The helicopter that brought us up Crown Peak with our bikes
departs for Queenstown Airport. Photos supplied.
The best bit about cycling in the hills is not the climb.
So Jeff Kavanagh goes biking from the top down.
"Don't go round the back of the helicopter," our guide Marti
"There's a small rotor that you can't see and let's just say
if you walk into it, it's not going to end well." I was
already a bit nervous about my first ride in a helicopter,
but now I'm even concerned about leaving the hangar. I watch
as the bikes are loaded on to special carry racks attached to
the skids, and soon we're given the signal to make a short,
crouched walk to the machine and its whirling blades.
Marti the guide (left) and Mike, the flying Englishman from
Once we've strapped ourselves in and donned our
headphones, we rapidly levitate high above Queenstown Airport
and head to the starting point of our mountain-biking trip, the
1754-metre summit of Crown Peak. It's a superb November day,
the best the weather's been all week, and looking out one side
of the chopper at the flowing braids of the Shotover River and
towards the mighty Remarkables out the other, any nerves I feel
surrender to a sense of astonishment and excitement at where we
are, and what we're doing.
Besides having never been in a helicopter before, I haven't
done any biking that actually involves a proper mountain for
about 20 years, but Marti, who guides for Fat Tyre, the
heli-biking operator that's taking me, two Americans and an
English guy from Bath on our half-day trip, assures me the
riding won't be too full-on.
"These trips aren't just about 'bombing' your way to the
bottom," he says after the chopper has dropped us off next to
a large patch of spring snow and glided away back towards to
the airport. "They're about having fun, but also having time
to appreciate your surroundings."
Some of the single-track on the ride was a little scary for
A cheery 42-year-old with wrap-around shades, a
substantial lower-lip goatee and almost two decades of
mountain-bike guiding experience behind him, Marti warns us
that should one of us take a big tumble out here, a serious
injury will take at least an hour to be properly attended to.
The thought of lying in a crumpled mess on the side of the
mountain doesn't seem to overly concern Mike the Englishman and
within seconds of mounting our full-suspension GT bikes, the
30-year-old buyer for an outdoor equipment firm is flying like
a bat out of hell down a four-wheel-drive track.
One of two cycling outfits in Queenstown to offer
heli-biking, Fat Tyre runs trips to five different local
ranges, catering to most categories of rider. The trip I'm
on, cycling from the Crown Range down into Arrowtown, is
occasionally a little hairy but doesn't require too much
skill in the way of mountain-biking. That's not to say it's
for complete novices, however - the farm track that forms the
first part of the ride is steep and heavily rutted in places
and leads on to a old, rocky miners' path, which is narrow
and falls away into a deep gully on one side.
On a couple of sections of this thin "single track" - a
mountain-biking term for a path that's about the same width
as a bike - I opt to dismount and walk the bike down, either
because the incline is too great or because the rocks are too
uneven for me to negotiate without a high risk of pitching
face-forward into them. But these sections are only short,
and the four-wheel-drive tracks that bookend them, while
teeth-rattlers, are a lot of fun and it's not long down the
first part of the run before I start to release my iron grip
on the back brake and start trusting the bike more.
Everyone in the group has their own pace, but I'm thankful
I'm not the only one who doesn't have a great deal of
experience - Max, the 20-year-old son of the other Bostonian
on the trip, Harry, is also taking his time to get down the
mountain. Ahead of us, his 47-year-old dad, a keen
mountain-biker in the States who looks more like Max's
sibling than parent, makes easy work of the bumpy terrain.
It's a surprise, then, that I pass Harry walking on the
single track. I ask him if he's all right as I ride past.
"I'm just dealing with my paralysis," he says. I find out
later over a couple of beers in the shady garden of a cafe in
Arrowtown he's scared of heights and wasn't completely
comfortable with parts of the thin track across the side of
There's no doubting that it's dramatic countryside, and
during the descent we regroup occasionally on flatter parts
of the ride to take in the phenomenal views of the
surrounding Alps and the Wakatipu Basin below. About halfway
down, we stop for lunch - a few long gulps of the water we
brought with us and an energy bar - outside the remains of a
miner's stone hut.
We're joined by three middle-aged Aussie guys who are doing
the same ride and learn one of their group broke a collarbone
further up the mountain and is being walked down by another
I ask Mike, the flying Englishman, if he's ever hurt himself
mountain-biking. It's no real surprise that he has, and he
runs through a catalogue of serious injuries crowned by a
shattered pelvis, the result of sailing into a tree after a
high-speed jump went awry. I ask him if the fear of repeating
such an injury makes him more cautious.
"Not at all," he replies.
"Mountain-biking's an extreme sport and without the risk of
hurting yourself, it wouldn't be extreme, would it?"
I'm not sure I agree, but although we have very different
ideas about what extreme biking is and the type of injuries
we're willing to suffer as a result - a grazed knee after my
bike slides out on a slippery corner is enough for me - we
both reach Arrowtown in one piece, splattered with mud, and
with big smiles on our faces.
If you go
Half-day heli-biking trips to Crown Peak with Fat Tyre cost
For more information go to: www.fat-tyre.co.nz.
• Jeff Kavanagh is a freelance travel writer.