On your bike for an epic mountain adventure in New Zealand
Use two wheels to experience the stunning scenery, then add electricity – or a helicopter – for even bigger ups and downs, suggests Christopher Wakling
Saturday 10 May 2014
The secret to back-flipping your bicycle over a 72ft canyon is to do it slowly. You need enough speed on the ramp, but pull back too quickly, as you would for a normal 30ft back-flip (still with me?), and you'll over-rotate. You don't want to do that.
I learned this valuable advice first hand in New Zealand. Not first hand as in upside down over a canyon, but over a pan-roasted fillet of tarakihi in a superb seafood restaurant called Fishbone. Fishbone is in Queenstown, as is New Zealand's most watched cyclist, Kelly McGarry. Kelly turned out to be a modest and thoughtful guy. Between mouthfuls of clam chowder he explained that the best bit about his now famous back-flip was that it gave him time to think and look around. "Like cycling in general," he said. "Only, you know, upside down."
New Zealand is a great country to witness by bicycle. If you've not been before, your idea of what it's like may reflect Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings, an image the country plays up to: land in Wellington, the capital, and you're greeted by a sign saying "Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth". But whereas the Orcs, Wizards and Hobbits owe a debt to digital trickery, the landscape they journey through is for real.
The government wants you to ride there. At a cost of more than NZ$75m (£40m) it recently completed Nga Haerenga, or the New Zealand Cycle Trail. Nga Haerenga comprises some 22 "Great Rides" across both the North and South Islands. These trails are largely off-road. Sections cater to all abilities. Together they take in some of the planet's most jaw-dropping scenery, but unless you've unlimited time you'll have to pick a route.
New tracks I started out in Marlborough, home of the Queen Charlotte Track, which curls up through the Marlborough Sounds, a breathtaking series of flooded valleys so higgledy-piggledy that they apparently comprise a fifth of New Zealand's 15,000km coastline. I would have loved to explore the full length of the track from Ship Cove to Anakiwa, but time was tight. Determined to investigate as many different kinds of cycling as possible in New Zealand, I had booked myself on to a road-cycling event called the Marlborough Grape Ride.
Great Ride. Grape Ride. Sound similar, the difference being wine? Sort of, yes, but in my jet lag-addled state it took me a while to realise that although the ride would loop through New Zealand's biggest wine-producing region (Cloudy Bay is the most famous name here but check out the sauvignon blanc at Forrest Wines and Brancott Estate) the loop in question was less a stop-and-sip tour and more of a race.
Before I knew it I was in BikeFit in nearby Blenheim being fitted– aptly enough – for a bike. Brent, the shop's owner, was also doing the ride. I noticed his shaved legs and was interested to hear that he hoped to complete the 101km in about two-and-a-half hours.
The bike he loaned me didn't go quite as fast as his. In the interests of the story I went at a pace that allowed me to take in the sights and smells: ripening grapes on the plain, honeyed Manuka pine trees in the hills. When I finished I lay in a heap on the sun-dappled lawn at Forrest Estate and watched a hundred or so women who had also completed the race leap into a vat of grapes. It's traditional, apparently, like pain after violent exercise.
Having pedalled hard around roads I was keen to do the opposite, so I headed south to Queenstown, where I'd heard a new outfit called ChargeAbout would rent me an electric mountain bike. Actually, I was a bit suspicious. A charge-up mountain bike? Presumably I'd potter around town on it? But as Campbell Read, who started renting the bikes out three months ago, was keen to emphasise, the French-made Moustache e-mountain bikes are pretty capable.
He proved it, too, haring off ahead of me along the Kelvin Heights trail to Jack's Point. On the flat the bike felt more or less normal, but hit an incline, pedal hard, and the hills melt. With the Remarkables mountain range rearing up darkly to one side, and the surface of Lake Wakatipu calm and burnished on the other, I sped along the trails feeling pretty bionic.
The bikes have a range of between 30km and 60km depending on how hard you assist the assistance by pedalling, and ChargeAbout has recharging points dotted about the region. We headed through woods studded with quince, kiwi and lemon trees to Provisions Café in Arrowtown. Campbell showed me where I could plug in and drink a flat white.
There's a lot of biking to be done from Queenstown (indeed, there's an annual bike festival there). As well as the 100km Queenstown Trail through the Wakatipu basin (another of the Nga Haerenga "Great Rides") there are more technical mountain biking options in the hills.
Tim Ceci from Vertigo Bikes showed me Queenstown Bike Park, accessed by gondola from the middle of town. The park opened in 2012 and has 30km of green to double-black runs. We spent a morning swooping through the pine trees, the lake flashing down below, roots and rocks and jumps and drops blurring past within a serrated, Gandalf's hat-style skyline. Enthusiasts – Tim included – built most of these trails well before the official park opened. "It would have been rude not to," he explained. "Just look at this place."
Vertigo also runs mountain-biking trips from the top of the Remarkables, accessed by helicopter. The following morning, beneath a glittery sky, I helped stack the bikes onto specially-made racks before the flight. Southern Lakes Helicopters, which took us to the summit, does filming as well (including aerial shots of Hobbits when required).
We landed at Ben Cruachan. The clunky familiarity of half the place names in New Zealand (Belfast, New Brighton, Aviemore) is invigorated by the Maori other half (Waimakariri, Taupo, Paraparaumu). The helicopter left us above a slope of grey schist and we set off to make the 18km descent.
Our guide, Jonny Congreve, brought up the rear. He also brought a backpack full of biscuits and inner tubes, both of which we consumed on the way down. We cut down the back of the mountain, moving from open scree to winding single-track. The scrubland was dotted with razor-like Spaniard grass. I paused to inspect a cut on my shin and noticed that, us aside, there were no buildings, no people, not even any sheep, just jagged slopes softening into rumpled hills, all the way to the blue-rinsed horizon.
You don't have to go far from anywhere in New Zealand to be within striking distance of excellent cycling. In the capital, Wellington, I met up with Ash Burgess. She started the Revolve Cycling Club for women a few years ago and now runs Bike Wellington, organising skills courses and guided rides in the hills around the capital.
Having spent a few days using electricity, a gondola and a helicopter to get to the top of things, it felt right to do a bit of cycling up as well as down. In slanted rain we headed up to Makara Peak.
Normally, Ash explained, we would have seen Wellington Harbour and the Central Business District from up here. But if the weather obscured our view, it didn't diminish the huge fun we had bombing down through the berms and rollers, between dripping ferns and pines.
There are around 300km of mountain biking trails immediately accessible in and around Wellington. Again, they've largely been built by enthusiasts like Ash. From the glimpse I saw I'd say the pride evident in Bike Wellington's slogan – this is our city, these are our trails – is justified.
The irony of the trip is that while the pace and reach of cycling allowed me to enjoy the parts of New Zealand I visited, ultimately it convinced me I'd only seen enough to know I'd seen too little. I'll have to go back. There are other road races, including a Tour of New Zealand that began in 2012, in which riders race from the top of the North Island and bottom of the South Island to meet in the middle. There are also all the Nga Haerenga Great Rides I didn't do. And there's my back-flip to perfect. Slowly.
Christopher Wakling flew with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk), to Auckland via LA. Flights start at £1,266. Air New Zealand also operates internal flights.
In Blenheim the writer stayed at Scenic Hotel Marlborough (00 64 3 520 6187, scenichotels.co.nz). Doubles start at NZ$135 (£69).
In Queenstown, the writer stayed at Crowne Plaza Queenstown (00 64 3 441 0095; crowneplazaqueens town.co.nz) doubles from NZ$189 (£97); and Brown's Boutique Hotel (00 64 3 441 2050; brownshotel.co.nz) doubles from NZ$165 (£83).
In Wellington, he stayed at Museum Art Hotel (00 64 4 802 8900; museumhotel.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$199 (£98).
On the Kapiti coast, the writer stayed at Greenmantle Estate (00 64 4 2985555; greenmantle.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$575 (£273).
Fishbone, 7 Beach Street, Queenstown (fishbonequeenstown.co.nz).
Bike Fit, 24 Market Street, Blenheim (www.bike-fit.co.nz).
ChargeAbout, Queenstown (chargeabout.co.nz).
Vertigo Bikes 4 Brecon Street, Queenstown (vertigobikes.co.nz).
Bike Wellington (bikewellington.co.nz).
Tourism New Zealand: newzealand.com/uk
New Zealand Cycle Trail: nzcycletrail.com
Marlborough Grape Ride: graperide.co.nz
Queenstown Bike Festival: queenstownbikefestival.com
Tour of New Zealand: tourofnewzealand.co.nz
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