The singletrack riders guide to the galaxy…or maybe just some parts of New Zealand.
I am besotted with New Zealand. I have been coming here for a whole bunch of years to escape from the perils of winter (it’s on the other half of the world innit) and each year I love this place a little bit more. Which is remarkable because I think I love New Zealand more than I could love a chocolate eyed orphaned puppy who does charity work and fights fires in his spare time.
Each year I try to explore more and more but no matter how hard I try to see and experience all the riding here more trails become apparent. Trail development is currently happening very fast here. Whilst some countries are losing the fight to keep bikes on trails, in NZ ‘walking’ trails are being opened up all the time. Local groups are finding the traction to be able to secure funding and legitimacy to build brand new purpose built mountain bike trails. The government is putting millions and millions of dollars into creating a national cycle network that will span the whole country which in turn will mean a lot more singletrack and not just commuter lanes. Ultimately they want a rider to be able to connect the whole of both islands (it’s two islands innit; imaginatively called the South Island and the North Island) without much need to use roadways. Off-road cycle touring anyone?
This year I have been on numerous road trips and I still haven’t scratched the surface. Even after throwing lungs and legs to the slaughter for days and weeks on end, there will always be locals who say “If only you had more time we could take you to this, that and the other trail. They are amazing.”
As I pointed out last week, turning up in a brand new country (or even a well known one) can mean much head scratching, furrowed brows and guess work to try to make the best of any visit. So for the next two installments of World Affairs I have compiled a ‘best of’ list in order to try to give you an idea of just some of the ‘must do’ trails.
But first a quick disclaimer. This cheat sheet will cover predominantly the South Island. My stays here in New Zealand have always been biased towards the South, not because I am biased to the South Island, but it’s just where I have found myself. So if there is two installments of absolute ‘must do’ trails on the South Island that means there is a whole lot more to add to the list when you include the North Island too.
As I said, this is a list of some of my favorites but also some classics that might appeal to a wider audience. Most of these rides are of the kind of riding that you good people of NSMB enjoy. I imagine that most of you don’t mind a stiff pedal if it means a singletrack descent payoff. You aren’t adverse to steeper and more technical trails even if you don’t care to ride a DH bike like Danny Hart. These trails listed are almost exclusively oriented to a bike that can be pedaled for several hours without giving the rider a heart attack and are capable of not spoiling the ride on the way down. There is an increasingly large amount of bikes that are capable of fitting this criteria these day. I believe the correct term for this genre is Mountain Bikes. Bring a downhill bike to NZ and you will have a blast in the right towns at the right times, but if your baggage only just stretches to one larger bag (“No Miss, it’s not a bicycle or sporting equipment, it’s a musical instrument. I play the rusty trombone for the East Hastings Street Orchestra.”) then do yourself a favor and bring a cleaver to a knife fight.
Ideally if you are to visit New Zealand you need your own transport. The island is bigger than you think and the riding is spread about. Landing without wheels and locating yourself in just one town is a recipe for an awesome time, but not the absolute best time.
Finally, this is not a guidebook or a comprehensive ‘how-to.’ I may one day compile all my notes and do a proper singletrack guide to New Zealand, but not yet. This is a general list of some of the amazing spots I know and love. There are many more good rides around but if you are going to be doing a short trip (2-3 weeks) then these are the places you most certainly want to tick off on a circumnavigation of the South Island (and a little North Island). Almost all of these trails are chosen because they are real singletrack. Some are backcountry routes that require a good level of fitness and skill, others are multi-day trips that require a bit of grey matter before heading into the abyss, while others are chosen for the community that surround the riding. Basically, if you like singletrack then you will love these rides. If you don’t then send all complaints to my email which is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week we start with the south of the South Island.
THE SOUTH CENTRAL (CHRISTCHURCH/CANTERBURY)
There are many excellent rides in and around Christchurch but if you want to really experience New Zealand landscapes and possibly one of the best trails in the South Island then you need to get out of town to Craigieburn. Also in the general vicinity is Wharfedale and Mt Hutt, and inside Christchurch city limits you have the handy and varied trail networks on the Port Hills and Vic Park.
Located in the Arthurs Pass around 100 km west of Christchurch.
2-4 hours riding.
Stiff climb but rewarded with a sublime singletrack. Many regard it as their favorite South Island ride. I put it firmly in my top five of all time. Easily.
Riding amongst beech trees is the best. They space perfectly, they push tight fingers of roots up from the earth and the leaf litter they drop makes for the best riding surface ever. It is like racing through thrown wedding confetti; it blows from your tires, it slides predictably and, contrary to what the forums think, when you skid upon it, there is zero damage to the trail itself.
To find it drive northwest out of Christchurch towards Arthur’s Pass. Drive up from the brain batteringly dull Canterbury Plains into the Pass where the mountains soar and geological mind benders, like the Castle Hill boulders, keep your eyeballs rummaging through the landscape till they get tired of the awesomeness and crave a little rest. Just after Castle Hill village turn left at signs for ‘The Craigieburn Recreation Area’ and park at the shelter then ride along the highway to the Craigieburn access road. Put on a clean pair of underpants and possibly a rubber pair over them. It’s gonna be a good one.
This ride consists of a good old pedal up to the base of the Craigieburn Ski Field. Climb up the access road till you reach the ski field and rope tow. Once at the top give your broseph a high five, butt slap or do whatever feels right in that special moment before cruising into the singletrack that crosses a rather substantial avalanche path. This is the Edge. It sings along through beech forest and across steep scree slopes (don’t be tempted to drop in on these unless you want a Stairmaster work out), becoming narrow in places and often with deceptively tighter right handers than you are ready for. After about 4km of sexual congress you’ll reach a fork in the trail. Drop left to hit the access road and do another loop (the record is eight laps completed during a nine hour Craigieburner marathon. The record holder had a lot at stake so don’t think this was an easy task) or go right to get to the Luge, the second half of the trail.
The Luge is a festival of shimmying hips and delicate brake control. If you don’t have a real, or imaginary, trail boner by the bottom then you are probably dead, so do the world a favor and box yourself up neatly for the afterlife. When you hit the forest road at the bottom you should feel and overwhelming sense of right with the world and love for your fellow man. You will almost certainly be tempted to hug your riding partners. Do so as much as you feel is necessary.
There are many more rides that combo off this one, but to know them you need a Dave Johnston. Dave Johnston is a mechanic at Basic bikes in Christchurch and who has ridden in these parts for years and knows a thing or two about line choice on these trails. Following him is like being given a sonic boom education of the 100+ rides he has done on the Craigieburn trail. He is rapid down this trail and lights it up at every opportunity. A typical Kiwi local good c**t (that is a term of endearment used by Kiwi’s when they really think someone is a rather upstanding fellow so don’t get all pissed off about using a swear word, consider it essential knowledge for when you get to New Zealand. Unless of course you really do get upset by swear words, which in your case will mean you may never hear the words good and c**t used together). Dave is one of those fellows who tickles your trail hunter instincts with morsels of information regarding rarely ridden ‘super-mega-gnar-grunty rides’. New Zealand is a small place, and for that I am happy. Bumping into old friends like that is a joy and a blessing, especially when you get to share in such a fucking good c**t of a ride.
Located deep in the lakes area of the Southern Alps. This town is a mad capped oasis in the stunning landscape of the South Island. Action and adventure capital of the world. Bungee your heart out, party your socks off and sample the finest burger you may ever eat.
You can’t really come all the way around the world to New Zealand and miss out Queenstown, but unless you have a dirt jumper or downhill bike then it’s best to keep your stay to three days. The town is lively – as you would expect with a town who proclaim the title of adventure capital of the world – and full of a solid community of bikers from all over the globe who come to season it, or live it up. Queenstown does not contain as much singletrack as other areas throughout New Zealand, but the newly opened to bikers gondola is the current draw card. The singletrack there is great but you will expend it rather fast if you are a keen hunter.
Day one: Start the trip with some easily earned laps on the newly opened gondola that zooms riders up the hill right from the centre of town; the only in New Zealand. Ride the gondola accessed trails of Skyline in the morning, banging out lap after lap, then use your last ride up to gain elevation for an up and back Fernhill ‘Loop’ – which is a rooty beech leaf litter blast – before skidding right into town and stuffing your face with a Fergburger.
Day two: Time for a big ride that will take you into the pristine pleated ridge country of the one time gold prospecting landscape. Ride the Moonlight trail from Arthurs Point to Moke Lake, turn off to Lake Dispute, drop down to Bob’s Cove and link up Seven MIle and Sunshine Bay tracks to get you back to town where you should reward yourself with a Fergburger with blue cheese.
Day three: More mountain landscapes and bomber singletrack from both the old and modern trail building legacy of the area. Some of the same trails that Gee and Stevie light up in Follow Me; Coronet and Skippers Pack Track.
Coronet is a berm filled flow country trail made from ego dirt. Start at the Coronet Ski Field base building and climb up the trail. Once at the top take in a deep breath of the view, looking south west to fiordland and over Skippers Canyon – where you will be later on – before turning on your tail and carving the trail down. Afterwards cruise down the road a few kilometres, turn into Skippers Canyon and ride down the pack track on the right of the road. The trail is short (5 km) but the views will keep you stalled from time to time. The ride down and back up the road will take about an hour. To really make the most go with someone who knows the history of the area. The stories of brothels, frontier shenanigans and construction of the gold rush towns and roads is scintillating stuff. Vertigo Bikes offer guided shuttles in the canyon which will provide you with some entertaining background on the area. Afterwards go for an emergency Fergburger and try the chips (you may know them as fries) with wasabi mayonnaise.
For trail maps, directions, advice, rent a bike, buy some new shorts, fix up the beaten bike or book a guided trip, stop in at Vertigo Bikes located right in the centre of town opposite Fergburger. 4 Brecon Street, Queenstown. 0800 VERTIGO http://www.vertigobikes.co.nz
100 km east of Queenstown. Town is a little rough around the edges but if you like technical riding with a fun crew then you must track down Jimmy and Phil. Worth a full days riding but don’t try ride at midday in mid summer as the place is very hot, dry and has little shade.
Alexandra is a peculiar place. You drive through the lakes and steep jagged mountains of the Southern Alps, turn the corner at Cromwell (don’t forget to buy a real fruit ice cream on a warm day) and you end up in a wide valley that seems at odds to the area you were just in. Warmer and drier most of the year round Alexandra riding is considerably different from elsewhere nearby.
The riding is often steep, technical, exposed and rocky. The tracks and trails are found behind the clock tower (you can’t miss it as it a clock face pressed into the schisty rock the overlooks town) and are a maze. There is almost zero trail signage and many trail heads require careful navigation through open fields of thyme bush to find them. The very best trails are all local secrets so to get the most of your visit here you will have to go by way of Henderson’s Cycles & Mower Service (which also acts as the store front for Altitude Adventures http://www.altitudeadventures.co.nz) on the main street (88 Centennial Ave, Alex. 03 338 8917) and find Phil or James Pollard to find the best. These two are some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable riders you will find anywhere. James is particularly skilled on a bike and will have you looking over lines that no one else sees. They will be able to offer some excellent guiding, ride ideas, and even a shuttle to get you to the top of the hill range which will give you the best chance to gain as much time of the singletrack as possible. If you are in the area on a wednesday night then pop along for the locals ride to see how 14 year old nibblers and 50 year old farmers all tackle the demanding trails with aplomb.
90 km northeast of Queenstown
Mellow lakeside town with incredible views. Worth a day or two camping here by the Clutha River or go explore without bikes up the Matukituki Valley for some stunning hiking and camping.
Sticky Forest Plantation trails used to be the number one spot in the area, but land difficulties have meant the trails are rather stagnant there now. They are still worth a little fun, but other trail development nearby is the best bet and you can tag some Sticky Forest on the start or end of your ride.
Deans Bank popped up in recent years and is an incredible example of how good trail design can incorporate the needs and wishes of all mountain bikers on one trail. An hour long (lap times have been recorded much lower when the locals go head to head in a time trial format but racing isn’t always necessary) loop trail that starts in Albert Town campsite and can be linked from the Wanaka or Hawea townships using the Millennium trail (see local maps) to make a much longer cruise. The Deans Bank loop is a fun flowing roller coaster trail than makes excellent use of the terrain. There are plans to expand much further around Dublin Bay. For more information pop into the Tourist Office or bike shop in Wanaka for a biking map.
Just up the valley towards Cardrona and on the way to and from Queenstown via the Crown Range Road (New Zealand’s highest tar sealed road) is Dirt Park. Dirt Park is the summer moniker for Snow Park where Shaun White and most of the worlds top freestyle skiers and snowboarders come to perfect their spins and jibs.
You will need to sort out a shuttle for this (try Queenstown Bike Taxis 021 2967643 or email email@example.com) because the road to the top is a 14 km dirt road. Once at the top there are two main DH oriented runs that wriggle through the tussock and rock. They go right down to the valley floor (a long way down) or you can do shuttles of the top half of the hill which is more than enough.
If you have a trail or AM bike and like a bit of gravity riding then you will be absolutely fine, but look before you leap. These trails were filmed in some of Follow Me when Stevie Smith and Gee Atherton came to sample in 2010. Look out for a super rad edit from Brook MacDonald riding here soon. Beware of riding/falling off the trail. Some of the grass is soft and breaks your fall, some of it is Spaniard Grass which will go through tires, skin and body armor easily. If you have ever wanted to feel what being a pin cushion is like then I dare you to go for a roll on one of these pricks.