Downhill Heli Biking In Wanaka

Words by Miek Deuninck

Approaching a wall of mountain in a helicopter with a 40 mph gale blowing is a good way to start a MTB ride.

Apart from the obvious advantage – you don’t have to ride up – it means you won’t be phased by the ride down, no matter how sketchy.

Reassuringly, the pilot looked more like he was solving a particularly challenging Sudoku puzzle than landing a helicopter – full of women and bikes – on the top of a 1,500m peak in howling winds.

"The pilot looked like he was solving a Sudoku puzzle rather than landing a helicopter"

After disembarking at the top of Mt Burke, the more delicate among us spent some time revering the solid ground beneath us, before we could fully appreciate where we were.

Standing on the edge of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the bruised mass of cloud being held back by the Main Divide seemed close enough to touch; we could feel the full fury of the front moving in. The sun’s rays slanted through cloud, painting tussocks with golden evening light.

As beautiful as it all was, it was also really, really cold. It was time to get on the bikes and chase down some thrills and shelter.

Mt Burke is part of a high-country sheep station – New Zealand speak for “farm" – and as such, is only accessible through local guiding company Wanaka Bike Tours.

Today our guide was Perryn – this lady is brimming with enthusiasm and know-how.

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We were riding down a four-wheel-drive track. That’s a generous term for what this track threw at us.

The weather in New Zealand’s about what you’d expect on a tiny island in the middle of some big water – unpredictable and extreme.

This means farm tracks become rutted, and made far more interesting by regular rock-slides. Add to that some sheep poo, and the odd gust of 55mph/hour wind and you’ve got yourself a varied and engaging ride.

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None of this seemed to faze the ladies I was riding with.

Casey Brown – the Canadian Downhill champ – decided that opening the gate was too much, so she hit the ramp next to it and cleared the fence. No mean feat considering the wind.

Casey has a super casual attitude about her awesomeness. She seems completely unaware of her hero status. We tried pretty hard to play it cool, because we do worship her a little bit.

Hannah Barnes, the UK-based enduro rider of Northwest film fame, just happened to be in the country, so she joined us on our girls’ night out.

Like Casey, Hannah is super humble about her achievements. I can’t say I personally saw much of either lady’s riding, because for the most part I was crunching people’s dust up the back. But I was pretty stoked to be crunching their dust.

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"The weather in New Zealand is what you’d expect from a tiny island in the middle of some big water – unpredictable and extreme..."

The track delivered some techy, fast sections. Lower down, there was some smoother, flowy riding.

Exposed corners provided amazing views, along with gusts of wind that blew us into the bank if we didn’t steel ourselves for the onslaught.

The last piece of our ride wound along Lake Wanaka to our campsite, where male assistance had delivered tents, dinner, wine, and our transport back to town – stand up paddle-boards (SUPs) – courtesy of Wanaka Kayaks.

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As well as MTB she-roes we had amongst us a wine maker – Anna, from Mt Edward winery, who made sure we were supplied with the essential of any girls’ night out – good wine.

This, a tasty dinner, great company, and a moonlit SUP session, made for an amazing Friday night.

Unfortunately, wind conditions next day meant we had to forgo the three-hour SUP mission, in favour of a shorter 30-minute paddle into Lake Wanaka’s main bay.

It was a fun ride in. Wind means waves, a novelty for us landlocked ladies in Wanaka. For the most part we managed to stay upright – apart from an incident involving a strategically manoeuvred boat wake. I guess the man with the camera was keen on some swimming footage.

We arrived in town mostly dry.

Under the bewildered gaze of tourists, we carried our SUPs to the Fed Diner – our local coffee shop – parked them up on the fence and settled in for a debrief over coffee and scones. We all agreed there really was no better way to spend Friday night.

So, if you ever find yourself on your way to Wanaka, New Zealand, look us up. Seriously, we’d love an excuse to repeat this adventure!

Thanks to Wanaka Bike Tours, Wanaka Kayaks, Mission WOW and Stash Media Worx for making these ideas happen, adventure junkie enablers to the end.

This article was originally printed in Cooler issue 44 spring/summer 2014.