The Chopper Boys of Milford Sound

It used to be that the only way to access the Fiordland region of New Zealand’s South Island was by boat on the Tasman Sea, or on foot through the Southern Alps. And the latter required about four days and a few pack mules. Things got a bit more exciting in the late 60’s and 70’s in the era of the “Chopper Boys” – deer hunters in the Fiordland forests who would hang out of helicopters with little to no regard for injury, death, or wrecking their vehicles.

Helis are still the primary way to get where we’re going, but I think the pilots these days are following some rules and regs.

Our drive through the Otago region is without a doubt one of the most scenic routes on the island. The highway hugs the coast of Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables mountains behind them, serving up views so impressive that we just have to attempt capturing it, even through a filthy window, knowing the photos won’t do it justice. But we have to try, right?

Since we’re trying to get in some backcountry time, Robin and Forrest could use some coffees and a bite to eat. We find Mrs. Woolly’s General Store, which isn’t open yet. So, we wait.

Image: Forrest, Heath, and Glen packed like sardines aboard the heli.

With brekkie down the hatch we’re heli-bound once again. The airstrip is so unassuming we almost miss it. The heli waiting there, blades spinning, was the only clue, albeit a rather clear one; otherwise we might have blown right by.

Our pilot Russ is reconfiguring the schedule. Between the changing weather and our now-regrettable caffeine mission, Russ tells me we missed our window to make the heli stop in the backcountry. This is tough news to take.

I’m watching Forrest, Robin, Heath, and Jeff work quickly to unload our over-packed van, each of them running back and forth with as much gear as they can carry while assuming the stoop-and-sprint style of rule-abiding passengers who don’t want their heads lopped off by a spinning propeller blade.

But there’s too much gear. We have to make cuts.

We’re running. We’re ducking. We’re shouting. We’re strategizing.

Russ eyeballs the weight of each item and loads it on while we make decisions.

“Lose the snowboards and boots!” we agree. (A knife in the heart).

“Leave that box of food!”  Russ shouts. (The next crew out can bring it).

“Load up the small boards!” Heath decides. (Surf report says waves are small and getting worse.)

Wild-eyed, Jeff says, “it’s like your house is on fire, so what are you going to bring?” as he’s pulling out a few pieces of gear from his bag to leave in the van.

Heath Joske makes a tough call.

Somehow all six of us are now sardined in the heli and Russ has us off the ground and above the river in a split-second. I shove a duffel under my chin to catch a view out the window. Hovering among the mountains, just above the snow then high above deep glacial valleys, it’s otherworldly.

These Southern Alps are Russ’ playground. He dips below suspended clouds, slips between peaks, deftly careens through passes. Glancing at the control panel I confirm what my inner ear tells me – we are not upright. It seems we didn’t leave the urgency on the airstrip. I’m beginning to think it’s possible Russ is a descendant of the original Chopper Boys, flying like one of us is about to jump out and tackle a buck on the ground below.

We’re cruising low, really low, above the snow, everything around us white. The nose pulls up dramatically but still all we see is the mountain like a wall in front of us. Then, the ridgeline. My stomach prepares to leap, anticipating the eeriness of the ground disappearing out from underneath us.

Clearing the ridge, instead we dive, free falling into a massive gorge. Even in a chopper full of adventure-chasing phenoms, Russ being a beast of a pilot gives us a heart-stopper. With our stomachs lodged firmly in our throats, we’re ekeing out cheers, seeking life-affirming high-fives.

“This heli is fanging through the mountains, bending blades trying to make up for lost minutes,” Heath says to me.

The view opens up and we’re flying over a temperate rain forest and see a big bay. We get our first shot of the ocean and it is pumping. Giant swells, waves as far as you can see. We’re still reeling from Russ’ wild ride, and now this. Joske and I are frothing. Forrest and Robin are wide-eyed.

The heli takes a wide left turn to find its landing spot on the edge of the jungle. We unload, again running, shouting, stooping, lugging. But this time the urgency is all ours to get out into the water.

Image: Jessi Markowitz, Robin Van Gyn, and Glen Casey keep low and run gear on the edge of the jungle.

Our host, Warrick, unloads our gear from his tractor and gives us a quick tour of the grounds – which also happen to be where he grew up and still calls home.

“Tents are here for you boys,” he says looking at Jeff, Heath, Forrest, and me. Glad we didn’t ditch our sleeping bags during the great gear purge back at the airstrip.

“Up this way is the hut, and over just through the tall grass there is the river that runs to the ocean. You can drink straight from it.” explains Warrick, gesturing as he walks us to the main abode. “We don’t have too much to worry about here, but rule number one is ‘don’t get bit by the sandflies’” he says, unaware that he’s reflexively squinting and swatting. Unfortunately, we broke that rule the very minute we stepped off the heli.

Seeing Warrick beaming with pride, I realize we must look like young’uns at a fun park. After all, this place is a magical adventure wonderland. I’d already spotted an outboard motorboat, a jet ski, a barn full of wet suits, surf boards leaning against the wall, a canoe, rafts, an enormous barrel that we’re told is a fire-heated hot tub, and a collection of antlers casually lining the hut’s exterior that tell me there’s some good hunting to be had here.

“Can I offer you some venison leg? Maybe make you some coffee? Stove’s on” he says. Stove sure is on, fully ablaze, logs burning. We take him up on the venison but don’t linger too long – we made this mistake earlier and our collective thoughts are on the swell we saw from above.

Fresh off the heli, the gang has a long walk to the beach.

It’s a trek to the water through dense, prehistoric-looking eight- or nine-foot-tall grasses which open up into expansive sand flats. Until we see the spray on the horizon, it’s unclear if we are, in fact, ocean-bound. The boulder-strewn break is a sight for sore eyes. We aren’t hurting for incredible scenery, but we are ready to surf.

At this point, I’m losing count of how many absolutely epic and categorically unique landscapes we’ve encountered in the past couple hours alone. Just yesterday we were enjoying the best powder day of the year, oblivious to sandflies. And here we are now, in what seems to be a wholly different dimension, looking out at a bay with raw and churning surf that actually looks to be double overhead, maybe more.

“Damn, I can’t help but think I should have brought a bigger board” says Forrest sizing up the swell from a rocky vantage point. Indeed, we’re under-gunned for this kind of churn. Another casualty of the gear purge. I know Forrest and Robin are plenty capable of handling this kind of churn, but it’s intimidating nonetheless.

There’s a lot of energy in that swell, and Jurassic Rock feels a little too close. But we, the newly appointed Chopper Boys of the sound, didn’t come here just to watch. Heath paddles out first. Forrest and Robin follow with me. And I have to think this moment’s a bit of payback for ol’ Jozza from the other day on the mountain.


Back on the beach, Warrick’s got venison stew warming for us in a cast-iron pot over a fire. We’re chilled from the water. The stew warms our bones. Everything is unbelievable.

“You feel really alive coming in from a session like that,” says Heath, “like you escaped getting smacked.” We’re all feeling that too – an electricity among us. Our small but mighty gang of heli-riding wave chasers gathers around the stew, sitting on rocks and logs and relishing that very aliveness that I think would make the original Chopper Boys quite proud.

Thanks to Warrick Mitchell of Awarua Guides for our surf and stay in Fiordland.