Tour Operator Review: Mountain Air and Tongariro National Park


After touring other beautiful areas of this phenomenal country, we decided to drive south to New Zealand Tongariro National Park in June 2002. This region of the north island is alive with massive volcano’s and raw terrain that is absolutely inspiring. While we were here, we stayed at New Zealand’s highest lodge, The Skotel. There is no other country on Earth that offers the bizarre landscape of New Zealand and there is only one hotel of choice while exploring this awesome national park. Our goal was to film the volcano and we needed to get as close to it as possible. After asking the manger at the hotel, we soon learned of a local air tour company that would fly us over the actual volcano itself, Mt. Ruapehu. Skotel’s manager, called and made the arrangements for us and we were scheduled to fly the next day. I have been involved in thousands of wild adventures and this one was going to be great.

The next day, we were provided with large jackets and gloves by the Skotel Lodge. We then headed down the deserted road for about 10 kilometers. We approached the area where the airport was supposed to be and grew confused….there was no airport of any kind. The only existing building in the entire area was a small house. I suppose we were looking for what we conceived as a typical airport, small of course, but recognizable, surely. Still a little bewildered, we stopped at the small house with some sheds to the rear. On the front porch was a small sign that read…Mountain Air Scenic Flights. Must be the right place, but wheres the planes? If this was the place, it was one of the smallest air tour business I had ever seen. As we parked, I realized, that just maybe they would offer more personal service, since they were so small. We shall see!

As we walked into their front office, we were greeted by a lady and since we had made arrangements for the tour, introduced herself and we were then lead out to the field. The pilot was pushing a small Cessna aircraft from one of the sheds and onto the runway. Runway? It was a pasture! But I loved it! This was going to be a truly exciting experience, not orchestrated by some large company driven solely by profit. 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 have pretty much always been up for anything, but “no door?” realizing that it was for me to be able to get unobstructed footage for my filming, I remarked in my heaviest macho voice…”good for me…lets do it!” He strapped me in and off we went.

As we gained altitude the wind became biting and vicious. But the only real sensation I was feeling was the rush of pure adrenaline going through my veins. THIS WAS LIVING! I loaded my camera’s, starting filming and snapping photo’s of everything below me. I was hanging from the plane with nothing but a small strap, anchored to the seat and with my right foot precariously resting on the wheel support bar, I hung on to my cameras and tried to steady my hands for the filming. The painful position was awkward and straining and it sure as hell wasn’t easy, but it beat falling into a volcano from 5000 feet. These dangerous adventures are a big part of my job and I truly love every moment.

The pilot and the staff at the Mountain Air are serious professionals and want you to experience the ultimate thrill of flying over a volcano. I was shooting about forty photos a minute and was trying to manage even more, but my hands were freezing. The images were gray due to the thick clouds, but I keep shooting. The whole experience was thrilling and I wanted to try and get some photos, even if not perfect. After several passes over the volcano and its neighboring peaks, the clouds were obstructing most of my shots, so we slowly started to flow with the wind back toward the field. As we started our turn, I spotted, through the sudden cloud break, a vision of turquoise and brilliant blue. It appeared to be a beautiful lake sitting square in the middle of this ancient volcano. The water was unnaturally bright with violet highlights and the entire peak was bathed in scarlet white snow. The opening cloud cover seemed to invite us in for a closer look. The pilot banked in low and penetrating the remaining cloud bank we were witnessed to an impressive sight. The volcano with its water filled cone was sitting in the misty shadows of the clouds, alone, but retaining its mystical deity without compromise. The pilot made a few more fly overs and I was proud to have been there on that cold day in June, which is winter in this part of the world. We had been treated to a rare sight and looked straight down into the mouth of unparalled forces and natures overwhelming beauty.

This was a good day as I did manage to fulfill another one of my dreams. I have done a lot of wild and crazy things in my life, including jumping on top of a fast moving train from a bridge in Vancouver Canada, but this was different, this experience was constant and so unexpected.

Traveler’s Digest toured this glorious National Park in June 2002 for three days and are honored to have made friends at The Skotel Lodge and with the professionals of the Mountain Air Scenic Flights. If you want to experience some of life’s soul inspiring adventures, you will have to come to New Zealand, the land I call, “Heaven with Rainbows” and while there, don’t miss out on the flight over Mt. Ruapehu. It is awesome and the great people of Mountain Air Scenic Tours will get you there and back, safely. They have our vote of confidence. Life’s greatest adventures can be found anywhere and I would say…New Zealand is a good choice to help fulfill some of your adventures. Visit new Zealand and wander on down to Mt. Ruapehu National Park and take the flight of a lifetime…..

Tell them Mike Smith and the crew of Traveler’s Digest said hello and unless you’re a serious daredevil…ask them to keep the plane’s door on!

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The plane and professional crew of Mountain Air.

The plane and professional crew of Mountain Air.

Photo credits: Mountain Air


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Michael Smith was the touring editor for Traveler’s Digest. His journeys took him across the world and on a series of unforgettable adventures!