There are very few tourism activities which require you to rent body armour.
For downhill mountain biking at the gondola-accessed Queenstown Bike Park, a full-face helmet, shin and knee pads, elbow pads and gloves, are pretty standard equipment.
And that’s just for starters – there are bikers in the queue here at Skyline sporting those neck braces you see Formula One drivers wearing.
Neck braces? It didn’t mention that in Lonely Planet. Mountain biking in Queenstown is one of the top new activities to experience, according to the latest edition of the popular travel guide.
It refers of course to the multitude of opportunities for visitors to take to two wheels, from the new 110km Queenstown Trail to heli-biking and the rest.
But Queenstown Bike Park’s 30km of 13 tracks through the pine trees of Bob’s Peak is sure to attract its fair share – especially as you don’t have to pedal uphill too much.
On the first day of the season on Saturday, it’s mainly the locals taking to the trails. There’s a noticeable buzz about town with hundreds of armour-clad bikers streaming towards the bike park on their specialised $5000 bikes. There must be close to a million dollars’ worth of kit out today.
The park opens at 10am and we’re late – even hiring a downhill bike and armour proves to be an issue as all the shops are still renting ski equipment and those nearer the gondola that do rent bikes have already sold out.
We eventually get sorted by Queenstown firm Vertigo, which has a shipping container rental and tuning shop set up at the top of the gondola.
Within minutes we’re kitted out and thrashing along the 6km Hammy’s Track.
It’s a thrilling way to spend a day, speeding down the 450-metre hill along tree-lined dirt trails which undulate and curve around huge, banked corners.
By the third run down, over-confidence is an issue considering my newbie status. The faster you go, the smoother and more exhilarating it is, especially getting mini-air off the jumps, but to be fair the consequences of getting it wrong and crashing at pace would be pretty horrific. Undeterred, we decide to give the Vertigo track a go. It’s a blue run but should be OK. Unfortunately we take a wrong turn and end up careering down some near-vertical black run.
I’m stopped at one point, waiting for my biking partner and eyeing a rocky daunting slope, when an experienced rider spots the rental bike, stops and asks if I need help.
Before I can answer, my partner arrives around a corner on the slope behind, stops, panics and then performs a perfect slow-mo crash over the handle bars, while stationary, apologising profusely all the way down until she’s lying prostrate with the bike on top of her.
The friendly experienced rider manages to keep something of a straight face and then patiently guides us to a walking track from where we can get back on to Hammy’s.
Everyone’s pretty friendly actually, on the tracks, in the gondola queues – there’s a real camaraderie among riders so it’s not embarrassing being a newbie. You don’t feel like you’re in the way.
And it’s an activity pretty much anyone can do, although it does feel pretty hardcore at times, especially with
aching limbs the next day.
All you need to know
What Downhill mountain biking
Where Queenstown Bike Park
Time 10am-6pm (weather dependent); half day 10am-2pm or 2-6pm
Cost Half-day gondola pass $55 adult, $35 child (full day $75, season $629). Half day rental (downhill bike, helmet and armour) about $80 (full day about $120)