Heli Biking Te Iringa
By Cam Mackenzie
If you’re looking for adventure, heli biking is a one-way ticket to stunning scenery and rarely ridden ribbons of single track.
Extend that adventure and turn it into a multi-day experience!
With the help of JustMTB, we created a dream trip: heli biking, overnighting in a remote hut, then riding out through backcountry the next day. We pored over maps and set the route: past the dawn lights of Taupo and toward the sprawling native forests of the Kaimanawa Ranges. It began to sink in just how epic this journey was going to be!
Arriving at a small helicopter base located on the edge of the forest, we bagged up supplies and weighed in the group, while the crew attached bike racks to the helicopter. The early morning thermals rising off the ridges made the low flying helicopter pitch and roll like Bambi on ice – a unique feeling for us land dwellers.
Gaining height, we began to see the world from a new angle. Rivers and streams meandered like veins, mixing and slowly widening, continually moving their cargo of large trout around the blissfully serene backcountry. As we skimmed over ridges of native forest, everything below started to look the same, with very few clear vantage points. It’s not surprising people get lost out there without the knowledge of a guide.
The group was already stoked out by the flight alone. As we landed on the highest peak in the area, the group was mesmerised by stunning 360-degree views. Rolling rocky hills one way, endless native forest another way, a snowcapped volcano completing the landscape… A place that makes you feel incredibly lucky to experience something so natural and pure.
The second helicopter departed, its engine slowly fading. An eerie silence enveloped us… We took in our surroundings and began to fully appreciate the stunning paradise we’d discovered.
Due to the remoteness and difficulty of access, the descent from the peak is one of New Zealand’s most under-ridden trails. Like a good storybook, it slowly develops - introducing you to the experience, winding its way through the middle section, then building to a crescendo.
We dropped into the first section, aptly named Shale Master, traversing scree slopes and rocky bluffs between single track corners. Watching the guys flow down the face was reminiscent of watching people ski on bikes; a blank canvas for riders to paint their own interpretation of the trail, the only parameters being some big arcing turns to stay on the mountain.
A far cry from the open rocky peak, the middle section of the trail provided a very different experience: a ribbon of loamy, flowing single track flowing through meadows. Due to the openness of the area, it was possible to see a few kilometers ahead at a time and plot a course through the tussock grass, which whipped at our ankles as we sped at warp speed toward the bottom of the hill.
During a short traversing climb, we took the opportunity to debrief and share stories of ‘moments’ we’d had, sliding through drifty corners. The highlight was the aptly named Brake Burner – a steep, looping piece of single track which flowed down hill after hill, like a cascading waterfall. The joy of riding at the front was seeing no tyre tracks, skid marks or braking bumps - an indication of how seldom these trails are ridden.
With brakes hot, hands cramping, grins wide and stoke high, we jumped in the heli again for another race-pace run of Brake Burner, before flying to Oamaru Hut for the night. On the horizon, the hut came into view… Perched between a crystal clear river and the edge of the native forest, a stunning location to spend a night in the wild.
As we cut firewood, watched the sunset and collected fresh river water to drink, the feeling of experiencing a proper adventure truly started to sink in. Settling down for the evening, we discussed the merits of flying kit into overnight huts: is it cheating or just sensible?
Being in the backcountry meant no cell coverage or 4G, no Facebook or Instagram – dictating an evening of old school entertainment, sharing stories, listening to wildlife and educating the group about Southern Hemisphere stars.
As dawn came around on day two, a low mist shrouded the area like a veil, obscuring visibility down to a few metres and creating an eeriness exacerbated by the unusual morning birdcalls. Leaving the hut behind, we rode through the mist, across the African-esque plains. Ahead lay a vast expanse of forest, colossal trees and giant ferns dominating a green and lush landscape - a totally different experience from the open and rocky hilltops of yesterday. Cobwebs glistened with morning dew, immense fern fronds moved lightly in the breeze.
As we progressed through the forest, we came across the occasional clearing flooded with warm morning sunshine - a perfect opportunity to refuel and hydrate. As the trail continued, it met and ran parallel to a river, the abundance of water amplifying the green hues of the canopy, epiphytes hanging from moss-covered trees and enormous silver ferns hovering in the air like massive umbrellas.
In the vein of true backcountry riding, we decided to take a little extension - following the marginally longer main trail and taking the older swing bridge option to cross the river, as opposed to getting our feet wet. A unique challenge: the swing bridge provided the feeling of flying and falling all at once, as we swung around grabbing at bikes, railings, whatever we could for a feeling of safety.
The big climb of the day rose through varying layers of canopy and provided a new view of our surroundings. The sea of ferns below looked like huge darts had fallen from the sky, while never-ending trees provided a magnificent canopy. After the climb, the trail traversed at a more pleasant gradient for our tired legs – flowing along loamy single track which connected to the final 4.5km descent.
On the northern side of the forest, the beech trees became more prominent. Climbing through the canopy to the highest point in the forest gave us a great chance to admire stunning ancient trees surrounding us. On the trail, a thick covering of beech leaves sounded like cornflakes – crackling and crunching as riders raced through, traversing single track.
The final descent is revered as one of the best in New Zealand: a mix of fast and flow, with slow technical sections, tree roots, small rocky features with with drop-offs, and committing rollover features. It provided a great challenge for our group to try and ride ‘clean’. Starting as a ribbon of loamy trail, it showed its true colors as it transformed into a series of rooty corners and off-camber carpets split up by flat out straights… The type of trail where a bunny hop goes a long way to maintain speed, whilst trying to keep clear of technical features waiting to catch riders out.
The final section was like a bobsleigh track cut into the side of a hill - a great section of flow through naturally bermed turns, pure speed spitting us out into the carpark. With high fives all round, beers cracked and stories flowing, we sat down to soak up our epic adventure.
Then came the hardest question: “How do we top that tomorrow?!”