Wellington, New Zealand – March 3, 2017
A good friend of mine, John Sligh, came to me and said he needed my help. He wanted to pick up a Princess from New Zealand’s South Island. It sounded a little odd to me. Luckily, he explained precisely the help he needed.
He found a 1966 Austin Vanden Plas Princess for sale online. He contacted the owner, made an offer, and closed the deal to become the new owner of a 51-year old sedan. He wanted me to go with him to retrieve the Princess and bring her back to Wellington. I agreed to help.
Honestly, we were both a little nervous about the flight. That was thanks to the 76 km/h (47 mph) wind gusts happening all day.
The plane held nine passengers. We were lucky enough to get the first two seats, directly behind the pilot and co-pilot. The pilot gave the flight safety briefing. When complete, she took her place, started the plane, and began our taxi to the runway. Neither of the pilots seemed to be fighting the wind. I thought that was a good thing.
We took off to the north. I was expecting a bumpy takeoff because of the winds, but it was incredibly smooth. I settled back in the seat and enjoyed the view.
Our route took us directly over Wellington and then toward Picton. The Queen Charlotte Sound, amongst the other sounds on the north end of the South Island, is a stunning area. When I took the ferry from Picton to Wellington the previous November, the ferry route goes through Queen Charlotte Sound. Seeing it from the air provided a uniquely beautiful view.
The Pilatus PC12 has a top cruise speed of 500 km/h (311 mph). That meant we covered our 270-kilometer (168 miles) route in about 45 minutes. By the time we neared Westport, we were in the clouds. During the descent, I watched out the front windscreen. It seemed to take forever to get beneath the clouds so I could see the runway. We landed with no problems in a light rain shower.
The ex-owner of the Princess met us at the Westport Airport. He parked the Princess right by the front door of the terminal building, awaiting our arrival. We placed our bags in the boot and got in the Princess for the first time. The red-leather seats showed signs of wear, but they were in surprisingly good condition. In fact, for a 51-year old lady, the Princess looked great.
Driving around the edge of the airport, we ended up at the ex-owner’s airplane hangar to go over the ins and outs of the Princess. He also showed us some of his other project vehicles in the garage. He was quite a character. He had been a top-dresser (crop-duster), but he made his money hauling petroleum products.
While John talked to the ex-owner, my eyes roved throughout the hangar. Suddenly, I spotted a sign; “Beware Low Flying Aircraft.” As a former pilot, I have always had a fondness for aviation memorabilia. So, I thought I would do my best “American Pickers” imitation. I asked him if he was tired of owning the sign. He told me the sign belonged to the local aviation museum. He could not sell the sign.
The conversation between the two men continued, although we had all migrated to a different location in the hangar. That is when I spotted a couple of wooden propellers hanging on the wall. I asked him if the aviation museum owned those too. He said those belonged to him; they were from his old top-dresser plane. He asked if I wanted one. The word “sure” shot out of my mouth at the speed of a Pilatus! He reached up and gave me one of the propellers. He gave the other to John.
After the propeller exchange, he led the way to our motel while John and I followed in the Princess. We stopped at the Chelsea Gateway Motor Lodge. After dropping off our bags, we went in search of dinner.
We selected the Denniston Dog Café & Bar. I had the Blue Cod. Freshness must count because it was delicious. John opted for the trio sampler. It included pork, lamb, and beef; brought to the table raw. The server also brought a heated stone on which John could cook the meats to his satisfaction. It looked delicious, but I was more than happy with my fish.
During dinner, we discussed the New World supermarket we passed on the way to the restaurant. We thought we would stop by on the way back to the motel and pick up something for breakfast the next morning. That turned out to be an error in judgment. When we drove back to the supermarket after dinner, we found it locked tight. We went back to the motel and turned in for the night.
The next morning, we decided to return to the same restaurant because the night before, we noticed breakfast selections on their menu. We arrived in front of the restaurant only to discover it was not yet open. We did not want to wait around as we were trying to make a 13:00 ferry sailing at Picton. We thought we could find something else in town for breakfast. The only establishment open was Subway. We stopped. Maybe I ordered the wrong thing, but I did not really like my “breakfast.”
As soon as we finished eating, we departed. Our 284-kilometer (176 miles) journey was to take about four hours. In the United States, the same trip would be more like a three-hour drive. The difference in timing is not due to speed limits, but rather the road itself. The way to Picton, as is the case with most of the roads in New Zealand, is not straight; it is rife with many twists and turns. Regardless of the road design, the drive was stunning. I think two of the most spectacular areas were the Buller River Gorge and the vineyards of the Marlborough wine region.
The Princess did just fine on the journey. We arrived at the Picton ferry with about 30 minutes to spare before the loading began. This trip was on a Bluebridge ferry.
On the ferry, we sat near two older women. We talked with them off and on throughout the sailing. We discovered they had been touring the South Island for the last several months in their motorhomes. They were anxious to return home.
The weather for the sailing was great. Crossing Cooks Strait was a little bumpy, but not bad.
Shortly after 18:00, the Princess was on the North Island.