ON YOUR BIKE – Queenstown08/06/2018
ON YOUR BIKE
by Shane Boocock / Images courtesy of Fat Tyre Biking Queenstown
Attending a bike festival usually means only one thing . . . a wee bit of pedalling! It was the week before Easter and, instead of scoffing chocolate Easter eggs, I was busy gripping my bike brake levers as I careened down a steep goat-like trail in some of the most sensational backcountry terrain on this planet.
The Queenstown region is fast becoming a mecca for mountain bike enthusiasts as more and more backcountry trails are exposed. Tour operators have also cottoned onto the fact that getting bikes up a mountain or across a lake will complement all the other outdoor activities available in this adventure capital, especially if you’re visiting with your family.
Skyline Queenstown set the ‘fat tyres’ rolling when they announced details of the inaugural mountain biking trial season where riders and bikes are transported together on the gondola up to the Skyline Complex to access the amazing MTB trails located within the Ben Lomond Forest.
Over the last few years ‘Heli Biking’ entered our lexicon as the new adventure that’s helping shape and define the wilderness
mountain bike experience. Even boaties are getting in on the act. I overheard one skipper say he’d be installing bike racks on the side of his boats for transport across Lake Wakatipu, especially within the new four to five day, 175km, Around The Mountains Cycle Trail from Walter Peak Station to Kingston.
To prepare me for the festival I’d booked two completely different bike riding tours. The first was what I’d define as a leisurely cycling day from Walter Peak Station to Mavora Lakes and back on a mountain bike with hybrid tyres (road tyres with the knobbly edges for extra traction). The second was a heli-bike ride to awaken the senses and bring out a technical riding ability that had been suppressed for the last few years.
After crossing the lake on the TSS Earnslaw we disembarked at Walter Peak Station. Whilst still a working station of 65,000 acres with 18,000 sheep of different breeds, it’s now a tourist attraction for lunch, dinner or afternoon teas, sheep demonstrations and animal petting. Nearby Mt Nicholas on the other hand has 100,000 acres but just breeds the famed Merino sheep.
After a brief update by Sebastian, Around the Mountain’s chief support guide, as to where and what the route entails and how the bikes are set up, he drove the truck ahead to wait for us. We started with a 3kms ride on a cruisy gravel road through farmland with mountains rising like giant towers. We then had two more kilometre sections to ride, taking us into The Von River valley. From there we were driven up a steep snaking road onto a high country tussock plateau until we reached our picnic lunch stop at some old mustering huts.
That afternoon we continued our ride across a Scottish-like landscape with scree fallen from the high mountains littering the edges of these vast tussock lands. Tussock is tussock as far as I can tell, but here there are four varieties; short, long, red and two tussock – due to the two colours it displays.
After riding two more sections of gravel, we entered a flat muddy road under a canopy of beech trees that encircle
Movora Lakes. This is a stunning location and during the Easter break, full of families camping and fishing, all trying to avoid tiny black sand flies.
The return trip allowed the steep sections to be ridden downhill, which put smiles on the faces of the kids who were whooping it up; their parents were a bit more cautious as there were steep drop offs on one side. This trip is a great way for families to ride together at their pace and chosen distance.
Two days later I was being briefed on helicopter safety instructions as our high-end mountain bikes were being loaded onto the specially-made helicopter bike racks. Greg, the owner and chief guide of Fat Tyre Adventures, went through the usual instructions for loading and disembarking a helicopter before we hopped onboard for an exhilarating 10-minute flight over the mighty Kawarau River valley up to the Pisa Conservation Area at 1,600m.
Not having ridden on any technical terrain for years, my adrenalin was suddenly pumping; the first steep downhill rutted section sorts out the ‘can do’ from ‘can’t do’ riders. At the bottom I was shaking a little as I hadn’t expected it to be so narrow or difficult, but it’s Greg’s way of ascertaining riders’ ability level from the get go. “I can see from your riding style you’ll be fine,” he remarked, boosting my confidence immediately.
As far as the eye could see were mountains and valleys of rusty-iron coloured tussock. “That’s where we’re headed,” said Greg, pointing to a pencil thin, contoured trail that dipped and traversed a series of ridges along the Pisa Range. “We’ve got some uphill sections to tackle, but once we reach that final summit, it’s all downhill from there.” At altitude my heart was working overtime, especially on the uphill sections, where I have to admit I was forced to walk the bike a couple of times.
It was chilly, even on a clear sunny day. At one of our rest stops Greg asked the two young lads in our group, 14 year old Mathew and 16 year old Liam, how they managed to wangle a helicopter bike ride. “It’s a birthday present from my parents,” said Liam, who had a classy, custom-built bike as well as a fancy helmet-mounted camera. “Well all I got for my 16th birthday was a wind-up wristwatch and all it could do was to tell the time,” said Greg with a laugh.
The downhill backcountry track was steep, slashing back and forth like a giant conger eel. It was now even more exhilarating as we descended at break-neck speed, with split second timing picking a line that looked less rutted and torn up. It was fast flowing and fantastic. The two lads and Mark, another rider on the trip, were way ahead travelling fast, like preverbal ‘rats down a drainpipe,’ on a trail roughly the same width.
Suddenly it was all over as we exited into paddocks full of sheep. “Had a bike to sheep head-on about three weeks ago,” Greg suddenly admitted, “the sheep came off worst – dead. The guy suffered a broken collar bone and we had to walk him out. I’ve only ever had to tend to a few bumps and grazes since we began heli-biking tours, but that’s the risk you take on any backcountry biking adventure right?”
Now, having experienced the risk factor associated with heli-biking, I can tell you, I’d be on my bike again tomorrow if I could. This was one of the ultimate mountain bike rides!
Note: All guided adventure tours require participants to sign a ‘release form,’ that absolves the company from any accident/injury that may occur while partaking in their tour. It’s therefore wise to have adequate insurance to cover you for personal injury.While every care has been taken to ensure the information contained in this article is as accurate as possible, the author and Let’s Travel Magazine can accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained using the advice contained herein.
Fly up, ride down! They land at 1600m on a barren knoll with 360 degree views before riding steep, fast, rocky, un-groomed single track down to Touhys Saddle then onto open flowing farm track to the valley floor. Expect an intermediate grade trail, wicked single track and huge descent. The trip includes a GT Force 3 bike, helmet and gloves. Allow 4 hours return to Queenstown. Cost: $360 per person from early October through to May.
Three hours leisurely cycling on country roads with van or 4×4 vehicle support. All bike equipment supplied as well as a guide, return trip on the TSS Earnslaw, picnic lunch and refreshments. Expect to ride between 15-35km depending on your fitness. Season 1 Nov-30 Apr. Cost: $199 Adult, $99 Child 10-14 years.
The Queenstown Bike Festival combines mountain bikes, downhill and road bikes through a diverse series of events rolled into an exciting package for kids, recreational and elite or simply passionate riders. The 10 day program features three keystone events to suit all biking levels: the Ben Lomond DirtMasters Downhill, the New World Tour de Wakatipu and the Outside Sports Super D Enduro.
After all that excitement, venture out on a relaxing half day vineyard tour with lunch included. They provide some interesting history of the region and knowledgeable wine commentary as you visit four vineyards in the Gibbston Valley, Cromwell and Bannockburn regions. Cost: $165 per person.
As befits the sheer magnificence of the landscape, the lodge experience that awaits you here is exceptional with a world-class dining and luxurious accommodation in a stunning location overlooking Lake Wakatipu and rugged mountain peaks. Cost per person includes pre-dinner drinks, hors d’oeuvres, dinner, full breakfast and complimentary mini-bar excluding wine and spirits.
Lodge room: $595 low season, $655 Shoulder season
Suites: $620 low season, $840 Shoulder season
Deluxe suite: $720 low season, $980 Shoulder season
Inspired by the charms of Paris with the charisma of Queenstown hospitality, the hotel offers a tasteful combination of French antique chic and local avant-garde design. Located in downtown Queenstown the hotel has 82 elegantly appointed bedrooms and suites, featuring Le Spa and the newly introduced Left Bank Café.
Shane Boocock travelled to Queenstown courtesy of Destination Queenstown