A little paradise:
WORDS MATT WRAGG
PHOTOS LUKE SERGENT
"The Indians are embalming the drugs you absorb from the television in the coffee." She was obviously agitated, someone had emptied the coffee can and it upset the fragile balance of the universe. We were in the path of her of her storm. "What do you mean ‘excuse me’? You understand me perfectly well, they steal the drugs from you when you’re sleeping and embalm them in the coffee." Queenstown attracts screamers, the kind of people who went too far out into life and now spend their days angry with the sky. Most of the time you can avoid them, they lock themselves away in their badly-painted camper vans and, well god knows what they actually do in there, some questions are better left unasked... She’d escaped hers though and booked herself into the hostel. We were confronted by this tiny, seething woman, beanie pulled down hard over her skull to keep the worst of the madness in. What spilled out into the kitchen was bad enough.
Something draws them in, an almost magnetic attraction to this spot. Yet even if you don’t visit a crystal healer before your doctor, or feel the need to rant to a hostel full of people about your "true spirit love," it’s hard to deny there’s an energy here in Queenstown. Call it a vibe, a feeling, or whatever new-age horse shit you buy into, there’s something in the air that it’s hard to put your finger on at first. After weeks of struggling with the idea, ex-pat and mechanic at R&R Sport, Pete Weir, put it into words almost too easily: "People are happy to be here." Sure, it sounds like a small, simple thing, but how many times do you find yourself in a place full of people who genuinely want to be there? That changes a place. Coming from the UK it can be an unnerving thing to be around. We tend to be conditioned to accept everyone around us plotting to run for the nearest airport if they ever find the balls or the imagination.
You have no doubt how special this place is from the moment you step out onto the tiny airport runway. Towering over you are The Remarkables, one of only two mountain lines in the world that run north-south. It’s not the geological quirk that takes your breath away though - it’s that they are the fantasy mountains from a Disney film, fleshed out to over 1,200m above the valley floor. Giant, jagged, grey colossuses peppered with snow at their tips. Unlike the surrounding mountains these came from Somewhere Else, some great seismic event forced them violently up towards the sky. You wouldn’t be surprised if they had simply appeared one morning. From the airport it’s 5km into town along the banks of Lake Wakatipu. Maoris believe that an ancient monster lives in its depths and that the monster breathing causes the waters to rise and fall each day. Looking out over its cold, crystal blue expanse you wouldn’t bet on them being wrong. The beauty of that all-too-short first drive stays imprinted in the memory of everyone who comes here.
Heading into the heart of Queenstown you start to see signs of a healthy riding community. Bumper stickers, fork-style racks hanging off cars, tyre tracks on the gravel path. Although it’s more subtle than other riding towns here, sure there are expensive rigs chained up along the side of the road and far too many bike shops for a town this size, but it ain’t Morzine or Whistler. You’re not likely to see big groups of guys on DH rigs with full body armour tearing down Shotover Street. Here you’re more likely to see groups of hungover gap year students killing time before they head out to bungee jump, or back to their sticky hostel rooms to exercise their hormones. Shoals of shiny Japanese tourists float by, pointing their cameras at nothing and everything, chubby Indian men parade their implausibly beautiful, sylph-like girlfriends by. For a small town there’s a real bustle to the centre, with people of all ages from across the world passing through. There’s life here and bikes are just another part of this vibrant former mining outpost, the self-styled Outdoor Capital of the World.
Before you can enjoy the finer points of the town there’s usually the small issue of jetlag to deal with. The thirty or so hours up in the air to get here takes its toll on your mind and body. There’s nothing better to start the healing than the meat and grease of a Fergburger. From a shack in a back street this local institution has grown to international fame, and rightly so – anyone who can make pineapple taste good on a burger is worth your time and money. Of course there’s then the dilemma of whether to chase your burger with booze or strong coffee (the only two proper options for a time like that). You’re spoilt for choice - the Kiwis take their coffee very seriously, so there are great little coffee shops all over town. As for the booze, well you can have a good night out any day of the week, and you can almost certainly find chlamydia just as easily if you venture into the Altitude bar.
Queenstown Lakes District Council’s Paul Wilson needs few words to sum up how he sees mountain biking here. Quite simply, "It’s important." How many people in the UK would kill to hear that from their local council? Talking to him we got around to the inevitable, at least for us Brits, talk of health and safety. He explains that "Here in New Zealand we’ve always had a culture of adventure and we don’t want to lose that because of health and safety rules. We have some pretty extreme trails around here and people have been seriously hurt. Those people got hurt because they got out of their depth." He doesn’t stop there either, as the council he sees their responsibility as making sure the trails are well-built and maintained, the fact that the transition and landing might be 50ft apart for some of the jumps doesn’t worry him. “If you’re walking down the pavement and it isn’t well-maintained, that’s our responsibility. If you just fall over, well that’s not because of us.” Yes, you really did just read that people are actually expected to take responsibility for their own actions here... Around town you’ll find riding of every kind supported by the council, from the pleasant, gravel roll around Lake Wakatipu to World Cup-level downhill tracks on Bob’s Peak and the put-hairs-on-your-chest-sized jumps of the Dream Track.
Where the council do draw the line is at getting involved in building the trails, he leaves that to the "experts," mountain bikers. More specifically, Queenstown Mountain Bike Club. Run entirely by volunteers they are what president, Tom Hey, describes as "the voice of mountain bikers here. We build most of the (legal) trails around town, maintain trails, run weekly rides and hold events like Seven Hours of Seven Mile." It’s not always as simple as just organising a group of people to go and throw some spades about either, there’s the council to work with, the Department of Conservation (DOC), local landowners, archaeologists and so on. Looking at the amount of work Tom has sitting on his hard drive it’s hard to believe that this is just something he does in his spare time. He only took over last year and already has reams of maps, applications and proposals piling up on that disc.
To get an idea of what the club are capable of you need to head down to Seven Mile, which sits (yep, you guessed it) seven miles out of town along the lake. It’s one of the best uses of space anywhere in the world. They weren’t given much land to work with, one small hill bound by private land on one side and the lake on the other. What they’ve cut into the woods is a trail network that riders of all levels can get hours of fun from. Running off from the main climb there are easily a dozen sweet, well-built and maintained descents in this small tuft of a trail centre. What’s more, you don’t really see the other runs as you’re riding, it’s only when you see the spaghetti-like mass of the trail map you appreciate how much they’ve fitted into here. On something like the oddly-named Kachoong your first run down seems like a fast rollercoaster, but on your second you start seeing where you can use the trail shape to double up, or the triple black line sneaking off to the left... They’ve also been very clever with how they use the gradient, nearly all the runs are surprisingly long, but you never get that nagging doubt that a section has been built just to save those precious vertical metres.
Tom’s big mission for the club is to open up the back country around Queenstown. It’s a huge project in every sense – he’s mapped out a couple of hundred kilometres of trail that either needs building or for access granting to ride. “The XC here isn’t as good as Whistler” is his blunt assessment of the current situation. “They’ve got the best cross country riding anywhere in the world and we’re nowhere near that right now, but we have the potential for amazing loops.” Out of everyone, Tom should know. Before he moved to Queenstown a few years ago he was a long-term Whistler resident and one of the guys responsible for building the courses for Crankworx and other big freeride events. “Part of the reason it’s so good in Canada is because people would just go out into the woods with chainsaws to build trails. Here it’s much more complicated to get a trail built.” Bureaucracy isn’t going to stop him though, his quiet determination and energy leave a sense of inevitability to his plans and you cannot doubt the amount of work both he and the club are pouring into this. It looks like sooner rather than later there’s going to be an incredible trail network here.
You can get a glimpse of that future if you head out to the Moonlight Trail. Pedalling up past the perfectly-manicured dirt jumps on Gorge Road, the trailhead is maybe twenty minutes ride out of town. One brief, lung-bursting stint up from the road and you’re onto singletrack. Thirty minutes from central Queenstown and you’re skirting the side of Ben Lomond with the Shotover River far below. Suddenly you’re in real backcountry. These aren’t purposely-designed mountain bike trails, as you climb away from the last few houses you’ll find your bike and shoulder getting well-acquainted. What’s overwhelming is how quickly you feel a long way out from the rest of the world. There’s that sense of rawness, at times you’re riding along the tops of cliffs. Even when it’s slightly less vertical, if you go off the trail, there isn’t a lot to stop you before you reach the gorge below.
At the top of the first climb you can look back to where you’ve come from and still see signs of civilisation. Looking ahead along the valley you see the potential of this area. Aside from being stunning, to the point of needing to catch your breath, there’s so much terrain to play with, all of it in easy reach of town. You can see why Tom is so passionate about developing the region. With some work, well... Stu, my riding partner for the day and for the last two seasons a guide in Whistler, half-whispered: “You could have the best backcountry riding in the world here.” There was nobody for miles to hear him say that, but you don’t want to take chances if you’re making such big statements. Maybe a butterfly fell from the skies, stone-dead, in Whistler as the words passed his lips.
If we had any doubts about Stu’s big claim, they melted away as we descended further into the valley. The same kind of features we’d hiked our bikes up on the climb became fun, challenging hits to play with. With planned trails you can never find that same feeling of being alert and alive, waiting for nature to throw something ugly and unrideable at you. All the while that big exposure stays there to your right, almost inviting you to fall. To describe the trail as slow, awkward and technical doesn’t sound as much fun now on paper, but the word on our lips as we ducked and weaved through the rocks was “perfect.”
When you drop back onto the road at the end of the loop you realise the challenge of building such a big network. Finishing way out past Wilson’s Bay there are eight miles or so of road between you and town – there’s the nut. It’s not just building the trails, but the connections to link them together. Fortunately Seven Mile is between the end of the trail and town, it’d be rude not to grab a few more descents as you pass, right?
Throughout Queenstown you can see signs that mountain biking is gaining traction with local businesses. Several local bars even run nights for riders (you can make your own logjam joke). The biggest, most important sign is the company who run the gondola going up from town to Bob’s Peak. You’d think opening it to bikes in a town full of riders would be a no brainer, but it wasn’t that simple. The story goes that the previous general manager hated mountain bikers because one day his partner was out walking on the hill and was hit by one. Since then he’d done everything he could to keep bikers out (there’s probably a less fun corporate version of why they’ve only opened recently involving target markets and revenue streams, but we prefer this one). For a few years the lift up on Coronet Peak had filled that gap, but when the plug was pulled there, riders were left staring longingly at the Skyline lift. In 2010 the company finally caved in to common sense and opened it to bikes.
Don’t be put off by the words 'bike park,' it’s not just for big, heavy downhill bikes - a lot of people who head up there are outright novices. Tracks like Hammy’s have been designed with tourists in mind, the kind of folk who want to try mountain biking for a day. Like with Seven Mile, they’ve found that balance between something cool for beginners, but still fun for experienced riders. Of course there is some pretty full-on stuff up on the hill too - the flatout, near vertical chutes of Ant’s Track, the huge, hilarious rooty fadeaway on Grundy and the start-to-finish man-eater that is World Cup/Hobbit. But the trail police won’t drag you off the hill if you just fancy getting some fun, chilled laps in. It’s a perfect chance to go fast for a few hours, maybe you wouldn’t want to ride an open motorway-style trail every day, but once in a while it’s about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. For $45 NZD for a half day it’s not bad value, you should be able to get about ten runs in with time to spare, plenty to leave you sore, battered and grinning.
With a bike park open the talk among riders inevitably ends with comparisons to Whistler and the other handful of seasonaire towns. A lot of people doing summers here are Whistler refugees, flitting between the two to avoid the snow and cold. Year-on-year there are more riders in town, it’s a rapidly growing sport here. Unlike other riders’ towns, people stay here though. People who have travelled the world with bikes, ridden everywhere you can think of, and plenty of places you hadn’t, choose to settle in Queenstown. But why?
There’s no debate that the riding here is worth travelling halfway round the world for, there are some of the best trails you’ll ever ride in these hills. Yet there are a handful of other places that can make the same kind of claim, even make serious claims to be better, but people don’t settle in those places in the same way. Tom Hey is a good example, sure he’ll tell you that the backcountry is better in Whistler, but it’s here in Queenstown he’s decided to live. Finally Paul ‘Pang’ Angus, part owner of local shop Vertigo Bikes and ex-World Cup racer, nailed what it is that keeps them here. “People love bikes, love riding bikes, but it’s not the be-all and end-all here. People love to use the lake, use the mountains; they love to go climbing, fishing, motorbiking, wakeboarding, all that sort of stuff. There’s way more to do here than just riding. I think that’s where places like Whistler suffer, if you’re not riding there’s not much else to do. Whereas with Queenstown if you don’t want to ride today there are a million things you can do. That’s what is so unique about this place.” It’s almost ironic - the thing that makes this the best riding town in the world isn’t bikes at all. It’s everything else.