Queenstown has a growing reputation as the Southern Hemisphere's Whistler. Each year more and more riders flock south to escape the cold, grab some precious sun and dusty laps on the bike amidst the long, cold months of the northern winter. Sitting deep among the mountains and lakes of Otago, New Zealand, it is a small slice of outdoors paradise, the perfect remedy for the cold, wet trail conditions back home. Much like Whistler, what the outside world tends to see is the extreme side of things. The media, social and otherwise, is full of riders sending the insanely-proportioned Dream Track jumps, or destroying the Skyline bike park at speeds that are beyond the reach of most mortals. It's exciting to watch, but the heart of what most of us do our or bikes is simple trail riding. Yet behind all of the mountaintop golden hour shots and the lakeside mountain porn, there is a quiet struggle and a huge amount of work being put in to help this area reach the potential that it is clearly has. As Tom Hey, president of the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club (QTMBC), explains "When I first arrived in [here] in 2007 I was loving the hucks at Wynyard Park and Gorge Road that the OGs at QMTBC made happen and they were really what put Queenstown on the map. 7 Mile was the only real trail riding, which the club did a great job of for short rides followed by a jump in the lake, but It was frustrating to have such epic scenery and big mountains and no real way to link up good rides or long descents. The council marketed biking hard but weren’t really aware that the trail riding was pretty crappy compared to other places."
To understand trail riding in New Zealand you need to understand the country's history. More than any other kind of riding, trail riding, and especially backcountry trail riding, is tied to history. In Europe where the possibilities to roam the Alpine mountaintops seems endless, those rides are possible because of several millennia of trade, farming and warfare. Every farmer with terraces high up on a mountainside needed a way to get his mule to market, mountains needed crossing to bring goods and news to the other side and armies needed to reach their enemy. Today the legacy of that is a network of trails criss-crossing the landscape, scaling almost every peak and joining up the towns and villages. New Zealand doesn't have this kind of history. Even the Maori were relatively late arrivals, settling the country sometime around the Thirteenth Century. Europeans didn't arrive until 1642 and it took them a hundred or so years to start to settle the land. When the European settlers headed inland they went by cart. That may seem like a small detail, but it's a crucial one. Carts are much wider than mules, so they needed wider tracks, many of which have gone onto become 4x4 tracks today. What all this means for mountain biking is that if you want to go somewhere, you're going to have to build it yourself, there is no pre-existing network to co-opt or re-open.
In Queenstown the mountain bike club have taken on the challenge of trying to fulfil that potential. Before shovels could be put to dirt, the first hurdle was land access, something that is quite heavily restricted in New Zealand. As Tom recalls, "When I took on the presidency of QTMBC I drew up a strategy and then had meetings with the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the local council. DoC have been sweet thanks to Lance’s (the previous QTMBC president) relationship and the good reputation that he built up with them through building the 7 Mile trail area. They were stoked because we were basically doing their job for them! The council have been a bit harder to work with, with consents taking up to a year for a trail. Luckily a few of our planned trails were on DoC land so we cracked on with them first. For each trail I would basically scope, GPS and map first, find out whose land it was on and then approach them with a proposal with trail description, pics and how we would manage it, etc. Landowners can be a mixed bunch so we take them on a case-by-case basis. With lots of high country stations around town it can be hard. Where you could think would be a sick place for a trail the farmer may think it’s a better place to run sheep so you have to compromise so they can run their farm without mountain bikers getting in the way."
Once you have access the obvious question is how do you build it? Thanks to Queenstown's reputation as a riding mecca the club run local DH races that attract world-level riders and help them raise funds to build and maintain trails, they sell a little merchandise too - so a few trails in the network are professionally built by contractors. However, they are the exception, not the rule. Despite mountain biking bringing in a significant amount of money into the local economy, the local council and DoC do not financially support the club, trail maintenance and development in the area. That means that most the work comes down to volunteers and the numbers are staggering for how much effort the local community is putting into the network. Every Wednesday they hold a dig night where they head out cut new trail and repair existing ones and Toms maths on the numbers are pretty stunning - he estimates that have put in more than 4,000 combined man hours - that's more than $70,000NZD at a labourers' rate of $18NZD per hour...
Tom is understandably very proud of the club, "Lots of work has been by the legendary Wednesday dig crew, there’s an awesome core crew who turn up most weeks and there are always new people getting stuck in who want to meet new people or just get involved and give back. Past diggiest diggers have been Mat Weir, Wade Kechington, Tom Baker and Dan Greenwood earning themselves the coveted golden picks which they have to use! Since 2011 the club has smashed out BoB, Gold Digger, Rude Rock, Phoenix, Pack Track and Sack, Tradesmans, Midget, Angels Edge, Lower Satans, What’s Up, The Missing Link, GSD. These are all legal trails we have added to the network. The club have also done maintenance and other work on existing trails that no one else was doing on the Moonlight Track, Sefferstown Track, Arawata Singletrack, Coronet XC and DH, Skippers Pack Track. It's not just trail building though, in total the club puts in around 2,000 volunteer hours per year into everything bike-related and it all compliments each other, things like merchandising and memberships take a lot of volunteer time, but they make a big difference too." It has got to the point with the club where they are not just being recognised locally either, they just won the Trustpower Community Awards - national recognition for the difference they are making to their local community.
Away from the legal trails, there is the question of what are dubbed locally as the "pirate" trails. They are a side-effect of such an active community, local trail builders who want something wilder and more challenging than you can safely put on a tourist map have quietly gone up into the hills and dug another, less legal network of trails. Talk to any good rider who has spent time in Queenstown and the chances are these are the trails they will have loved most, precisely because they are built without restrictions or worries for safety, land ownership or sustainability. To say they are steep and technical barely does justice to the level of difficulty you can find off-piste around town. They are a tricky issue for the club to manage because they while they cannot officially even acknowledge their existence, it is hard to deny that they have played a big part in establishing Queenstown as such a great place to ride. For some of trails the club are working to bring them, or at least the areas they run through, into the legal trail map - the best example is their current, ambitious project to open up Ben Lomond and the Fernhill Loop. These are both areas that have been ridden for years with varying degrees of legality, but they are on the verge of being opened up as fully legal trails, making it possible to ride from the high slopes of the mountain over 1,700m up, down into the forest and right the way to the lakeside at around 300m.
In the bike park above town the dilemma of what to do with the pirate trails is even more clearly illustrated. Many of the trails you find today on the trail map were originally dug by locals who didn't wait around for permissions or planning, they simply went up into the woods and started cutting the lines they wanted to ride. Maybe the best example is what is now known as "Singletrack Sandwich." Apparently the original name of Turd Sandwich was too raw for the tourist maps. The change in the name reflects what has happened to the trail too. Where it was once a perfect, soft line of dirt flowing through the native bush, today it is a hard, beaten mainline that has inevitably lost much of the charm that once made it a rider's favourite. With traffic this is an inevitablity and while Tom could never admit it, that is part of the reason why the club takes a delicate approach to the pirates: First and foremost they are riders who care about riding the best trails. Also, many of the people who are now actively involved in the club today began trail building on lines like these, so they have been a good way to get people involved in working on the legal projects the club is working on.
As impressive as all this is, it's still a work in progress and Tom has big plans for the future. "We need more trails linking up existing ones, first to create a usable network access trails to the best zones and then chuck in the sick descents. I see QMTBC’s role to create efficient access with quality trails for a pretty wide audience basically creating opportunities for proper trails for advanced riders along with ‘flow’ trails that everyone can enjoy. It's amazing what a couple of trails in the right places achieve. The network is already getting better connectivity and some decent loops opening up. We are currently building 4km of trail that will open up a 35 km loop from town which heaps of options for shorter or longer rides. With a couple more trails you’ll be able to link up huge loops around the Wakatipu basin all on trail..." The scale of what a small group of volunteers have put together is very impressive. Through their hard work and dedication Queenstown has been taken from almost nothing to the verge of blossoming into one of the best trail riding locations anywhere on the planet. They are almost there...www.queenstownmtb.co.nz