It's all downhill from here

The helicopter that brought us up Crown Peak with our bikes departs for Queenstown Airport. Photos supplied.
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 tells us.

"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 Bath.
Marti the guide (left) and Mike, the flying Englishman from Bath.
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 some.
Some of the single-track on the ride was a little scary for some.
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 mountain.

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 guide.

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 $390.
For more information go to: www.fat-tyre.co.nz.


Jeff Kavanagh is a freelance travel writer.