible feeling that I can’t explain to you. That feeling that changes everything. We all fell silent. There were no words. We all looked out our respective windows, breathed and took it all in. Once again I was incredibly grateful for my big sunglasses that covered up the tears that came involuntarily.

Choppy set the heli down at her favorite fishing spot so we could have a picnic of cheese and wine…you know, just to push the day completely over the top.

I’m convinced that Mother Nature created this spot for exactly this purpose. An enchanted forest, green beyond any green that you have seen before, a crystal clear blue stream running through it…we just stood around, stared and said nothing but “wow” for quite a few minutes.

And as quickly as it began, it was over.

I’m now on the flight going home, my mind has turned to what is waiting for me when we get back. Two businesses, a move that is now happening at light speed…way faster than we ever imagined it would. We were distracted on this trip, spent too much time checking email, too much time thinking that the timing of this trip wasn’t the greatest given what was going on. We had so much to do at home.

But, maybe it was the perfect time after all? Think of all those years I wished that I could travel and never could, never was able to. Those years taught me that you need to travel, to do the things that you WANT to do when you can. You need to experience life outside of the day-to-day grind before the moment slips by and the time gets away from you. Life comes at you quickly and there’s no slowing it down.

Entering Milford Sound

Home, work, our move…it would all be waiting for us. For those magical hours in Milford Sound, none of that stuff mattered, none of it was even a passing thought, none of it even existed at that point in time. My reality was experiencing living, feeling incredibly alive, and being very much in the moment. And that…THAT is what travel is about to me…taking my perceived reality, spinning it upside down, throwing it in the backseat and reminding me that there are bigger, better, greater, more beautiful places out there. That there is more living to do…that all the hard work we do is for THIS. For that feeling, for laughs and shared moments with old friends and new, for those unforgettable experiences that will forever change and define us.

I’ll never know how I got so lucky…but I feel very fortunate that I did.

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