The sixth day of the Rimu tour was our free day in Queenstown. But as anyone who’s spent more than fifteen minutes in this adventure nexus knows, ‘free’ is not a word that holds any currency in Queenstown. You will have a riotously exciting day, but bring a sack full of money.
I bumped into Cathy in the lobby of our hotel, so we sauntered down the street to a café called Bob’s Weigh for a nice breakfast. Five straight days of mueslix and toast on tour was getting pretty old, so I ordered a Denver omelette. Colin and Sally were also at the café, so we chatted about the previous evening’s shenanigans and our plans for the upcoming day. Colin and Sally and Cathy were all set to go whitewater rafting with Cam and Bil. I was quietly chiding myself for not signing up as well, but my blackwater tubing adventure on the north island was enough of a challenge to last this hydrophobe for a while. The mountain biking at Rotorua was so much fun that I had to try it again in Queenstown. We made lunch plans and then went our separate ways.
Around 9:30 am, I rented a Specialized downhill mountain bike from a shop on Camp Street. In Rotorua, a standard bike helmet and some padded gloves were all the safety equipment I needed. I should have suspected that something was up when the lady at the rental shop offered to set me up with a full crash helmet, elbow pads, and shin pads. I thought the shin pads were a bit over-the-top, but I put on the rest of the gear and set off for the gondola.
In retrospect, I probably should have taken the shin pads.
One thing I didn’t realize about downhill bikes is that they are heavier, sturdier, and geared differently than cross-country bikes. Whereas my Mongoose in Rotorua had 27 slick-shifting gears, my Queenstown ride had just 9. This became painfully obvious as I rode uphill from the rental shop to the base of the gondola. The trip is maybe six or seven blocks on paved city streets, but I think my heart rate hit 200 bpm as I ground away in first gear up the slope. The non-lockable full suspension didn’t do me any favours, either. A lot of my leg power went into compressing the shock absorber instead of turning the wheels.
Another thing I didn’t realize is that the trails at the Queenstown gondola are steeper than Whakarewarewa Forest. By which I mean WAY steeper. The lady at the bike shop had assured me that the moderately challenging blue-square run was a lot of fun, and the easy green-circle run was “suitable for kids and grandmothers”. This turned out to be complete bullshit.
I forgot that Kiwis are infamous for the art of understatement. Ask a Kiwi about a town at the other end of the island, and they will guilelessly call it “a little ways down the road”. The elevation difference between the gondola base and terminus is 450 metres. The green run, ‘Hammy’s Track’ is about 6 km long, so the average downhill grade is 7.5%. Take into consideration the flat sections at the midway clearing and the bottom, and the grade is often much steeper. ‘Hammy’s Track’ is nice and wide, the hazards are easy enough to spot in advance, and the corners are steeply banked. But for a certified amateur rider like me, it was hard not to be distracted by the steep drop-offs from the edge of the trail. If you should ever make a small mistake and go over the edge, a world of hurt would rush up to greet you. The whole time on trail, I felt like I had something frantic by the Chemical Brothers playing on an endless loop in my brain. My interior monologue, meanwhile, was random variations on “Don’t die! Don’t die! Don’t die!”
Needless to say, my first run down ‘Hammy’s Track’ was pretty terrifying. Maybe that’s not unexpected for someone that doesn’t know the turns and jumps and was just getting used to a new bike. My second run was quite a bit more fun, because I knew which corners I had to slow down for and in which sections I could just let it roll. My third run was probably the best; I started to actually seek out the bigger jumps and rollers and I was confident enough to let my tail slide around some of the corners.
Somewhat emboldened by three successful ‘easy’ runs, I figured it was time to tackle the blue run. The top half is called ‘Vertigo’ and comes by its name honestly. The features are pretty similar to ‘Hammy’s Track’ but with double the average grade. I made it through without any serious peril, but I gave my disc brakes a pretty harsh workout. I stopped at the midway clearing for some water and a few photos before embarking on the lower half of the blue trail.
‘Original’ is a lot of fun, if you have the nerve to fully exploit its twists and turns. Some of the corners are very fast with steep banks. I particularly liked flying over the table-tops, but in my glee I carried a little too much speed into a steep chute and just about lost control. Epic amounts of speed-wobble and frantic brake screeching ensued. I soon found myself rejoining the lower section of ‘Hammy’s Track’ en route to the gondola. I had survived!
After returning my bike and gear, I got cleaned up at the hotel and met up with my friends. With takeaway lunches from the legendary Fergburger, we did some people-watching from a sunny park across the street. Cam and Cathy told me hilarious tales from their whitewater rafting adventure, and I tried to convey the alternating currents of terror and excitement that I’d experienced on the downhill trails.
A few days earlier, my new UK friend Colin had brazenly thrown down the gauntlet and challenged our group to join him at the Queenstown Luge. Cathy, Sally and I accepted his invitation to glory and we moseyed up the hill after our monstrous lunch. For about NZ$50 per person, you get a gondola ride to and from the summit, plus chairlift access and five runs down your choice of two 800-metre concrete street-luge tracks. Our first run was down the somewhat flatter and wider ‘scenic’ track, which gave us an opportunity to learn how to steer and brake our carts. Our second run was down the ‘advanced’ track, with several fast straightaways and tight hairpin turns.
Then things got competitive.
Colin and I chose to make our last three runs a best-of-three contest. The rules were simple – we start side-by-side and the first one to the finish line wins. Colin got the hole shot on our first competitive run, but with a little more finesse I carried more speed through the subsequent corners. Two-thirds of the way down I was primed to blast past my new friend so I gallantly called out “Passing on your right!” Colin responded by squeezing me against the side of the track and taking the checkered flag for himself. Okay, dude. It’s on.
Our second competitive run amped up the intensity. I slipped out into an early lead, but I took the wrong line through one of the big sweeping corners and a gleeful Colin overtook me. As I watched from his blind spot, I could tell that he was carrying too much speed through some of the lower corners. He got away with it for a few turns, but then disaster struck. Colin clipped the curb, his cart started to shudder, and then he and his cart ceased to be one contiguous unit. Track-side photographic evidence later revealed in glorious detail how Colin had exited the cart, put down his right hand to brace for landing, then proceeded to skid on his bum down the hill. For a split-second I considered stopping to see if he was okay but, remembering the tough lesson from our previous run, I zoomed by and claimed the checkered flag for myself. What can I say – I’m a competitor. Besides, Colin was fine – aside from a scraped elbow, torn pants, and a badly bruised ego.
In a brief moment of sportsmanship, we decided to call our best-of-three event a draw. Cathy and I carted down the track together on our fifth and final run. It turns out that she distills all of Colin’s competitive spirit into a much smaller, more attractive package and our run was a hotly contested affair. I was fortunate to squeak out a victory, but it could have easily gone either way. Afterward, Sally took Colin back into town to get him cleaned up while Cathy and I enjoyed some malted beverages on the summit’s observation deck. We watched with admiration as people bungy-jumped and paraglided off the cliffs of Bob’s Peak.
Later that evening, Bil and Cam joined us for drinks on a patio down by the waterfront. We watched the sun set on the Remarkables mountain range, then wandered uptown in search of dinner. We settled on a two-storey Irish pub that had a commanding view of the Saturday night pub crawls and hen parties. The ladies also approved of the Eighties arena-rock mix being piped into the restaurant. Apparently all it takes to get our female friends up and dancing to Journey is half a dozen Cosmos and a few rounds of naughtily named New Zealand shooters. Don’t stop believing, indeed.
Song of the Day: “Out of Control” by the Chemical Brothers