The man on the left is Andrei Kamenev, one of Russia’s most acclaimed photographers and a long-term National Geographic Russia professional. The man on the right is Richard “Hannibal” Hayes, a few days before he was knighted. Sir Richard is probably New Zealand’s most legendary helicopter pilot – 30,000 flying hours and an embarrassingly long list of bravery awards. The man holding the iphone is Alexander Grek, Chief Editor of National Geographic Russia. And I’m Jean-Michel Jefferson – I took the photo and created this company. We do New Zealand like no one else.
This was Day 5 of an eleven-day trip we ran for National Geographic Russia in May/June 2014. We’d been dodging the weather for a few days and had brought Fiordland forward to take advantage of a 24-hour window of clear weather. Richard Hayes had done us the honour of turning up personally with his favourite machine, a B3 used by Southern Lakes Helicopters in Antarctica, and then taking us to his old ship berthed in the most remote, most beautiful, most mysterious and most historic Sound of them all – Dusky Sound. Technically, his ship is berthed in Breaksea where we transferred to MV Pembroke (the endless supply of fresh crayfish and superb hosting by Derek and Anna Brown are a whole other story), and then Dusky is reached via a passage from Breaksea. It’s a long way from the buses and ships of Milford Sound.
In this particular photograph we had just landed in Campbell’s Kingdom – a beautiful hanging valley west of Manapouri, and Richard was then taking us back out, flying low through the narrow gap. The combination of the quality of the scenery together with the quality of the pilots in New Zealand makes helicopter exploration of Fiordland a must-do on most of our travellers itineraries.
Being National Geographic, we were focused on New Zealand wilderness rather than wine or adrenaline or relaxation or golf or one of the many other facets of this lovely country. We had started in the Far North with a dive at the Poor Knights – in Jacques Cousteau’s top 10, then headed to Waitomo for a walk through a private cave away from the crowds for some close-up shots of glow-worms and dropped into Hobbiton. The week before, we had arranged for an exclusive evening at Hobbiton for a Canadian client. We’d organised some original cast members, costumes, experts from Weta Workshop, in-theme music and food and made up and costumed some clients. They’d had a ball. But that was a different trip. Then we had a change of plan as it was too windy to get to White Island – so we took a boat over to the other side of Lake Tarawera, captained by Solitaire’s owner, Wayne Tomlinson, and had a dip in a pristine hot water pool.
Fiordland was truly excellent – crayfish agogo, baby seals in pristine bush and solitude. It was great to get back to Fiordland Lodge though, with it’s enormous fireplace and seemingly never-ending supply of excellent whisky. The food was up there with the best in the world but creative and rooted in the local culture. We explored bush the next day, escaped from a mob of kea and made it to Queenstown for cocktails and a warm bed at the Spire. I had to introduce the guys to the various back-street bars and a number of speciality rums I quite like – and we were lucky to find a Valli Bannockburn ’09 at Bombay Butchery. By the way – the winemaker – Grant Taylor – is to wine what Richard Hayes is to helicopters….his knighthood must be coming up soon…and he as a special favour to us spends time with our clients who are interested in wine.
Then it was another change of plan and across to the East Coast to track down the NZ yellow-eyed penguin before a rustic seafood extravaganza at Fleur’s and then some after dinner drinks at Pen y Bryn. Did you know James Glucksman speaks Russian and was at Price Waterhouse Moscow just before I got there myself? So that was a great night, helped along by the superfast fibre optic internet connection. At Hapuku Lodge the next night I had the finest monkfish I have had in my life and had to use a lot of effort to unpry myself from my treehouse. Not before a lovely bath with a view though. And – after visiting baby seals in the Ohau stream and pool – and a private charter with whalewatch Kaikoura who managed to get us in front of Humpback Whales, Sperm Whales, Dusky Dolphins and Hector’s Dolphins as well as a few albatross – we carried on to our final stop, the Bay of Many Coves. Lovely hosting (again!), superb food, an excellent sleep and off the next day with Pete and Takutai Beech, who probably know the Marlborough Sounds better than anyone else afloat. Did I mention we’ve known them a long time and they do some special things for our clients?
Anyway, you get the picture. We had a great trip, were beautifully supported by our partners in-country, got some great photos and two more people were forever converted into ardent fans of this lovely country. It’s all about who you know…..