The family-owned flight operators have been flying local skies for 22 years with owner Hank Sproull having clocked up almost 50 years in aviation. However, Hank says he’s never encountered ‘head winds’ of the magnitude that the COVID-19 crisis has unleashed.
It’s been back to survival basics. Hank’s son and chief pilot Antony Sproull says they’ve started afresh with the support of local agents and hotels, and courteous landowners like those of Branches Station. In October they called on that support and flew locals to the iconic Branches Station – as Antony says, sharing their own spectacular ‘office window’.
“We’re being encouraged to explore our own country and we’ve had an amazing response from Kiwis wanting to fly,” says Antony. “However, most local residents have never even visited one of the most beautiful parts of the country, just 10 minutes flight from Queenstown.”
The privately-owned, 33,000ha high country sheep station sprawls majestically, beyond the craggy cliff overhangs of one of New Zealand’s most hair-raising canyon roads, the Skippers Road, at the headwaters of the Shotover River. It has its own airstrip so Air Milford obtained special permission from the owners to fly locals in on return flights.
Air Milford’s luxurious Cessna Caravans operated a 20-minute flight in, taking in the mass grandeur of the station and its surrounds, flying over Lochnagar, the station’s treasured mountain tarn, only accessible through a steep, arduous climb.
Once on the ground, locals had approximately 45 minutes to explore the station lodges and Wakatipu High School Branches Camp site with great farm-style, homemade scones, jam and cream, coffee and tea.
They also had the privilege of a short presentation from farm manager Gene Bryce, in his immaculate woolshed.
A Wakatipu High School graduate, Branches Station has a special significance for Antony and is very dear to his heart. He completed the school’s legendary 12-day Branches Camp, a highly-prized, character-building rite of passage for Year 10 students, back in 1998. He even makes a small cameo appearance in the Branches Charitable Trust’s recently-launched 50th anniversary book, Long Drops and Hard Knocks.
“It’s just such a unique place and I really wanted to share that specifically with parents and kids who haven’t had this opportunity,” he says.
The one-off trip was priced at just $150 per adult with a koha donation for kids, with all kids’ koha proceeds going to the Branches Charitable Trust, which heavily subsidises the camp.
This story is part of TIA’s #TourismChampions campaign. View more inspirational stories here.