02 January 2023

(6) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs


Part 6 of a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot... 

This memoir relates to my my larger post on Air Travel (NZ) Ltd which can be found here -


Chapter 6 - Deer Shooting and Tourist Flights

Allan Cron and Bert started immediately into the construction of the huts at the meeting of the Clarke and Landsborough Rivers. Bert acquired the necessary materials, flew them down to the site and in between shooting Allan constructed the necessary accommodation. All was ready. Air Travel started to advertise the availability of the spot and its fantastic shooting possibilities stating that the company could fly parties with all their provisions, accept their necessary reprovision orders, purchase them on their behalf, come back in two weeks with the provisions and fly out their dried hides to the Hokitika railhead. What a perfect shooting expedition!!!

On one occasion Allan Cron captured with his own hands a young fawn. He wanted Bert to take it back to his homestead at the Haast. There was only one condition that Bert would accept this commission, that Allan would nurse the animal within the small cabin of the Fox Moth until they arrived at the Haast. Allan, a remarkably strong man, said that was no trouble to him and away went the little Fox Moth, Allan Cron, the fawn and Mercer. At the Haast Allan casually got out a dog chain and tethered the young animal to his father's fence. That was okay until the “roaring season” when the little devil just broke the chain, jumped the fence and we have not seen the animal to this day.

Bert Mercer with Air Travel's Fox Moth ZK-ADI and a hunting party in the Landsborough Valley. Photo Mercer Collection

The Franz Josef Glacier! The Graham Family! Jim Graham, Peter Graham, and one of the West Coast’s most fabulous hostesses, Mrs Rose Graham, Peter McCormack, Joe Fluerty, Harry Ayres and all the other wonderful guides that lead people up this magnificent glacier and adjacent mountains! They all helped Air Travel to succeed. They encouraged people to first fly over the glaciers then come back and walk upon it under their careful guidance. 

The business grew so fast for Air Travel that Mercer requested Jim Hewitt to take up residence at Franz Josef. He accepted willingly and nurtured that part of the company's business. The same thing happened at Fox Glacier. The lovely Williams family and their guides encouraged their visitors to fly over their beautiful glacier. It was easy. Just a phone call to Franz Josef and Jim Hewett was over at the Fox. With the tourist delight in having seen the lovely glaciers it was no trouble to encourage flights to the beautiful Milford Sound and Mount Aspiring and return. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI flying up the Franz Josef Glacier in February 1936. Photo Mercer Collection

Joe Fleurty, the Māori guide at Franz Josef, often upset his party at the hostel entrance by his own natural tastes. Casually waiting for all his party to be assembled he could be seen to pick up a spicy huhu break it carefully apart and commence to devour it. This fantastic Māori guide could just run across the glacier, climb every peak in the region like an antelope yet when war broke out he got turned down by the New Zealand Army because he had flat feet. He was told he could not march in army boots. Would you believe it? So back to his beloved mountains and glaciers and his huhus.

The location of Jim Hewett at Franz Joseph helped the company tremendously. We had an aircraft stationed halfway down the Coast. Hokitika was relieved if there was an emergency flight required at Bruce Bay, the Haast or Jacksons Bay. We no longer had to fly all the way down from Hokitika. Just a phone call to friend Jim at Franz Josef and he was on his way. 

There was always one difficulty to the tourist, the vagaries of the West Coast weather. When it rained, it rained so hard that it was just impossible to take an aircraft out into the conditions. Later when the Post Office Department supplied the area with air radio communication and we acquired an aircraft with a radio. But there was nothing lovelier than to fly down the Coast after a heavy rainstorm in the late afternoon or evening with the setting sun catching the steam rising from the bush spreading its golden rays through the steam and glistening upon the magnificent Southern Alps. It had to be seen to be believed.

There was one occasion when a tourist had a friend arriving in Christchurch by the inter-island ferry at Lyttelton at 7am and he wished to meet his fellow countryman at the Christchurch railway station and bring him immediately to the Coast to be with his party. Conditions were perfect. It was a moonlight night, the winds were all in our favour and the Christchurch weather report could never have been better. No blind flying instruments, no radio but just a local knowledge of the Alps, its passes and a compass. My passenger arrived at Hokitika aerodrome at 4am. Air Travel’s aircraft and the pilot (myself) were waiting. We climbed out to sea until we reached the safe height to cross the Southern Alps. The moon on the Alps was glorious. The moon sank and the morning sun came up behind the Port Hills of Christchurch and one hour and 20 minutes after leaving Hokitika I wheeled the little Fox Moth into a landing at Harewood. Our tourist met his countryman, brought him back to Harewood and we returned to Hokitika over the Alps in glorious sunshine. What a flight to remember!!! 

Early December and a tourist wished to see Milford Sound. We had a very late snowfall in Fiordland. We left Franz Josef for the Sound which we entered from the seaward approach. There, snow to bush level, the deep blue of the sound, rata in full bloom and the Alps!!!

1 comment:

  1. This ex South Westlander is absolutely loving these posts. :) Thanks for taking the time to digitize and share these memories with us all. It's a special part of the world, with some pretty special history. :) JPM