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A Wild Irishman is prodding me painfully in the buttocks. Sitting on the thorny bush, I look past my bloodied knees and drink in the view unfolding beyond my cycling shoes. I can understand why Stephen Fry, in New Zealand to act in The Hobbit, called this “the greatest sight on Earth”.
More than 1,500 metres beneath my battered lower limbs sits Queenstown, New Zealand’s self-appointed “adventure capital”. For such a small place (its population is just over 17,000), Queenstown is a major tourist draw, with more than 1.1m international visitors per year and another 800,000 domestic. The town originally grew as a goldmining outpost in the 19th century, before the gold ran out and it became a quiet holiday retreat for South Islanders.
In 1947, New Zealand’s first commercial ski lifts opened at nearby Coronet Peak. Skiing’s popularity gradually grew and eventually local entrepreneurs began experimenting with summer adventure sports that might fill the void when the snow melted. The world’s first tourist jet boat company launched in the area in 1960, and in 1988 AJ Hackett opened the first permanent bungee jumping base at the nearby Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge.
I’m in town to become acquainted with its most recent offering for adrenalin seekers: heli-biking. The unique selling point of this new sport – according to Greg McIntyre, my aptly named guide from Fat Tyre Adventures – is “all of the gain, none of the pain”. (He neglected to mention the vicious Wild Irishman bushes.)
“What’s not to like?” McIntyre had enthused over dinner in Queenstown the previous evening. “You get to the top of a mountain in minutes, then enjoy an awesome downhill ride with completely fresh legs. Not only that, you’re riding hidden trails you’d never have found otherwise.”
It’s a strong argument. But with pretty much no mountain biking experience to my name, I find myself channelling New Zealand’s adopted fils du jour, Bilbo Baggins as I nervously embark on what I assume will be a dangerous escapade.
The flight from Queenstown’s small heliport to the summit of Crown Peak lasts a paltry eight minutes – a journey that McIntyre says would have taken “about three hard hours’ ride” in the saddle. Six full-suspension mountain bikes are attached to racks on the outside of the helicopter, three on each side, and it soon becomes apparent that the other five riders are considerably more experienced than me. They range from Mary Jowett, 44, a local architect who is taking “an early lunch break” for today’s ride, to Markus Krienbuehl, a 32-year-old product manager from Zurich who has flown halfway across the world for the experience.
From the air, the top of Crown Peak looks barren and windswept. 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 lifts back into the blue sky.
This, he says, is his “dream trail”, only accessible thanks to a recent change in local land access laws. The initial descent (through land now owned by the celebrated record producer Mutt Lange) is relatively steep, and I’m frequently distracted by the 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 flight, or “double drop” full days, as well as multi-day packages. Several other local operators now run similar trips. 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 three days in Queenstown, I have two rides cancelled.
But the wait is worth it. Our route passes from slender sheep trails to abandoned 19th-century gold prospecting paths, all hungrily devoured by our fat tyres. We stop for an inevitable “second breakfast” of energy bars (Bilbo would be proud) and McIntyre points out exactly how much of the scenery around us was used in the original Lord of the Rings films. It appears we’re on a bona fide set visit at speed: the bike riders of Rohan.
Flying down the mountain, I feel a growing sense of pride at how quickly I’m gaining confidence, until – right on cue – comes the fall. Distracted by the view of shimmering Lake Wakatipu far below, I don’t notice a sudden drop in the trail. Gravity snatches my bike from between my legs, catapulting me into the prickly embrace of my Wild Irishman.
Thankfully, the path starts to widen and flatten as we drop lower. Eventually a swooping, dusty track delivers us to our final destination: the charming gold rush village of Arrowtown, on the bank of the Arrow River. A squeal of brake blocks announces our arrival at Provisions – a quaint café in a converted miner’s cottage, which advertises “obscenely good sticky buns”.
Washing the trail dust off 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. I look like an extra from the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but the reflection is deceptive: I feel great. We sit in the cafe’s pretty garden, reflecting on our helter skelter descent. We’ve completed McIntyre’s “dream trail” intact; the sun is shining and it’s still only early afternoon.
Easy riders: Lazy in Lycra? More freewheeling trips
Ski lifts in Italy The Sella Ronda is a classic day-long tour for skiers, who ski from one chairlift or cable car to the next, gradually making a complete circuit around the rock walls of the fortress-like, 3,152m-high, Sella massif. Less well-known is that it’s also possible to make the 55km circuit by mountain bike in summer (from June to late September). Bikes are attached to the lifts; guides are organised by the tourist office. Groups start at the village of Selva, in Italy’s Südtirol. www.valgardena-active.com
Electric bikes in Austria Once derided as transport for only the elderly or infirm, electric bikes are enjoying a surge of popularity, and several leading mountain-bike manufacturers are incorporating motors in their new models for 2014. Riders still need to pedal, but the motors provide a helping hand, particularly for uphill sections. “E-bikes” can now be rented for the day in many alpine resorts, while tour operator Headwater is trialling them on several of its self-guided European holidays, including four in Austria. To make the trips, which range from seven to 12 nights, easier still, all luggage is transferred by car between the hotels. www.headwater.com
The ultimate downhill in India KE Adventure runs challenging group cycling trips around the world but most have a following vehicle, so riders can skip punishing climbs while still enjoying all the downhill. Perhaps the greatest expression of this is on the company’s trip to Leh and Manali, in northern India, which takes in the Khardung La, a 5,602m-high Himalayan pass usually referred to as the world’s highest motorable road (though this, and the altitude, are disputed). Participants can drive up by 4x4, then saddle up for an unforgettable descent of about 2,000 vertical metres. www.keadventure.com
Jonathan Thompson was a guest of Fat Tyre Adventures (www.fat-tyre.co.nz/), Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) and Tourism New Zealand (www.newzealand.com). Fat Tyre Adventures offers a half day’s heli-biking from £199, full day from £279. Air New Zealand has daily flights from London to Auckland and onwards to Queenstown, from £1,333 return (via Los Angeles)