We tried it: Heli-biking in New Zealand
WANAKA, New Zealand -- A thick layer of fog makes the scene that much more intense as the helicopter touches down. One by one, each mountain biker jogs away from the helicopter. One by one, the bikes are unloaded.
We're at 6,500 feet, staring down the Pisa Mountain Range, home to one of New Zealand's highest mountain-biking trails. Minutes later, I mount my full-suspension bike with hopeful thoughts. However, part of me is still concocting worst-case scenarios. You know, broken clavicle or chipped front teeth. Or both.
All for good reason: The first time I tried mountain biking years ago, I flew over the handlebars. The second time, I rode at a grandmotherly pace for several hours so as not to repeat the same mistake.
All that said, I'm still game because there's something so wonderful about venturing into the unknown. So, with waivers signed and helmets on, we take off.
The trail is narrow and tricky from the get-go. So tricky, in fact, I feel like this could go very wrong very quickly. It doesn't help that everyone in the group seems to have a lot more than two biking trips under their belts. Everyone except my videographer, Morgan, that is.
She's sprawled on the ground like a crime-scene chalk outline after taking a tumble. It is her first time ever mountain biking. But she's taking it in stride. She hops up quickly with a nervous laugh and rides on.
I think she realizes that 1) the helicopter is not coming back for us and 2) we are venturing through Middle Earth territory (New Zealand is where "Lord of the Rings" was filmed, after all), and it's gonna be worth it.
The scenery alone is enough. Random rock formations dot the landscape, bright green pastures as far as the eye can see, the Southern Alps in the distance and insanely blue lakes.
It's so awe-inspiring, in fact, it is hard to keep my mind on the task at hand: dodging rocks and swerving around spiky yellow plants known as Spaniards, which are notorious for slicing biker's legs -- and tires, too.
You can go mountain biking in Wanaka year-round; however, in the winter months (June through August) the added challenge is snow. A group can range from two to five guests plus one guide. Wanaka Bike Tours offers a five-hour heli-biking adventure trip for $750. The idea behind heli-biking is simple: A helicopter takes you up a mountain to places that would otherwise be inaccessible, then drops you off with your bike. Then it's up to you, your group and your guide (if you choose to have one) to head down the mountain.
If I stop to think about it, it does seem crazy. Even though I'm being super cautious, we are propelling ourselves down a mountain at high speeds, and any pebble or slippery section of gravel could easily send me flying.
Surprisingly, though, when we reach a few hours in, I've managed to stay on my bike. I'm slightly more relaxed now and have discovered riding out of the saddle is a great way to show my bike who's boss even though it means my quads are on fire.
For the next several hours, we make our way through private high-country farmland, and I finally feel confident enough to really look around. The long tussock track wraps its way around the hillside, and everywhere I look it's stunning -- from the vibrant yellow and green vegetation to the varying shades of blue lakes and snow-capped mountains.
We finally enter what our guide affectionately calls The Gorge, a playful final section where riders can let loose on banks along the side. Not something I'm ready for yet, but maybe one day.
What I didn't love
I'm competitive, so it can be tough picking up a new sport because I immediately want to be awesome at it. So on this excursion, I had to admit I wasn't good at mountain biking but that I certainly could get better at it with more practice.
I'd also suggest trying to make sure those in your group are all around the same skill level so that the slower folks don't feel like they are holding up the group. I felt bad that the others in our group always had to wait for us to catch up.
Was it worth it?
Heli-biking was one of the most epic experiences I had in New Zealand, and it was one of the most memorable days I've ever spent on a bike. It was challenging, but I progressively got better at it throughout the five-hour journey. I would definitely do it again, especially now that I feel more confident.
Want to try it closer to home?
After the trip, I Googled where to go, but to my surprise, I found out that it hasn't caught on just yet. Although heli-biking has been popular in New Zealand for the past 10 years, it's still very new in America. Only Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska offers it right now.
"Only a few places offer heli-biking as of right now," says Eric Porter, a pro mountain biker. "The big holdup has been bike racks for the helicopters, which they have finally figured out. The next thing that needs to happen is more trail development and maintenance where the riders are being taken. Retallack Lodge outside of Nelson, British Columbia, is a great example of this. They have built amazing and sustainable trails for their heli-drops, and I see this as the future of heli-biking."
So, the next stop for me: Head to Canada or Alaska to try this again.
Sarah Sekula is a journalist and on-camera personality who covers stories about travel, fitness and extraordinary people. Her assignments have taken her to all seven continents. Follow her adventures @wordzilla (Twitter) and @sarahsomewhere (Instagram).