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Then along came a helicopter

After days of travel, trampers reaching the Olivine Ice Plateau encountered this helicopter, which they believe flew below the 500ft limit. Photo: Ben Wilson

Even as DOC plans to increase helicopter flights to the Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau from 10 to 80 a day, the intrusion of these loud flying machines in backcountry areas is already upsetting many trampers

Most trampers lace up their boots for the same reason: to get away from it all. No crowds, traffic lights, or bright screens to distract, irritate or pollute the air found on the top of a mountain or tucked away in a cozy hut.

However, there’s one caveat to the hard-earned peace and quiet: while pondering life on a snowy summit, you’re increasingly likely to get buzzed, repeatedly, by a tourist-packed helicopter.

That’s exactly what happened to avid outdoorsman Wayne Clark, who says tramping is his religion.

“Being in the mountains is one of the few times when you might say I’m having a decent spiritual experience,” he says. He was on Mt Luxmore on the Kepler Track in January, when his communion with the mountains was broken, not once, but twice by a low-flying helicopter, which Clark believes was as close as 20m from the mountain’s peak.

“I would liken it to a religious person travelling a long distance to go to a cathedral to worship and someone flies a drone through the cathedral regularly.”

And, it wasn’t just on the peak; Clark said he saw a procession of helicopters that day, all of which flew along the ridgeline of the Kepler Track to Mt Luxmore, in Fiordland National Park.

“Why do they have to fly so close to a track?” he asks. “There’s no shortage of places to go in Fiordland.” Clark says that DOC should do more to regulate the flying patterns of helicopters in the park in order to allow for a more peaceful tramping experience.

Each national park has its own management plan for aircraft activity, with Fiordland National Park dealing with the greatest number of helicopter concessions. Frustrations over the intrusion of helicopters in the backcountry ignited recently when DOC announced it was increasing the daily limit of helicopter landings on the Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau near Mt Tutoko from 10 to 80. Members of the outdoors community criticised DOC for the decision, and Federated Mountain Clubs made an Official Information Act request to better understand the motives behind the decision.

The Fiordland Park Management plan carefully details the specific restrictions for landings in the park. For example, landings along the Kepler Track, considered a ‘High Use Corridor’, are unlimited. However, landings at Luxmore Hut are limited to eight a day. By contrast, landings are prohibited in all wilderness areas, where the objective is, ‘to provide wilderness recreation opportunities by preserving large tracts of wild land in their natural condition, free of human facilities and other impacts.’

While it’s up to DOC to lay out the rules for landing and concessions for aircraft carriers in national parks, the flyover limits are set and regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The nationwide rule for flyover height is 500ft (150m). For a point of reference, Auckland’s Sky Tower is 305m (1000ft) tall.

While it may be tough to judge that distance from the ground, Clark is sure the helicopters he saw on the Kepler were hovering at a distance far less than 500ft.

Clark lodged a formal complaint, both with DOC and CAA. “In a national park the size of Fiordland, I consider it totally inappropriate for a helicopter to continually focus on flying over a major and popular walking track repeatedly, detracting on the experience for trampers,” Clark wrote in his letter. “Is it now part of Great Walks’ experiences to have helicopters buzzing walkers?”

Mike Slater from DOC responded to Clark’s letter by validating how helicopters can “detract from values such as remoteness and natural quiet that some visitors seek.” Yet, he suggested that Clark seek out “remote and wilderness areas”, where he said aircraft activity is more restricted with places set aside “to protect these values for visitors”.

Wayne Clark says his ‘communion’ with the mountains was disrupted by numerous helicopters flying over the Kepler Track. Photo: Wayne Clark

Wayne Clark says his ‘communion’ with the mountains was disrupted by numerous helicopters flying over the Kepler Track. Photo: Wayne Clark

By those standards, you’d expect to find peace and quiet in a place like the Olivine Ice Plateau, part of the Olivine Wilderness Area in Mt Aspiring National Park. However, tramper Sarah Tiong will tell you otherwise.

Tiong tramped into the Olivine Wilderness Area with a group of eight over New Year’s Eve. She was on an 11-day trip backed by the FMC Youth Scholarship Fund, and arrived on the ice plateau around midday on December 31. Tiong’s tranquility was erased when two helicopters flew low into the Forgotten River Col – below 500ft, she says – and hovered around the glacier before setting off along the Forgotten River.

“It was entertaining but not amusing,” Tiong says.

She and her friends decided to take action: using a pack-liner and a marker, they made a sign that read ‘500ft?’ and held it up for the pilots to see. One chopper came near, but zoomed off again after reading the sign.

“Here you’ve walked four days to get to a place that is wilderness designated, just to be stomped on by someone that just flew in. It’s a mockery of efforts,” says Tiong. “I’m guessing DOC can’t be completely ignorant to it. Is there an under-the-table agreement to not talk about it?

“Just a little more transparency about why these helicopter companies can get away with it, would be nice.”

The company Tiong saw on the Olivine that day was Alpine Helicopters, managed by the Alpine Group. The company’s CEO Jonathan Wallis says the Olivine Ice Plateau is a popular area for their scenic flights, and that their pilots fly over it on most fine weather days during the summer, usually en route to Fiordland National Park.

“Tourist demand is increasing and the Olivine Ice Plateau is a spectacular environment,” Wallis says. “Helicopters provide safe aerial access to these areas for the vast majority of the population who otherwise would not be able to witness the splendour.”

Wallis says his company has never had any issue with trampers. “Helicopters share the space with trampers and often provide them with access to more inaccessible areas as well as being used for search and rescue operations from time to time.”

He added that his pilots take a “serious approach” to the 500ft rule, noting: “It is also extremely difficult for those other than the pilot to assess where the helicopter sits spatially in relation to 500ft.”

Mike Richards from the Civil Aviation Authority says if anyone has concerns over a low-flying helicopter, they should contact the CAA. “What action we take after that depends entirely on the information we gather and analyse,” he says.

Richards says the photo of the Alpine Helicopters machine in the Olivine Ice Plateau lacks context, and that there’s insufficient information to determine if any rules were broken. “Context is critical,” he says, adding that details such as stage of flight (take-off or landing) and purpose of flight  (filming and hunting permits allow for low-flying) are important for determining fault.

When the CAA receives a photo or a report of a low-flying aircraft, they launch an investigation that involves contacting the pilot and auditing flight records. Richards says that because it’s extremely difficult to tell flyover height from a photograph, the more important detail is the registration number of the aircraft. That makes it easier for CAA to follow up with a formal inquiry.

“We also need witnesses, and people’s estimates of height,” Richards says. “But, people aren’t very good at that. They think it’s 500 feet when it ends up being 1000 feet.” Wren Bracegirdle says part of the joy of tramping is the absolute peace and quiet of the tracks and huts of the backcountry. At 64, he admits he’s no spring chicken, and it’s no easy feat for him to reach remote areas such as Martins Bay on the Hollyford Track. So when he saw two helicopters buzzing around the estuary and sandspit at the entrance to the bay in April, he was deflated.

“We go tramping to get away from activity, and to enjoy something that’s from the past; fauna and flora that’s the same as it was hundreds and thousands of years ago,” Bracegirdle says.

He and his wife were nearing Martins Bay Hut when they saw two helicopters on the sandspit. Both helicopters took off and landed on the other side of the estuary, just a few hundred meters from the hut, and right next to the Big Bay Track. He noted with irritation the skid marks left in the dirt next to the track after the helicopters flew away.

“It’s not as though I’m speaking as a young guy who can do anything,” says Bracegirdle. “I’m not a young guy and it obviously takes us a bit of effort to get out there. But does that mean that people who don’t have the level of fitness should be able to just fly in there and see the same things?” He says the most irritating part is how disruptive it is to hear and see a helicopter land in what feels like the most remote of settings.

Trampers raised this sign to the helicopters on the Olivine Ice Plateau. Photo: Ben Wilson

Trampers raised this sign to the helicopters on the Olivine Ice Plateau. Photo: Ben Wilson

Bracegirdle sent his concerns to DOC and the CAA, insisting that the area is “pristine backcountry”, and should be free from helicopters flying at low altitude. “It is totally unacceptable to have helicopters landing right beside a walking track and potentially endangering people on the ground who may well be obscured from the pilot’s view,” he argued, adding that the very presence of helicopters – the added noise and disruption – destroys natural behaviour patterns of the local fauna.

“In other words,” he wrote, “we are ashamed as New Zealanders to witness this desecration of New Zealand’s remote spaces in the eyes of foreign tourists, some from countries where flights over remote parks are forbidden.”

Even though DOC enforces the landing restrictions in Fiordland National Park, Te Anau DOC ranger Sinéad Mulhern admits that the rangers can’t be everywhere at once. And, when they receive complaints from park users, it can be hard to follow up. “It’s tricky to identify helicopters,” she says, especially when the only evidence is a tramper’s photo of the offending chopper. Additionally, there are some complicated management zones in the park, one of which is Martins Bay.

Martins Bay is difficult to regulate because DOC shares management of the inlet. The shoreline below the mean high water mark is managed by Environment Southland, and above that mark is DOC’s responsibility.On top of that, there’s also some freehold land which is out of DOC’s jurisdiction.

Mulhern said they’ll be reviewing Bracegirdle’s experience to find out whether the helicopters were operating within their bounds. “We need to establish if the landings are below or above mean high tide which will in turn establish the authority they come under – DOC or Environment Southland,” she explained.

Mulhern says her office gets a few complaints about helicopters each year, and occasionally the companies are taken to court for repeat offences. “They’re usually very cooperative,” she says, except for a few years ago when a Fiordland company was taken to court for multiple offences.

When they receive complaints from the public, DOC typically follows up with ‘aircraft user groups’, which exist to organise and help manage the many aircraft operators.

DOC takes the complaints to the user groups, which then directly contact the pilot in question. DOC’s director of planning and permissions, Marie Long, says using pressure from the industry to address flight standards is effective.

Further, where there is an alleged landing, DOC’s own compliance team will investigate the complaint. “To date this system has worked very well,” she says.

In response to the tramping community’s recent uproar over the noise disturbances caused by helicopters, DOC has decided to embark on an anthropogenic noise study on conservation land. According to Long, they hope the study will provide “a robust and evidence-based tool the department can use for planning decisions around the impacts of anthropogenic noise (which goes beyond aircraft use).”

DOC is currently working with local iwi, FMC and tourism industry leaders to develop the study.

Geoff Spearpoint, tramper co-author of Moir’s North: The Otago Southern Alps, says that as far back as he can recall, trampers have been grumbling about aircraft spoiling their serenity in the wilderness.

While he agrees that overflying is a nuisance for the tramper who just wants to get away from it all, Spearpoint is more concerned about hunters that pay big money to get dropped off in wilderness areas for a hunting holiday.

DOC allows hunters to apply for aerially assisted trophy hunting permits, also referred to as heli-hunting, which involves flying recreational hunters and their guides into the backcountry.

Spearpoint believes that all too often, wealthy tourists are paying to hunt in wilderness areas, which means added aircraft traffic in protected areas.

“Where it gets tricky is when you have people out for recreation, specifically going out to hunt a particular animal, and then end up with rights to fly extensively in wilderness areas and land as they see fit to shoot particular animals,” Spearpoint says. “This is really a way for high-paying tourists to come in and fly into wilderness. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

There’s a lot of other land in and out of national parks and in conservation land where that’s allowed for,” he says. “I think if people are going to somewhere that’s special enough to be designated a wilderness area, it should be left alone by aerial trophy hunters.”

With tourism numbers rising every year, the helicopter issues are likely to amplify. DOC is left with a balancing act of conserving New Zealand’s wilderness and supporting the outdoors community, all the while providing opportunities for the ever-increasing wave of tourists.

But trampers like Wayne Clark insist it should be about preserving the culture of the outdoors. “You go from one extreme of being in the wilderness, and then –  bam! – a helicopter comes up. It just shatters the quiet.”

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