Off the Deep End: Heli-Biking New Zealand
by FERGUS BLAKISTON
Around us loomed a 360-degree panorama of craggy mountains: the teeth surrounding New Zealand's Mackenzie Basin.
The glaciers and snowfields of New Zealand's Southern Alps reared along the western skyline; to the south lay the Nevis Range and the high country of the Lindis Pass. Behind us, the gray summits of the Grampian Mountains and the Two Thumb Range curved northward, blending seamlessly into endless rows of blue peaks beyond Lake Tekapo.
Going in Feet First
I was just one of several enthusiasts (a.k.a. lunatics) seeking an "in the deep end" introduction to mountain biking, joining heli-bike operator Al Shearer on a zoom down Mt. Benmore on New Zealand's South Island. Shearer loves biking the remote tracks of South Island's High Country, but he hates the often grueling uphill rides which accompany downhill zooms.
His simple solution: fly up in a chopper! Shearer's company, Heli Bike, airlifts mountain bikers from the outskirts of Twizel - a village in the middle of a vast upland plain known as the Mackenzie Country - to one of five tracks in the area. A guide then leads the party back down.
From Leisure Lover to Lunatic
Heli Bike's five tour options cater to different levels of ability, from an easy, fun ride on a grassy track to the pell-mell, 4,000-foot-vertical descent of the Benmore Range at the edge of the Southern Alps. For experts, there's also the pulse-pounding Benmore Heli-Bike Challenge, which takes place annually in February.
Obviously, push bikes have come a long way. Once considered a humdrum, workaday piece of machinery-something on which English vicars rode around their parishes and small boys delivered newspapers-the bicycle got attitude in the 1970's, when Marin County adventurers slapped fat tires on their steeds and headed off-road in the hills.
These days, mountain bikes are nearly as sophisticated as Formula One race cars, with aluminum frames, 24 gears, front and rear shock absorbers adjustable for different terrain and pedals resembling ski bindings. The downhill speed record stands at 93 mph.
There were eight of us on the top of the range that March morning. I had flown up with the first group of four, our bikes secured on special racks attached to the helicopter's skids. Our helicopter ride gave us a whole new perspective on the landscape. New Zealand's mountain chopper pilots are some of the best in the world and our pilot gave us a thrilling ride to the top, swooping low over passes and pulling "maximum rate turns" which left my heart in my mouth, with stomach close behind.
When we landed close to the summit of Mt. Benmore, we unloaded our bikes and settled down to enjoy the view while we waited for the rest of our party to be airlifted up.
Into the Chopper
The rotors of the helicopter thrashed the air as it rose and thudded off down the valley, having deposited a second contingent of bikers on the mountaintop. A cold, northwest wind buffeted the tussock bushes around us, and chunks of cloud sailed overhead in the jet stream. Al gave us a briefing about the route and a few pointers connected with staying upright.
We made last-minute adjustments to our cycles - tighten a lever here, add a little more air to a tire there - then set off, bouncing downhill in the direction of 12,349-foot Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak. To the Maori, New Zealand's native Polynesian people, Mount Cook is a sacred place they call "Aoraki," or "the cloud piercer."
The track crossed a scree of chunky rocks stacked up like old crockery. Below, glacier-fed Lake Pukaki gleamed in a blue haze of wind-blown dust. We had a photo stop beside a huge black bluff, then the track switch-backed steeply downhill. The bumps made my teeth clack together like castanets. The coarse, bushy snow tussocks slapped my legs with their spindly fronds.
Meanwhile, the bike bounced and jittered over the uneven ground. It was like piloting an orbital sander down a washboard.
We stopped for a snack in the lee of a crag, which reared from a knife-edged ridge. The hillsides fell away abruptly on either side. We felt suspended on a strip of ground halfway between the land and the sky.
The Mackenzie Basin spread out below like a pale carpet, rumpled by hummocks of glacial moraine and striated with old water courses and dry riverbeds. Occasional rows of dark pines - windbreaks supplying shelter to meager fields - and the turquoise blue of the lakes provided the only color in the austere palette of the landscape.
About 30 high country sheep stations (large farms), some up to 50,000 acres in size, occupy the Mackenzie Basin. The station names - Dry Creek, Streamlands, Rugged Ridges - evoke the dramatic nature of the High Country. Many of the region's early settlers came from Scotland and they brought place names from their homeland - Braemar, Lochaber, Grampians - giving the Mackenzie Country a distinctly Scottish flavor.
Paying the Price
After a half-hour rest we pushed on downhill. In places, the Benmore Range trail was nothing more than a pair of indistinct parallel lines scratched into the mountainside; sometimes it formed slot-car grooves through peaty hollows, and the steepest bits pitched headlong down rocky faces. The few uphill sections weren't so much fun. But I consoled myself with the thought that we had cheated a bit by being flown to the top. Normally we would have had to ride up-a leg-busting slog before the exhilaration of the descent.
The uphill bits were thrown in to keep us honest. Besides, the vistas were so grand it was easy to ignore the effort involved with pedaling uphill. Far below, the Ohau Canal carried turquoise water from Lake Ruataniwha towards a power station and the blue-braided Pukaki River wound across the barren plain.
It took around three hours to reach the foot of the hill. As the track leveled out, we followed a gully filled with aromatic sage and briar rose. Merino sheep grazed the hillsides above the track. During the Heli-bike Challenge, Al informed me, the fastest riders reach the bottom in less than forty minutes. Our more sedate pace had allowed for plenty of rest stops, photo opportunities and lessons about the geography of the Mackenzie.
The trail led across some bare farm paddocks (fields) bordered by plantations of pine trees. The deceptively strong Antipodean sun beat down on us as we rode towards a bitumen road on the far side of the paddock, marking the end of our adventure.
Beside the road, we sprawled out on the ground with cold beers and dissected the ride, using our hands like fighter pilots to illustrate cornering lines, near misses and passing maneuvers.
A van arrived to take us back to Twizel. As we crossed the Ruataniwha Dam, which holds back a lake of pale blue glacial water, I looked up at the tawny flanks of the mountain we had just descended. The track was almost invisible: a minute scrape on endless muscular hills. I had plunged into the deep end and come out clean. My push bike would never feel the same again.
For more information, contact: Al Shearer/Heli Bike; Phone/Fax: 011-64 -3- 435-0626; E-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.helibike.com Benmore rides cost US $58; other rides range from US $38 to US $58. Heli-hikes are also available for US $35.
Photo courtesy of Fergus Blakiston.