Sometimes the best trails are accessed by air. Smell the lavender and follow the ribbons of wide open single track in Central Otago.
It is 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 self-guided) 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 first 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
When should I go?
Heliview flights operate all year, but specialise in mountain bike trips from October to May. Due to snow cover in the middle of the year, there are shorter options available on fat bikes if you’re interested, and there are no self-guided options then.
Can I self-guide?
Yes! But having input from a guide not just for directions but to understand what you’re riding through and the historical significance of relics really makes the trip what it is.
A longer travel trail bike will suit. You’re likely to end up going very fast, so something with strong brakes, a dropper post and well-treaded tyres works. If that doesn’t sound like your bike, Heliview Flights have a fleet of Scott Genius dual-suspension bikes to hire that are more than up to the task!
Hire bikes start at $115 plus $25 insurance.
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.
TELL ME MORE
There’s a wealth of information on rates and dates, and possible routes on the Heliview Flights website. Send them an email if you can’t find the answer you want.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO FLY IN A HELICOPTER
No, Heliview Flights also offer a shuttle service on some routes. It does take a little longer, but it’s also a cost saving.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in Cromwell at Top 10 Holiday Park which left us with plenty of room to store bikes, and it had a small self-catering kitchen. You can find more options on the Central Otago website.
We flew into Queenstown and picked up a Subaru with Thule racks from Rent-a-Dent just outside the airport. They were really well priced and the car and bike rack combination is hard to beat when you and a couple of mates need to get around with your bikes.