Traveler’s Digest toured the greater pacific in 2002 and, while in New Zealand, was fortunate to visit the area known as Tongariro. This particular region of New Zealand has been the inspiration of several great books. Your brain doesn’t quite know how to absorb this awesome country with so many massive contrasts. There is a giant active volcano known as Mt. Ruapehu fairly in the middle of the region and the landscape around the volcano is lunar and covered with jagged rocks. If I wanted to film a movie about the planet Mars, this is where I would do it. It is absolutely overwhelming. In the middle of this barren, but scenic land, we were scheduled to stay in a mountain lodge. It was definitely not your typical small town hotel in the middle of nowhere, this lodge is the gateway to this awesome volcano and to world class hiking adventures. Another thing that made this hotel not a typical one found in any town…there is no town and that makes it even more adventurous. The one and only Skotel Alpine Lodge is the most favored choice, when in this area. As we drove through this land, I felt in awe, but was oddly impressed at this rugged and unreal terrain at the same time. We finally arrived at the Lodge after delaying for a hundred photo opportunities. The lodge sat on top of a hill just below the area leading up to the base of the volcano. parking our rented Toyota, we strolled into the lounge and was greeted by the Manager, Wayne Sheppard. A nice, friendly and open man that anyone would feel at ease with. We checked and stowed our bags in our rooms. Then we were off to explore the lodge. It was built like a hunting lodge, one you might see in the Alaskan wilderness. Large open area’s with a great restaurant, bar and game room, which had billiards and table tennis. In the lounge there was a massive fireplace where the guests gathered to chat about their daily hikes up the volcano and to slowly thaw away the chill of the day. We had arrived in June, which was winter here, and the cold artic wind and desolate appearance only added to the area’s mystique. Just another element in creating a good adventure.
Our rooms were rustic, well equipped and very comfortable. There was a even a laundry room down the hall. Such a room can be very important to a group of adventurous and soiled travelers. In our behalf, I will say that it’s hard to be concerned about cleaning your clothes when you’re having this much fun. The lodge was at the end of the only road around for miles and is listed as the highest lodge in New Zealand. The well built lodge stood its ground against the cold, crisp, yet invigorating air that sweep down from the volcano and offered the only sanctuary for miles.
While we were there we were informed of a air tour that would fly us over the mountainous area and the volcano itself, giving us a unique filming advantage. The manager, Wayne, called and made the arrangements for the next day. I have been involved in thousands of wild adventures, but like a kid, I always get excited. The rest of the day, we walked and hiked the hills and managed to get to the volcano’s summit, but it would not compare with what we were to experience the next day.
We were up and ready by early morning for this truly remarkable opportunity and luckily we were fitted with large jackets and gloves, provided by the Skotel Lodge. I thought it was slightly strange to be outfitted in such heavy jackets. Little did we realize just how glad we would be to have these gloves and heavy jackets as we flew over the volcano. And little did we know just beautiful it would be when we captured its vibrant blue and solidly frozen lake resting undisturbed for decades right in the center.
We loaded our camera’s and headed down the deserted road for about 15 minutes. Following our given directions, we approached the area where the airport was supposed to be, but couldn’t find it. I suppose we were looking for a typical airport, small of course, but recognizable, surely. We found it eventually…it was nothing more than a small house with a couple of sheds. This surely couldn’t be the air tour company? But it did have a sign that described it clearly as Mountain Air Scenic Flights. This should be interesting, I thought! As we parked, I was actually thrilled that this was a small operation. You receive much better service from people that run their own small businesses.
After a moment greetings and some friendly handshakes we were lead out to the field next to the house. The pilot was pushing the small Cessna aircraft out from the shed and onto the runway. Runway? It was a grass pasture! But, I loved it! This was going to be one of those adventures that wasn’t designed by some profit driven and impersonal corporation that really don’t show any appreciation to its customers. As we loaded into the plane, I was told to take the back seat, since I was to do the actual filming. My two staff members piled into the middle seat, directly behind the pilot. Everything seemed fine, but there was one thing missing…..THE DOOR! I am a game person, up for anything, but “no door.” I am quite aware of the suction of rushing air going by the exterior of a plane…even a small plane. The pilot must of read my face and laughing slightly, he stated, “We thought that you might want an unobstructed view, so we took off the door. Are you OK with that?” No problem, was my macho reply. Hell’s…bell’s….He strapped me in and off we went.
As we gained altitude the wind became biting and vicious. But no, I wouldn’t of changed places with the President of the USA, not that any sane person would?.. TO ME, THIS WAS LIVING! I loaded my camera’s, starting filming and snapping photo’s of the most inspiring terrain in the world. I had one foot resting on the wheel support bar, outside of the cabin, and the wind was ripping my grip severely. I had to remain very stolid and vigilant in order to maintain my position. It wasn’t comfortable or easy, but it beats falling into a volcano from 5000 feet.
These people are serious professionals that want you to experience the real thrill of flying over a volcano. I took more film than I shot while in the Grand Canyon. Now don’t get me wrong…I love the Canyon…But this was so different, so unexpected. After about forty minutes and several passes over the volcano and its mountainous neighbors, we slowly started to drift with the wind back toward the field. But before we did, I spotted, through the sudden cloud break, the most beautiful lake on top of this, ancient volcano. The water was unnaturally blue mixed with turquoise and surrounded with scarlet white snow. Just sitting there in the misty shadows of the clouds, alone, it was mystically inviting and immediately flooded you with unforgettable images. The pilot made a few more fly overs and I was proud to have been there on that cold day in June, winter in this part of the world, and being able to witness one of natures awesome and truly overwhelming creations. On this day and in this inspiring place, I surely captured one of life’s greatest moments. Life is wonderful and so rewarding when you’re not timid in seeking its endless treasures.
Traveler’s Digest toured this glorious National Park in June 2002. We are proud to have had the privilege of staying with Wayne Sheppard at the Skotel Lodge and to have made lifelong memories in the amazing fly over of Mt. Ruapehu, provided by the professionals of Mountain Air. An extremely memorable adventure. A definite “MUST DO” in New Zealand.
We enjoyed ourselves immensely and give the Skotel Lodge our best recommendation. If you are looking for adventure, New Zealand in its entirety is the place and while touring this magical land, check out the volcano and remember, Skotel provides the atmosphere, the location, the lodging, good food, tours, guides and even your hiking gear. To make your visit an even greater experience and capture memories that will last forever, be sure to fly with Mountain Air Scenic Flights. If you ask…I’m sure they will take the door off….if you dare?
Tell them Mike Smith and the crew of Traveler’s Digest say hello and that we will be back! Mention our name and they will treat you with a more entailed flight and please…..leave the door on!