He Sheared Enough Sheep To Pilot a Heli

P1580637 709168Dion Edgar told us that it costs about $100,000 to complete training to become a helicopter pilot. He spent many years saving up money from shearing sheep at $3.00 each in the windy Falklands, Scotland and New Zealand. “You can do 300 or more sheep per day,” he said, “it adds up.”

In front of us was a shiny red Eurocopter chopper that seated five plus the pilot. We were about to set off in a ferocious windstorm to fly up to Heaphy Track to hike one of most beautiful hiking trails ever created.

Watching the gusts flatten Dion’s windbreaker as he readied the craft out on the landing pad, I admit, I was a bit nervous. One of our guides, Amanda, nudged me as we were just about to take off, needling me for my trepidation…apparently these gusts are no match for our turbocharged European designed, eight-year old heli, one of a fleet of 40 owned by HeliPro., a pilot owned company based in Wellington.P1580734 770257

We went straight up, and then zoomed out over the Prince Charlotte sound toward the distant snow capped peaks. Below us we could see large swaths of clear-cut mountains, and next to them the smaller trees which had been planted in their place.

Even much of the tall tree forests were uniform in height, an indication they’d been planted in rows, to be harvested in 15-20 years.

We cruised at about 50 mph at 2000 feet, then climbed up to 6500 feet when we hit the mountains, the green tops giving way to more jagged peaks, which our guide Ryan said were called the Dragon’s Teeth. Over there, he pointed, was where a few of Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed. We cruised with few clouds and perfect visibility below, yellow markings of roads crossed some of the logged mountainsides, and then there were none.

After about 20 minutes we popped down next to a sturdy structure with a tin roof, called Perry Saddle Hut. Inside are bunks, tables, a stove and faucet, but no trash cans. Everything that comes in is coming out with you. Twenty-four hikers can stay here for the night.

These huts were built in the days when hunters sought out white tailed deer to try and capture their tails. Then they realized they were a valuable meat they could sell, and intrepid Kiwis used to build crude landing P1580764 774118strips on these jagged mountains to pile carcasses on fixed wing aircraft and bring them to market. The pursuit came to a crescendo when the price of a breeding mare reached $2000, and helicopters were used to swoop down and try and net them live to be taken to a breeding farm. It was big money, but it was before Dion’s flying days.

After an 8 kilometer hike through a leafy canopy, and then out into the most ferocious wind I’ve ever experienced, we made it to a second hut, and while we hummed the MASH theme song, Dion again appeared over the horizon to swoop down and bring us back to Nelson. Behind us a menacing plume of smoke was billowing out from a faraway forest…soon Dion would be heading that way to dump water on the fire from this same chopper.