As Sir Isaac Newton famously observed, what goes up must come down. And with mountain biking of course, that’s the really fun part. But before you can enjoy truly epic downhills, you first need to pay your dues in hard uphill struggle. That’s just the law of physics, right? Wrong. In Queenstown, locals are thumbing their noses firmly in Newton’s direction with the latest extreme sport to emerge from New Zealand’s South Island: heli-biking.
Hooking mountain bikes onto specially adapted helicopters, operators like Fat Tyre Adventures are whisking clients up to the best local peaks in a matter of moments. Then all the riders have to do is enjoy the long, swooping downhill home. Maximum enjoyment; minimum effort. Or, as the company’s owner Greg McIntyre says: “all of the gain, none of the pain.”
“What’s not to like?” asks McIntyre, as we take off for Crown Peak, home to one of the area’s most popular heli-biking trails. “You get to the top of a big mountain in minutes, then enjoy an awesome back country descent with completely fresh legs. Not only that, but you’re riding hidden trails you’d never have found otherwise.”
The flight from Queenstown’s tiny heliport to the crest of 5,750ft Crown Peak lasts a paltry eight minutes – a journey that McIntyre says would have taken “at least three hard hours” in the saddle. Six full-suspension mountain bikes are attached to racks on the outside of the helicopter: three on each side.
My five companions for the day have come from all over the place: Mary is a local architect in her early forties who’s taking ‘an early lunch break’ for today’s ride, while Markus is a 32-year-old product manager from Zurich who’s flown halfway across the world for the experience.
From the air, the top of Crown Peak looks barren, windswept and very, very high. The helicopter touches down, and we leap out beneath the thundering blades like lycra-clad commandos.
“Let’s go play,” shouts McIntyre over the din, swinging into his saddle as the helicopter corkscrews back into the blue sky.
This, he says, is his “dream trail”: it took six years, and a recent change in local land laws to gain access to it, and – he reassures me – it’s “gold standard”.
The initial descent is precipitous, but we’re on good bikes and any fears are quickly overshadowed by the magnificent views of sprawling Cardrona Valley below. The Maori word “wehi” means “fear”, but it also refers to the sense of being awed before sights of grandeur. I’m brimming with it as I bounce and jangle down the flanks of the mountain.
Despite being one of the more expensive ways of going for a cycle ride, heli-biking seems to be catching on. Fat Tyre offers eight different routes into this valley, including half day trips with just one ride, or “double drop” full days. A number of other Queenstown operators offer similar packages on neighbouring mountains.
The one major drawback of this sport, it must be noted, is that it’s heavily weather dependent: in bad weather the helicopters can’t fly and during my own three days in Queenstown, I have two rides cancelled.
But the wait is worth it. Our route passes from slender sheep trails to long-abandoned gold prospecting paths, all hungrily devoured by our fat tyres. This is Lord of the Rings country, and as we stop for an inevitable ‘second breakfast‘ (Frodo would be proud), McIntyre points out exactly how much of the scenery around us was used in the original films. We’re riding through genuine Peter Jackson territory: the bike riders of Rohan.
With little previous experience of ‘serious’ mountain biking, I notice a growing sense of pride as I fly down the trail, keeping pace with McIntyre and the others. Sadly it doesn’t last long because – right on cue – the fall arrives. Distracted by the view of shimmering Lake Wakatipu below, I don’t notice a sudden drop in the trail. Gravity snatches my bike from between my legs, catapulting me mercilessly into a prickly bush.
After I pull the thorns from my legs (and the others stop laughing) the path thankfully begins to widen and flatten. Eventually a swooping, dusty track delivers us to our final destination: the charming gold rush village of Arrowtown. A squeal of brake blocks announces our arrival at Provisions – a quaint cafe in a converted miner’s cottage, advertising “obscenely good sticky buns.” It’s an ironic choice after 90 minutes in the saddle.
Washing the trail dust from my hands, I glance into a full-length mirror and am shocked by the vision blinking back at me. Sweat pours from beneath my helmet, congealed blood sticks to my legs and remnants of bush still protrude from my flesh.
I look like an extra from the Battle of Helms Deep, but the reflection is deceptive: I feel great. My thighs are grumbling a little but nowhere near as much as they would have been has I ridden up Crown Peak as well as down it. I’ve summited and descended a mountain and completed McIntyre’s ‘dream trail‘; the sun is shining and it’s still not even lunch time.
Sitting in that sun-dappled garden with a selection of obscenely good sticky buns between us, we reflect on our helter skelter descent through Hollywood-worthy scenery. I feel charged, happy and alive – as if I can physically touch the wehi all around me. Sir Isaac Newton might have been right about the scientific rules which govern our universe, but as any Queenstowner will tell you, there are no rules that can’t be broken.