Otago: Pedalling new territory

By Hayden Donnell

Forget 4-wheel drives and motorbikes. Hayden Donnell hops on a bicycle to explore Queenstown's latest trails.

Hayden Donnell and friends ride the Queenstown cycle trail. Photo / Jim Pollard
Hayden Donnell and friends ride the Queenstown cycle trail. Photo / Jim Pollard

Remember the great New Zealand Cycle Trail? It was put forward as one of the engines of our recovery from the global financial crisis after Prime Minister John Key's 2009 jobs summit. That idea was shelved to a chorus of mocking when it became clear a track from Cape Reinga to Bluff would send the country broke.

But behind the scenes a watered-down version of the track is taking shape, as shorter cycle trails are forged in scenic areas from Fiordland to Northland. One of the newest is in Queenstown, where 100km of gravel trail winds its way through the hills and valleys extending from Lake Wakatipu to Arrowtown and back down to the Kawerau River.

We set out along the track on one of the many cloudless sunny days of a summer that had left the land around Lake Wakatipu brown and bone dry.

Our visit was at the invitation of Queenstown Trail Trust chief executive Kaye Parker - a money-raising machine who combines boundless enthusiasm for her bike track with the business acumen needed to handle negotiations with the 20 landowners who gave permission for it to go ahead.

On the day we pedalled the track, she was simultaneously hosting a photo shoot, wrangling a business deal between our bike tour guides and helicopter operators and using us as test dummies for her new signage.

"Did you see that one?" she would ask as we sped past a turnoff.

"Where are we going now?" she queried as we approached another.

The signage needs improving, but the trail itself is already stunning.

Starting off on the 26km Twin Rivers track, we wound our way through farm fields and down to the Kawerau River.

The section is classed as 'intermediate' because of its sharp hills and steep descents. But even for those worried they may need to be towed up the slopes, the views of the river winding its way toward Lake Wakatipu are worth it.

Our guide Matt Hirst of Queenstown Bike Tours has one of the jobs created by the cycle trail concept. A former bar owner, he was forced out of business by the noise complaints of Queenstown's increasingly gentrified population.

When the bike trail opened in October, he seized the opportunity. Hirst says business along the track is picking up, with a trail linking several of the Gibbston Valley's wineries proving particularly popular. Guests are guided from riesling and cheese platter to pinot and antipasto in a kind of classy pub-crawl, followed by a very jovial trip back to Arrowtown.

Our next section of the trail saw us take that trip in reverse. The Arrow River Trail winds out of Arrowtown, along the banks of the Arrow River, across A.J. Hackett's famed Kawerau bungy bridge and into the heart of the Gibbston wine region.

It crosses five bridges, including the spectacular 80m-high Edgar suspension bridge. The swaying swing bridges will challenge anyone afraid of heights, but the ride offers few other challenges. It is worth it for the scenery and, if you're brave, the swimming holes.

Our dip in one beautiful blue creek could euphemistically be described as refreshing.

The day's riding ended over a few wines at the Waitiri Creek Vineyard.

They had barely settled in our stomachs before a helicopter organised by Parker landed on the lawn to fly us over the surrounding vineyards and up to the top of the Remarkables mountain range.

From there, you can peer out to the tip of Lake Wakatipu, along the Shotover, Arrow and Kawerau Rivers and out across the hills and plains around Queenstown.

It all looks beautiful and remote, just about all of it inaccessible, but if you squint hard enough you can see the faint trace of cycle tracks.

Hayden Donnell travelled as a guest of Ngai Tahu Tourism Holdings.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 28 Dec 2014 17:39:58 Processing Time: 701ms