Diary of a mountain bike tour of New Zealand's South Island, by Euan Wilson, mountain bike adventurer and owner of H+I Adventures
The sun shines high; the air is crisp, clean and full of excitement as I pull up outside the hotel to meet a group of eager mountain bikers. These intrepid souls have arrived from all over the world with a shared desire - to experience the wild beauty of New Zealand’s South Island via some of the finest singletrack you'll find anywhere.
Everyone’s raring to go and, following the all-important pre-trip briefing and last minute questions, we build bikes, gather gear, finish the dregs of our coffee and head straight out to introduce the group to their first taste of New Zealand mountain biking, in the Port Hills, just outside Christchurch.
This warm-up ride is perfect for tuning bikes, sorting saddle positions and getting the legs moving after long travelling days. We set off on a beautiful singletrack climb that snakes its way up onto the Port Hills ridge, opening out on to a spectacular view of the South Pacific. We traverse along the coast on flowing singletrack that helps to tune the brain into New Zealand riding, with turquoise waters on both sides of the trail, before swinging left and down a berm-infested descent that takes us to a remote cove and the end of our first ride. After a hot day on the bike a quick dip in the Pacific provides the cooling respite we're all looking for.
With legs soothed, a quick transfer takes us onwards to the east coast town of Kaikoura. Arriving outside our beach-front accommodation we watch the sunset turn the snow-capped mountains from white to pink and blue. Does life really get much better than this? We'll see...
Next morning we're up with the sun, heading out onto the ocean to watch sperm whales and porpoise in their natural habitat – what a way to start the day! Framed by the same mountains from the night before it's clear that things can, indeed, get better and this is an experience that will stay with us forever.
With our feet firmly back on dry land, we have a second breakfast (it would be rude not to!) before driving further inland to Hanmer Springs. Hanmer is well-known for its hot springs, but is becoming an increasingly popular mountain biking destination, so we saddle up again for a few hours of phenomenal trails, followed by a soak in the hot springs to ease any remaining traces of travel out of our legs. Another great end to a pretty fabulous day on the east coast of the south island.
Day three of our adventure starts with a lovely café breakfast and a short drive to the far end of the St. James trail. This is our first New Zealand backcountry ride, which takes us deep into a valley surrounded by towering peaks, on pristine singletrack through which is unexpectedly reminiscent of wild and grassy African plains.
The next two days see us conquering the longest point-to-point ride in New Zealand; The Old Ghost Road. We’ve also entered a completely different micro-climate and environment from previous days as we ride through lush, deep rainforest. We spend the first day climbing through the humidity of the forest on a grade that averages out at 2%, before emerging onto the high alpine ridge with endless views over the rainforest canopy.
Within an hour of ridge riding we arrive at our mountain-top hut for the night, where our luggage is already waiting for us. We clean up, eat some dinner and ease onto the deck with a drink and a contented smile to watch the sunset over the rainforest below.
We sit out late into the night enjoying the sights and sounds of sleeping at the top of a mountain. Our late night makes for a slower-than-normal start the next morning. Still, it's nothing a few coffees won’t fix…So, after said caffeine, we set off on our descent down the other side of the ridgeline, towards Craigieburn, and our reward for yesterday’s hard work!
Each day so far the trails have been vastly different in many ways, from terrain, to build and eco-system, and Craigieburn offers up its own surprises.
We start riding through beech trees that are shielding us from the breathtaking views, but once the trail spits us out onto what was described as ‘high Colorado’ trail, with rock pillars towards the valley side of the trail, we are gobsmacked. Flow is the name of the game on this trail, but you need to earn it on the short and punchy climbs. When we return to the ranch we’re all in the mood to celebrate today’s awesome riding and our ‘day off’ to come tomorrow.
The 'rest day' starts with a drive to the heart of the Southern Alps and Mount Cook, the target of our hike today. We park up at a locals’ favourite vantage point to photograph Mount Cook and its surrounding glaciers. When we’re all photographed out we walk back to the village and our accommodation for the night where, over a local beer, we watch night slowly descend over the panorama that we have spent so much of the day marvelling at.
As we wake, the clouds have dropped into the valley, so we decide to head out to Twizel to grab a breakfast en-route to Wanaka. We stop in at our guides’ favourite bakery for a breakfast and a mountain biker’s special: lemon curd cupcake and a coffee. We arrive in Wanaka by late morning, check in to the accommodation and saddle up to explore this glaciated valley and lake with the most impressive bay we’ve experienced yet.
Our ride sees us weave our way along the banks of both the river and the lake, stopping what seems like every 50 meters to take the next best picture – it really is that kind of ride.
More fantastic trails give way to a welcome couple of hours free in the afternoon to walk around Wanaka, enjoy a coffee in the sun and pick up any supplies we may require from the local bike and outdoor shops. It also gives us the chance to arrange our kit and prepare for tomorrow’s ride, which is going to be another epic...
After breakfast we have a short drive up to the ski field where we set off on our mammoth wilderness day. The majority of the day's altitude is gained in the van, but there's still work to be done to gain the last 800m of ascent before we reach the peak of Mount Pisa and ride along the ridgeline for the next couple of hours. This is an amazing and unique mountain range to be riding on; the last high mountain range before Antarctica.
As we come to end of the ridgeline, my mouth is watering at the prospect of riding one of the best singletrack descents in the country (again) and I can’t wait to share it with the crew. As we hit the valley floor it’s impossible for everyone to keep the grin off their faces. Luckily we're able to maintain this for the rest of the day thanks, in part, to some beer which is helpfully stored in the van fridge for occasions just like this one…
As we pack up and head to our accommodation, we get our first tantalising glimpse of Queenstown, and our base for the rest of the tour. The group is already really impressed with the fantastic location and town, and they haven’t even seen the trails yet!
We check into the hotel that will be our home for four nights. Fantastic as it is to move around and experience as much of the country as possible it's also nice to settle in and know we don’t need to pack and move our kit until the end of the adventure.
For the three riding days in Queenstown we experience a remarkably diverse selection of trails that see us riding at 2000m, descending some secret trails, riding Queenstown bike club-built trails, old mining tracks and trails made famous by our favourite mountain bike movies… we tick all the boxes and all within a maximum transfer time of 30 minutes from the accommodation.
Of course, we do save the best until last and, with minimal climbing, we descend around 2200m on our last day of adventure riding in New Zealand, leaving everyone suitably tired and exhilarated from their South Island extravaganza.
All that’s left to do now is enjoy our final celebratory dinner, where we talk, share pictures and toast our outstanding Kiwi adventure late into the evening. New Zealand seems to have exceeded expectations, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this won’t be the last time these guys ride in The South!