Touch the Peaks

Past the Fear

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck

I really can’t explain it.In my old corporate days, I had to fly around North America a lot. Sometimes several times a week. Some were long-haul cross-country flights, but most were fairly local. Often I was in tiny planes where every whiff of wind could be felt.

I had nary a care. I felt no distress or surge of panic, even in the bumpiest of rides. Instead I was often lulled to sleep while taxiing to the runway and spent my waking hours enjoying it as much as I currently adore train travel. With my headphones plugged in, my frequent time in airplanes was me time, and I would let my mind wander while staring at the variety of scenes below.

That has changed in the last few years and I can’t pinpoint why, but every flight has become a cause for anxiety. Turbulence causes me to bury my head in Pete’s shoulder. With my eyes clenched shut, I tell myself that I am just in a car on a rough road, and that helps a bit. So does repeating facts about how safe air travel is. So does the fact that most airlines now allow me to use my headphones during takeoff and landing. (I even have a specific playlist called Flying is Not Scary. It consists of songs that have a strong beat throughout to block out all sounds of the plane. They are also songs that I can’t help but sing along too – sorry, seat mates – but the distraction is necessary.)

That helps, mostly, but not quite enough. And as much as I wish telling myself to “SUCK IT UP, HECK” would implore me to indeed suck it up and get back to enjoying these important parts of our journey, my brain just doesn’t want to work that way.

So in all honesty, when Pete and I were invited on a flight from Wanaka to Milford Sound with Southern Alps Air, I half hoped that for whatever reason, it would be canceled. A six-seater plane over snow-capped peaks and landing in a narrow fiord? That sounded like torture.

But we rose to a sunny day with minor wind. A quick phone call confirmed that the trip was happening, and off we went.

And wouldn’t you know it? In the six-seater with just five of us, I was assigned the seat up front, right next to the pilot.

Dalene in the cockpit

That part turned out to be okay, in fact, maybe even a bit helpful. Our pilot Nick was smooth and deliberate in all of his actions, his voice low and soothing as he relayed tidbits of information about the mountains below. We eased up and over Lake Wanaka, south and west towards Milford Sound.But as we began to cross the jagged peaks that stood between us and the Sound, the plane jostled with the changing wind patterns. Without Pete’s shoulder to dive into, I clenched the door handle until my knuckles blanched white. Only a couple of times did I peer down through the window to see the tire of the plane in relation to the snowy peaks, most of the time I held my gaze on the horizon. Err, when my eyes were open, that is. In the forty-five minute ride, I had my eyelids squeezed tight for about one fifth of that.

What I did see? Unforgettable. The mountains changed from chocolate brown to white to luscious green by the time we reached the coast.

Wheels Up
Over Wanaka
Over the Southern Alps
Southern Alps
Flying to Milford Sound

And had that been the extent of the excursion, that alone would have been enough to earn our claim of best day trip from Wanaka. But we were just getting started.Milford Sound is a fiord that runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea, with rock faces that rise more than 1,200 meters on either side. It holds the title of rainiest inhabited spot in New Zealand which creates lofty waterfalls; several are permanent, many more are temporary. As many people repeated to us throughout our visit – we were extremely lucky to see it under bluebird skies.

Upon landing, we rushed to board a small cruise ship to get a view of the Sound from water level. We careened past kayakers, felt the spray of numerous waterfalls, and stopped to watch lazy seals sunning themselves on giant boulders. Excited screeching from the front of the cruiser sent all of the participants running for it. Playing in the waves and helping guide us into the shore was a pod of Bottlenose dolphins, including a couple of young.

We’ve seen dolphins in the wild before, but never of this size. And for many long minutes, we all hung over the side of the boat, getting wet from their spray created when they came to the surface. Some jumped the wake created in the back, but in the front, they were almost close enough to touch. They played, we squealed, and those moments became a highlight of the journey that was already remarkable.

Mitre Peak
Opening to the Fiord
Bottlenose Dolphins

After the first heart-dropping bumps while flying out of the fiord, the ride was a little smoother, the landing a breeze. Without my Flying is Not Scary playlist to distract, my heart still raced throughout and my knuckles again became stark white. But beyond even the tiniest shadow of doubt, this was one of the most awe-inspiring excursions we’ve ever taken (which is saying a lot).

Clearly it was worth every moment of minute panic. Pushing past my fears was never so aptly rewarded.

Southern Alps Air

And for the full video experience…

how to do it

In case you missed it in the text above – this excursion will go down as one of the best we’ve done in all of our travels, with so much to see in such a short time. Southern Alps Air offers several different excursions and we believe it to be a safe bet that guests will be well taken care of on each one.

Many thanks to Southern Alps Air for hosting us on this Milford Sound journey. All opinions, as always, are our own.

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  1. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook on Amazon is helpful for dealing with stress, anxiety and phobias. It might help you feel more comfortable when flying.

  2. Any chance you’ll share your Flying is Not Scary playlist?! I too, have a quite the anxiety while flying and would love to try your playlist out. Awesome pics too.

    1. Here it is!

      Hey – Pixies
      Walcott – Vampire Weekend
      Half Moon Street – Pete and the Pirates
      Par Avion – FM Belfast
      1995 – Hot Panda
      Actor out of Work – St Vincent
      Texico Bitches – Broken Social Scene
      Frank, AB – The Rural Alberta Advantage
      Frozen – Tegan and Sara

  3. Nope, you didn’t ask for tips. But yep, I’m sharing one:
    Pulled from someone else (A podcast? A TED talk?), I put caked up the idea of thinking about the purpose of the thing that is currently unpleasant. Hating the turbulence on the flight? Thinking about who I’m going to visit. Livid at the DMV? Thinking about the job a local license will allow me to engage.
    It doesn’t work for everything, but sometimes it takes the edge off.
    But going up in a plane for the Heck of it….well, congratulations. And thanks for sharing.

  4. I used to be such a calm flier too! I haven’t had any horrible experiences, but now I’m all white knuckling and jaw clenching in turbulence, or too-loud takeoff or landing. I think it’s a stress management (or lack thereof) thing for me.

  5. Well done Dalene! I completely understand the fear – I have it myself. I also never used to be a nervous flyer but over the past 6 or so years I have developed a phobia, one that I have to medicate with valium. I faced my fears and flew in a 10 seater plane around the tallest mountain in North America and then landed on a glacier (the plane had skis on it!). I was by myself as well which definitely made it more challenging as my fiance usually comforts me. It was a little bit scary but mostly awesome – one of the most awesome things I haev ever done in fact 🙂

  6. Wow, I could have written the first part of this post myself! I had previously slept through entire flights from takeoff to landing, and in 2007 I had a bumpy takeoff out of Denver that threw me into a panic attack. After that, flights were terrifying, and I would spend most of my trip looking up Amtrak tables or car rental rates to find an alternative way of getting back home. It reached a peak when I flat out didn’t show up for a business trip 🙁 I got a script for Xanax,which helps a bit, and I’ve since just learned to roll with it, to the point that I didn’t need Xanax on my last flight. (Huge success!!!) We’ll see how I do flying solo to Asia next Spring…yikes!

    I have a playlist, too, but it’s more soothing music, like Enya – I can’t drown out the plane sounds or I freak out about what I’m missing 😉

    Oddly enough, I love small planes – I was terrified for the first one, but plastered a smile on my face and kept my eyes glued through the viewfinder of my camera. Kind of a “fake it ’til you make it”

    I say as long as it doesn’t interfere with your travel to the point where you stop traveling, then it’s just another unpleasant factor of travel, like TSA pat downs!

  7. I did that flight from Milford to Queenstown in the same front row seat- the views like your gorgeous photos amazing! I have an inner ear/balance issue and need to see the horizon from a window seat when I fly – I can’t close my eyes or I get disoriented. I know that British Airways runs a class to help people with flight anxiety as I had UK colleagues attend- maybe check that out?

  8. Looks gorgeous! I’m glad you got on the plane despite your fears. Andy and I really enjoyed Milford Sound several years ago, such a beautiful place.

    Andy loads up his laptop with cartoon movies to watch when we fly somewhere. The movie is a good distraction, and watching something somewhat light (Pixar stuff) seems to help too. Well, that and the 5mg of valium. I realize those probably wouldn’t have been good choices for this particular flight, but maybe something to think about for future commercial flights.

    1. Once I’m in the air (and can distract myself with movies too!) then I’m usually fine. It’s just the take off and landings that are my nemesis. 🙂

  9. I totally get the fear! I was a good flier for many years and then for no real reason started to become really anxious. It seems to be something that I’ve gotten over now though, except when there’s turbulence. For take offs and landings I tend to close my eyes and practice some yoga breathing and it seems to help my mind stay calm.

    Gorgeous photos, by the way!

    1. Thank you!

      I do a lot of deep breathing as I know that should help my heart rate slow down a bit, but then I usually forget after a few minutes and get back to the panic. (I think I might have ADD too – ha!)

  10. It’s interesting how our fears change as we go through life. I never used to be afraid of water when I was younger but now am, and that only got worse after my first (and last?) scuba diving experience. But wow, what a day you had! The first photo from your boat ride made me say “wow” out loud. So beautiful!

    1. I’m wondering if the fears creep in with age? I’m beginning to believe that.

      Thank you! It was SUCH a gorgeous day. We were so fortunate for the weather and the dolphins, made it very worth it!

  11. Wow, what an experience!! Those gorgeous views would be worth it. I think fears do grow with age. I never used to be nervous on flights but now I get way more panicky and tearful when it is turbulent. I’m glad you faced your fears…it sounds like it was really worth it!

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