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“Welcome to Siberia” our pilot said with a smile, as he pulled off the throttle, and our plane bumped along the grass runway.
Just moments earlier, there had been no time for talking. Pilot Ryan Cooper was carefully manoeuvring our little yellow plane into a narrow ice-carved valley, doing tight turns just a few hundred metres from the mountains.
This is a very different type of flying than most of us are used to. Our tight descent into Siberia Valley is a “hope we make it” moment for first-timers in a small plane. But for people like Ryan, it’s just another day at the office. His office happens to be one of the most beautiful in New Zealand.
Although, not everyone agrees. Siberia Valley is surrounded by Mt Dreadful, and Mt Difficulty – so whoever named this place clearly wasn’t having a great day. However, as anyone who has been to the real Siberia will attest, the vast snow-covered landscape is nothing short of magnificent in fine weather. And that’s what we’ve struck today, in Aotearoa’s little slice of untouched wilderness.
Our journey started in the tiny village of Makarora, at the head of Lake Wanaka. As we check-in for our flight, a little yellow plane bounces around the grass and comes to a stop next to the road.
The plane – a Cessna 185 Skywagon – is affectionally known around town as ‘Buttercup’ and is specially designed to carry five adults into and out of rough airstrips. It was recently upgraded with some flash avionics, despite being more than 40 years old. But Chief Pilot Paul Cooper tells me it’s ideal for the job, and planes like this one are “like a good axe – they just keep doing the job.”
The trip we’re doing today is known as the “Siberia Experience”. Southern Alps Air will fly us into the valley, before a three-hour walk to a jet boat pickup point, where Wilkin River Jets will take us on a high-speed journey back to civilisation.
As we load into Buttercup, and bump down a grass runway, my cheeks hurt from smiling. This is the kind of trip foreigners come from around the world to experience – and we are so lucky to have it easily accessible in our backyard.
We race down the runway, leaping into the air in no time. We make an almost immediate turn for the Wilkin Valley, carved by a glacier over million of years.
It’s hard to know where to look; we fly over several glaciated valleys framed by snowy peaks, and turn a tight corner to reveal an emerald lake nestled among the mountains. Ryan manoeuvres the plane into a tight, conical-shaped valley surrounded by peaks, telling us he can turn the plane on a dime. As soon as he’s finished speaking, the plane banks steeply.
We track back down the valley, slowly descending toward Siberia. We do one quick flyover of the strip for a check of the wind direction then enter a tight circuit. The last time I flew like this was in Papua New Guinea, and I feel like I’m back there. For our final turn, Ryan needs to position the plane near the treeline, while descending and reducing speed. It’s impressive watching, as he flicks levers and switches as if Buttercup is an extension of his body.
Before my eyes have a chance to adjust to the quickly changing scenery, a little grass airstrip comes into view, and the plane bumps down with several light thuds – what a flight.
On the ground, Ryan walks us to the Wilkin River, which we must cross, and points us in the direction of the walking track that will eventually lead us to the jet boat. With that, he and Buttercup launch back into the sky and leave us, surrounded by mountains and silence, in Siberia.
As we cross the river, my partner Radha warns me the water is cold. She, more than anyone, knows I was born with quite possibly the most sensitive thermostat in the country. The water is straight from the glaciers, and as my feet begin to numb, I have a rush of blood to the voice box and rattle off a few too many four-letter words.
We head to the Department of Conservation’s Siberia Hut, where eager trampers can stay the night gazing at the mountains from every window. It’s about 21 degrees, and Mt Dreadful should really be renamed Mt Magnificent in this weather.
After a quick stop at a waterfall, which we saw from the plane and vowed to visit, we start the “two to three” hour walk to our jet boat pickup point. We begin by gently ascending into a beech forest, before the track becomes steeper, at times walking beside sheer drops into the valley below.
At each turn as we get higher, more snowy peaks and roaring waterfalls come into view – the result of heavy rain a few days ago.
After two and a half hours of walking, we hear the thunder of a jet boat arriving to take us back to our starting point.
Wilkin River Jets is one of the oldest jet boat companies in New Zealand; it was established in the 1960s to help transport deer hunters, and today runs sightseeing trips. We jump aboard the boat, and rocket down the braided river, just centimetres above rocks and beside trees. After a slow walk, the pace is a welcome blast of adrenaline.
We stop often, and our driver Alec Watson turns the boat around, so we can look back at the magnificent mountains we’ve just left. We also go on the hunt for little emerald lagoons that are home to inquisitive trout.
After a 30 minute boat ride, we’re back where we started. It’s hard to believe in the past four hours we’ve flown around mountains, walked along bluffs, and jet boated back to reality. Forget Russia, Aotearoa’s slice of Siberia is all you need.