National Geographic : 1972 Jan
the exposed western coast and slope of the mountains, then pass, lighter and drier, on across to the east. Leaving Milford Sound, our fabric-covered biplane, a 35-year-old de Havilland Dominie, followed a path through narrow gorges, then climbed over the crumpled, glacier-streaked mountains. The day was clear, but every time we neared a peak or ridge we were tossed around like a shred of paper. The pilot, Dave Wilkes, saw my alarm and laughed. "Don't worry," he said. "You'll have to get used to this kind of flying if you stay around the South Island. It's the only way to get about." Perhaps more than any other developed nation, New Zealand owes its progress to the airplane. Until the 1940's, much of the South Island's remote "backblock" country was inaccessible except by foot, and even today a trip that takes 15 or 20 minutes by air is an arduous nine or ten hours by car over twist ing mountain roads. But airplanes have provided more than access. A great deal of the island's land is high tussock, barely suitable for grazing hardy Merino sheep. After World War II, New Zea landers invented a process called aerial top dressing-spreading superphosphate and other fertilizers by air-that turns barren land into productive pastures. Pilot Dubbed Popeye Turns to the Land Though New Zealand's dependence on its masters of mountain flying is far from over, one of the most renowned practitioners of the art has hung up his wings in favor of moving back to the land. During World War II, Fred Lucas won two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his service with the Royal Air Force, as well as the lasting nickname Popeye (because of the way he used to roll his false teeth and pucker his mouth). After the war, Popeye Lucas helped found two small New Zealand airlines. But in 1960 he bought a remote sheep station at Cecil Peak, on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, and today he lives there with his wife and five children, raising sheep and cattle and playing host to vacationists. Cecil Peak Station lies across the lake from Queenstown. As our launch plowed through crystal water, the captain talked about the Maori legend of Wakatipu. "It's 48 miles long and shaped like an S," he said. "There's a three-inch rise and fall in the water level every few minutes. The A breed apart: Unlike many youths who desert the backcountry for lively cities, rancher Charles Lucas (left) prefers the open air of his father's sheep station at Cecil Peak, despite such rigors as mustering, shear ing, and dipping (below). The South Island accounts for almost half the 60 million sheep in New Zealand, which leads the world in export of lamb and mut ton, and ranks second to Australia in wool.