How to explore New Zealand by bike without working up a sweat

A silent Ubco bike lets tourists cover serious ground in Queenstown while getting up close to the local wildlife

Cameron Wilson
Tuesday 05 December 2017 12:12 GMT
Ubco e-motorbikes are practically silent
Ubco e-motorbikes are practically silent (Cameron Wilson)

Skipper Laurie is proud of his ship. “The oldest coal-fired steamer in the southern hemisphere that’s still carrying passengers every day. Launched in 1912 on Lake Wakatipu, the only body of water she’s ever known.” The ship’s belly is open, so passengers get a good look at the steam-driven pistons and coal-stoked boilers of the stately twin-screw steamer TSS Earnslaw, pride of New Zealand’s Queenstown.

It’s 40 minutes across the lake to Walter Peak station, a working sheep farm set up for tourists with a demonstration shearing shed and fancy wood-fired barbecue. The juicy piece of Merino lamb from the nearby Cardrona Valley is probably the best I’ll ever taste, but a barbecue buffet that includes unlimited desserts and cheeses is not ideal fare for cycling. Way too full to pedal a bike, I front up for a two-hour pootle about the property in the saddle of an Ubco.

Rugged, motorbike-ish and utterly silent, this New Zealand-designed and built electric farm-bike is what I imagine we will ride when we terraform Mars. I’m geared up to ride in a military style jump-suit and helmet, ready for a quick briefing from Heather, our guide. We each select a bike, switch on batteries, turn a few wobbly practice figure of eights around some traffic cones, and then we’re off.

The 15,000 Merino and 5,000 Perindale sheep scattered across the 63,650 acres of Walter Peak Station love the Ubco and all who ride them because they truly are silent (the risk of being run over by one you don’t hear coming notwithstanding). I’m riding one and I’m not sure I’ve turned it on. “Gassing up” isn’t too bad either – a full battery charge, good for 100km (60 miles), costs 88 cents (47p).

Ah, the serenity. The trail we’re on has Lake Wakatipu in and out of view. The entire South Island is so absurdly picturesque that words are wasted on it.

We switch the bikes from “Eco” to “Power” mode and now we’re really motoring, with top speeds of 45km (27 miles) per hour. Stones go tumbling in our wake, yet the bike feels remarkably stable even as the tyres slip sideways in search of better grip.

We stop and have a gander at the re-foresting projects going on around the lakeshore. Wilding pine is the non-native culprit hereabouts, swathes of which are being felled and replaced in typically New Zealand enviro-warrior fashion.

Earnslaw is the oldest coal-fired steamer in the southern hemisphere
Earnslaw is the oldest coal-fired steamer in the southern hemisphere (Cameron Wilson)

After a 15-minute pit stop for hot chocolate and energy bars, we high-tail it back to the bike shed in time for our steamship rendezvous. The glory of the bikes is not so much that they get you to places that are otherwise inaccessible – horse-riding groups use these same trails, for starters – but more that riding one is a novel and exhilarating experience, as well as one that is pain-free. Queenstown is New Zealand’s action sports capital, offering bungee jumping, jet-boating and para-gliding; with all the whooping and squealing going on, silent bikes seem a brilliant addition.

Someone’s playing the Earnslaw’s piano when we hop aboard, and I take a moment to look through a lyrics sheet featuring some sing-along favourites. I’m told it’s a rowdy scene after dinner and drinks, and I rather wish I could be here to join in.

Up in Laurie’s wheel-house, I watch him levering back and forth on the ship’s brass “telegraph”, which relays directions to the engineer below – Stand By, Slow, Half, Full. Both the telegraph and the ship’s brass wheel seem oddly familiar, and I ask Laurie why a landlubber like me should recognise it.

Racing to rendez-vous with the steamer
Racing to rendez-vous with the steamer (Cameron Wilson)

“Well, there’s a clue in the year the Earnslaw was launched: 1912. The technology you’re looking at is exactly as it was back then, and common to steamships all over the world. Including one which sank in the Atlantic in 1912 – that’s the one you and everyone else instantly thinks of.

"The Titanic.”

Travel essentials

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow to Auckland from £839, and from Auckland to Queenstown (a 2-hour flight) from £117.

Staying there

The Dairy has doubles from £168, B&B.

More information

Real Journeys offers Ubco bike tours year-round, though in low season (May to September) minimum numbers are needed to secure a booking. Steamship, bike hire and afternoon tea costs NZ $159 (£87), or a trip on the steamship only costs NZ$59 (£33).

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