FLY­ING HIGH IN CEN­TRAL OTAGO

Australian Mountain Bike - - Contents - WORDS: MIKE BLE­WITT PHO­TOS: TIM BARDSLEY-SMITH

Get to the chop­per! Dis­cover the joy of he­li­bik­ing in the breath­tak­ing moun­tains of Cen­tral Otago on New Zealand’s South Is­land.

IITTis im­pos­si­ble not to gaze up­wards to high ridge­lines and peaks when in the moun­tains. I think this is some­thing many moun­tain bik­ers do, no mat­ter what ter­rain they are in. Who isn’t cu­ri­ous about what trails might lie un­ex­plored? What lo­cal se­crets a bush­land val­ley might hold? Of course, the prob­lem is al­ways find­ing the best trails, and then hav­ing the time to ride them. When you’re on hol­i­day, time is still pre­cious. When we were in Cen­tral Otago in sum­mer, our eyes often cast up­wards to the ranges above. It is some­times hard to gauge scale when sur­rounded by big hills and moun­tains, but it was ob­vi­ous a ride up there would be a se­ri­ous un­der­tak­ing – plus what trails would we come down on, would they be worth the climb? He­liv­iew Flights are one an­swer to the prob­lem, with he­lidrops avail­able in nu­mer­ous lo­ca­tions, and ve­hi­cle shut­tles in oth­ers. They of­fer guided (and self­guided) de­scents through pri­vate prop­erty and on trails you might not oth­er­wise dis­cover. So not only do you get up top quickly, with the fun of a he­li­copter ride, but you also get to ride a route that wouldn’t nor­mally be avail­able to you.

NOT YOUR USUAL SHUT­TLE

Load­ing your bike and your­self into a he­li­copter isn’t an ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence for most of us, and it’s dif­fer­ent to putting your bike over the tail of a ute, onto a shut­tle trailer or even onto a chair­lift. It is a lit­tle more com­plex. For this, we all have to get weighed in with our gear (in­clud­ing filled Camel­baks) and we send our bikes up in the fi rst drop. He­liv­iew Flights use a huge alu­minium cage to trans­port your bikes. Not all in one jum­ble, but held se­curely with Yakima High Roller racks. Pi­lot Richard Foale is clearly pretty proud of his creation, and it al­lows bikes to be trans­ported up to re­mote he­lidrop points in com­plete se­cu­rity. No dam­age, no stress. He’s also got over 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence fly­ing he­li­copters, which is re­as­sur­ing. Still, it is pretty sur­real to watch the he­li­copter take off and the im­mense cage with the bikes safely at­tached fly up and away from the he­li­pad. The thun­der­ous clap of the noise of the ro­tors edges away un­til it’s a faint echo, and then it’s gone.

GET TO THE CHOP­PER!

A lot of peo­ple baulk at the cost of he­li­bik­ing. It isn’t cheap, and it isn’t an ev­ery­day ac­tiv­ity. But it is an ex­pe­ri­ence you will rel­ish, and it’s unique wher­ever you do it. And while some of it is about ac­cess to some­where high and re­mote, an ad­di­tional as­pect is also the he­li­copter ride it­self, and the views over the ter­rain you are about to ride through. Launch­ing from Cromwell Race­course Air­field with He­liv­iew Flights is no dif­fer­ent. We loaded in once Richard was back, with his wife Jolanda as our guide, and two other rid­ers be­sides Tim Bardsley-Smith, An­thony Long­man and my­self. Ev­ery­one was smil­ing, ev­ery­one was buzzing. With head­phones on the roar of the en­gine and thump of the blades was re­duced. As Richard eased us off the he­li­pad we quickly gained height, and he pointed out the land­marks around Cromwell. The race­course, the town, the river, the azure blue lake, the green stripes of vine­yard, and of course the ridges ris­ing in rocky splen­dour up from the river and farm­land. Now, at a greater height, we could ap­pre­ci­ate the size of the moun­tains - see­ing so much more ter­rain which was ob­scured from view when stand­ing below in the val­ley. Cen­tral Otago re­ally is a moun­tain bike play­ground, and rel­a­tively undis­cov­ered as well. Tak­ing to the skies above the broad plains and rugged ridge­lines and moun­tains gives you a much bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how much there is to ride. Of course, fig­ur­ing out where to go can be the chal­lenge.

VAL­LEY TO PEAK AND BACK AGAIN

We land, un­load the cage of bikes, and Richard is soon back in the sky, the empty cage trail­ing be­hind as the he­li­copter dis­ap­pears from sight, and we are plunged into – si­lence. It’s an eerie feel­ing, af­ter be­ing com­pletely en­gulfed in loud in­dus­trial noise, be­fore then be­com­ing im­mersed in the high moun­tain en­vi­ron­ment, above the plains, the rivers, the vil­lages. You have your bike, your guide and your mates, and noth­ing to dis­turb the moun­tain air.

We are high on a sheep sta­tion, one of many land­ing zones that He­liv­iew Flights have ne­go­ti­ated the use of. Our ride is go­ing to lead us down farm trails, and onto some older aqueduct trails that main­tain our el­e­va­tion This is one of many flights that He­liv­iew of­fer. He­liv­iew are also open to plan­ning a drop to re­mote lo­ca­tions, should you want to do a multi-day (or long day) back­coun­try trip, us­ing some of the moun­tain huts. Us­ing he­li­copters for trips like this isn’t es­sen­tial, but it re­ally can fa­cil­i­tate some one way rides, mak­ing them fea­si­ble but by no means any eas­ier. Th­ese trips take plan­ning, so get in touch with Richard and his part­ner Jolanda if you want to re­ally get out there. Richard and Jolanda started op­er­at­ing in 2003 in New Ply­mouth on the North Is­land, but moved to Cromwell in 2014 as they saw the po­ten­tial in the area – and they liked the change in life­style that Cen­tral Otago of­fered. As an area with big moun­tains, vine­yards, farms and small towns, it isn’t hard to see the ap­peal.

POINT AND SHOOT

Jolanda takes us through the ride step by step. We have a near 360 de­gree view, so it’s great to get an idea of where we are head­ing. We are start­ing on farm trails, pretty rugged dou­ble track that sits atop a ridge­line, and al­lows some se­ri­ous speed. There are short flat sec­tions, which are handy speed checks, as we eas­ily hit over 70km/h on some parts, while still us­ing the brakes a lot! We tra­verse across the face of the moun­tain, and come to a stop at Old Mus­ter­ers Hut, nes­tled into the moun­tain side near a stream. In­side it looks as if it has barely changed since it was used by gold min­ers in the 19th cen­tury. There is an old ta­ble, some tin mugs, and a well-used fire place – at each end of the hut. Win­ters in Cen­tral Otago are pretty cold, and stay­ing up here search­ing for your for­tune would have been a very harsh ex­is­tence. The thick stone walls would only do so much in mi­nus-20 de­grees. Thank­fully, we are rid­ing in late af­ter­noon sum­mer sun. The heat of the day builds through the day­light hours in Cen­tral Otago, and late af­ter­noon is typ­i­cally the most in­tense. But the air is warm, the light is fan­tas­tic and we move onto an aquaduct trail that wraps around the shoul­der of the moun­tain. Th­ese trails aren’t unique to Cen­tral Otago - you’ll find sim­i­lar trails around the world that fol­low hand­made wa­ter­courses for agri­cul­ture or min­ing. But they are some of the best ‘nat­u­ral’ trails in the area, with just a slight down­hill gra­di­ent, a rounded top and al­ways with a great view. They keep you on your toes, and we nav­i­gate through

crum­bled sec­tions, past fallen rock, and be­tween stands of wild­flow­ers and large patches of pur­ple heather. All the time the val­ley of or­chards and vine­yards spreads out below us, giv­ing us an in­di­ca­tor of just how much more we have to de­scend. We turn sharply off the trail and onto an­other farm trail tra­verse, seem­ingly just wide enough for a quad bike to get up – maybe. The two trails of the dou­ble track are like two stretches of sin­gle­track that are carved into the side of a nat­u­ral bowl in the moun­tain. We have to bunny hop from one side to the other as one line de­te­ri­o­rates and the other im­proves. At lower speed it wouldn’t be a prob­lem, but at the speeds we are go­ing it takes a lot of at­ten­tion. He­liv­iew Flights aim to have most of their routes achiev­able for peo­ple with only lim­ited moun­tain bik­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but like any­thing, the faster you go, the harder it gets. Our fi­nal stretch runs steeply down the ridge­lines of the foot hills, un­til a last steep chute of fast trail has us pick­ing lines and swap­ping sides of the trail to find the best route down. We snake through the vine­yards at the base of the moun­tain, com­ing to a stop in a cloud of dust right where Richard meets us in the He­liv­iew ute, ready to take us for a drink. Most of the routes fin­ish up near a win­ery, pub or restau­rant, which makes for a great place to have a drink, a meal, and re­live the ad­ven­ture. Our ride of 15km was far from the long­est that He­liv­iew of­fer, with some routes at about 25km. We dropped about 900m, while other routes have about 1400m de­scent. This is some­thing truly unique and hard to achieve in Aus­tralia, un­less you have some ex­cel­lent re­mote ac­cess in the high coun­try. And as we or­dered fa­ji­tas, na­chos and Coronas at the lo­cal Mex­i­can bar, it was easy to ap­pre­ci­ate what the he­li­bike ex­pe­ri­ence gave us. We could have rid­den up a sim­i­lar range, but we wouldn’t have had the in­sights from Richard and Jolanda. We wouldn’t have seen Cen­tral Otago and Cromwell from the air, to see the size and breadth of the area. And even with good fit­ness, the ride up and ride down would be a big chal­lenge. If you’re not used to alpine length climbs, it might be an episode in suf­fer­ing, with­out the joy of rid­ing on the de­scent due to fa­tigue. We were all buzzing, though, from a great af­ter­noon spent on the slopes above Cromwell, shar­ing me­mories and tales well into the long sum­mer twi­light.

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