Embarking on a True Adventure: Overnight Heli Biking in New Zealand

When you’re looking for adventure, you can’t do better than heli biking: it’s your ticket to rarely-ridden singletrack and stunning scenery. But you don’t have to stop there; why not take it to the next level and create an overnight experience? As the experts for guided mountain bike tours in New Zealand, JustMTB was the …

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When you’re looking for adventure, you can’t do better than heli biking: it’s your ticket to rarely-ridden singletrack and stunning scenery. But you don’t have to stop there; why not take it to the next level and create an overnight experience? As the experts for guided mountain bike tours in New Zealand, JustMTB was the first port of call for a small group looking for an exceptional adventure. We set about creating a dream trip for them–heli biking, overnighting in a remote backcountry hut, and riding out through the wilderness the next day.

With plans set and rations packed, we embarked on the beginning of an epic journey. Leaving civilization behind we travelled past the point of no cell reception, arriving at a lone hanger on the edge of a forest. Whilst the crew attached bike racks to the helicopters, we bagged up our supplies, weighed in the group, and divided between the helicopters. The pitch and roll of a tiny 4-person helicopter isn’t something that initially struck us when on the ground, but provided a surreal feeling a few hundred meters in the sky. Once acclimatized to these irregular movements, the group began to enjoy the stunning backcountry below us.

Rivers rich with trout meandered through grassy valleys, creating essential navigation points within the rolling hills, and a barrier where bushes and trees won’t grow. As the helicopter skimmed over the ridges of native forest, everything below started to look the same – with few clear vantage points, it didn’t take too much imagination to understand how people get lost without a guide.

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Landing on the highest peak in the area provided stunning 360-degree views: rolling rocky hills one way, endless native forest another way. A snowcapped volcano dominating the landscape completed the panorama. Places like this made us feel lucky to be alive, just to be able to experience something so natural and pure. With the group high on adrenaline, the second helicopter departed, its engine slowly fading, and an eerie silence enveloped us. How many places can you say you’ve been where there’s total silence: no birds, no cars, just pure unadulterated silence!

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From this peak we descended one of New Zealand’s most under-ridden trails – primarily due to the remoteness. The trail itself was almost like a storybook, developing slowly, winding its way through the middle section, and then providing the big crescendo. The group dropped into the first section, aptly named Shale Master, riding scree slopes and open rocky expanses between singletrack corners–similar to watching people ski on bikes. A canvas for riders’ interpretations, the only necessity: some big arcing turns which kept the group on the mountain. Safely across Shale Master, the trail developed into a more defined singletrack with a stable, loamy base.

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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 that whipped at our ankles. For us this heightened visibility meant high speed and lots of drifting through flat-out corners. A short traversing climb provided a great opportunity to debrief and share stories of “moments,” before once again genuine amazement at the jaw-dropping surroundings gripped us.

The climax of the trail was Brake Burner – a looping, and in places, steep, ribbon of singletrack that flowed down hill after hill, like a cascading waterfall. Loam flicked up from the unmarked trails gave an indication of how seldom these trails are ridden, which of course makes days like these even more special. With brakes hot and grins wide, we regrouped at the bottom for another fast run of Brake Burner before flying into our overnight hut.

As the hut came into view, perched on the edge of the forest and next to a river, we knew we were onto something good. The luxury of not having to ride day one fully laden with kit, and instead having it delivered via helicopter, was much-appreciated. As we settled down into our home for the night, the group reveled in the pure experience – chopping wood for the fire and cleansing ourselves in the river.

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No cell coverage or wifi meant an evening of sharing stories, listening to the wildlife, and educating the guys on the Southern Hemisphere stars. Come morning, a low mist shrouded the area like a veil, limiting visibility down to a few meters, creating an eeriness exacerbated by the unusual morning birdcalls. As the mist burnt off, we packed our kit, ready for the second day of adventure.

Travelling light was a key element to our bikepacking, and we were lucky the helicopter dropped our kit off at the hut for us. This meant only a little extra weight was required to be carried out on day two. A careful selection of merino thermals, including socks and skullcap, guaranteed warmth whether wet or dry, ideal for evening wear and chilly mornings at the start of the day’s riding. A light down sleeping bag and pillow combo slipped easily into the bottom of a daypack and provided all the warmth and comfort needed for a summer expedition, especially when staying in a hut with a log burner. A small cooker, gas bottle, and lighter provided the basis of our kitchen whilst a pot, spork, and mug allowed for heating and consuming food and all-important coffee. If we’d ridden in, dehydrated food packs would have been essential to carry, although we took full advantage of having our food helicoptered in and opted for takeaway. A small essentials bag held a head torch, insect repellant, sun cream, TP, and hand sanitizer, as well as toothbrush and paste to try and maintain a little personal hygiene. On top of our daily riding essentials, these additions provided the required comfort for an overnight hut stay.

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As we left the hut behind and rode across the African-esque plains, the mist rose and we were able to see the vast expanse of forest that lay ahead. Giant trees and huge ferns dominated a lush green landscape – a far cry from the barren, rocky hilltops of yesterday. With cobwebs that glistened in the dew, and giant ferns floating lightly in the breeze, it was akin to a New Zealand version of Bambi.

The occasional clearing opened up and gave a brief snapshot of warm morning sunshine–a perfect opportunity to refuel and hydrate. As the trail met a river and ran parallel, the green hues of the canopy were amplified, epiphytes hanging from the moss-covered trees, and giant silver ferns creating an umbrella effect right above our heads.

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Backcountry riding is nothing without a little adventure, and that day was no exception. We’d opted to follow the marginally-longer main trail and take the older swing bridge option to cross the river, as opposed to getting our feet wet. The single person swing bridge provided a good challenge as riders tried to maintain balance whilst pushing or carrying their bikes across. Those who went last had the benefit of copying the technique, as the first of the group across made it look harder than necessary.

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The big climb of the day rose through the varying layers of canopy and provided a new view of surroundings. Seas of giant ferns below looked similar to giant darts fallen from the sky, while the never-ending trees provided a magnificent canopy. Once atop the climb, the trail traversed at a more pleasant gradient for our tired legs – flowing along loamy singletrack that connected to the final 4.5km descent.

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On the northern side of the forest, the beech trees became more prominent, providing a thick covering of leaves reminiscent of “cornflakes” on the trail, that crackle and crunch as trains of riders race through them. This descent has been revered as one of the top 5 in New Zealand – fast and flowy with technical sections, tree roots, and small rocky features, which kept riders buzzing with adrenaline all the way down. Initially a long ribbon of loamy trail, it slowly transformed into a multitude of rooty corners and 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 just waiting to catch riders out.

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The group rode from corner to corner, a sea of colorful riding attire against the bright green backdrop, whoops and hollers echoing against the trees. The final section was reminiscent of a bobsleigh track: cut into the side of a hill, it provided our riders with a great section of flow through naturally-bermed turns, and pure speed before spitting them out into the carpark.

High five’s all round; it was time for some well-earned beers and a late lunch in the clearing at the trailhead. As the group sat around and relaxed in the sun, stories of the adventure started to flow, wide grins recounting their most memorable moments. Then came their hardest question – “how do we top that tomorrow?”

This mountain bike adventure was just one part of JustMTB’s 8-day Native North tour, a tour crafted from the best singletrack and cultural experiences, welcoming you into the local secret spots of New Zealand! For more information, be sure to check out: www.justmtb.co.nz