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Article by Ange Famularo
Cycling is not one of my fortes, never was, probably never will be, but when group of friends whose greatest fear is the onset of age-stagnation invited me to join them on the inaugural ride on The Paradise Trail I couldn’t refuse.
The trail which officially opens in December, explores the majestic surrounds of Lake Wakatipu,Glenorchy, Kinloch and Paradise; areas well known as the locations of films such as Lord of the Rings,Wolverine and Narnia.
The descent into Queenstown Airport across a motionless lake, flanked by the Remarkable Ranges and house-speckled hills on a cloudless day would impress even the most experienced traveller and momentarily took my mind off the thought of riding a bike for three days.
My posterior is more suited to sitting on an ergonomically correct office chair, but organizers Matt and Kate Belcher of Revolution Tours had assured me that their bikes were well suited to both the terrain and their target market; those of us at that age where children no longer bleed us of surplus income and time and who have the desire and energy to make the most of life.
The Trek mountain bikes used on the Trail have extra padded seats, front and seat-post suspension and are designed to be ridden in an upright seating position which are easier on backs and bottoms. “A modern bike with old-school design” Matt told me with an empathising smile.
The Belchers are no newcomers to the world of cycling. A former guide on Bolivia’s famous ‘Death Road’ and veteran of a seven thousand kilometres cycle across South East Asia it was only a natural progression that Matt would continue his love of cycling back home. Multi-sporter Kate is just as fanatical.
It’s no secret that cycling has grown as a touring option partially spurred on by the growth and success of the Otago Rail Trail which gets around 10,000 riders a year.
Queenstown is also fast growing as a riding destination with a number of tracks currently under construction and the Skyline Gondola now open to cyclists, allowing them access to numerous downhill tracks direct from town, an activity more suited to those who want an adrenalin shot rather than an holistic experience.
Within no time from landing the Belchers had us ‘fitted’ with bikes and helmets, attached removable front panniers which doubled as a shoulder bag for personal items, given gear-change instructions and gently encouraged us as we cycling along the waterfront.
Strategically placed numbers on the handles eliminated most of the gear clunking and before you could say ‘Lance Armstong’ we were speeding along at local hazard level until we reached the Steamer Wharf Cafe for great coffee and full briefing.
While we chattered excitedly our excess gear was stored in the company van which would follow were ever possible at a suitably discreet distance bearing coffee making machine and any other items needed in an emergency.
Gear sorted, fears alleviated and topped up on caffeine I was ready for anything as we wheeled our bikes across the gangplank of the TSS Earnslaw and headed across Lake Wakitipu for the first section of the ride; Walter Peak to Von River.
In the fo’c’sle where our bikes were stored, historic photos gave a glimpse of the vessels past as a cargo ship, livestock carrier, passenger transporter and pleasure steamer. In the main cabin a pianist surrounded by travellers revelling in the nostalgia turned out songs after song on the grand piano.
An open view down into the engine room revealed the immaculately restored heart of the ship, the pistons sliding up and down while the stokers shovel coal into the furnace of the 100 year old Lady of the Lake.
From the upper deck beneath the barely flapping flag, the historic homestead of Walter Peak High Country Farm on the South-western shore came into view.
This secluded area is rich in history with its legacy of pioneer farming and sheltered bays once used as camping sites by Maori on Moa hunting and pounamu (greenstone) gathering journeys. Like the Earnslaw, the sheep station also feels like living history.
A farm tour gives valuable insight into the hard work and kiwi strength which helped make New Zealand what it is today.
Stage One was a fourteen kilometre stretch of rolling high country farmland with outstanding views of the lake and mountains and an air of isolation.
Although the unsealed road is public the only other sign of human life we saw was a lone farmer on horseback waving enthusiastically as if we are the first people he’d seen in while.
Covering any distance took a while at first with the urge for photographic stops consuming most of the morning.
Eventually, the individuality of each rider began to emerge, there were the purists who revel in the total ‘being in it” experience, the creatives who wanted to capture each scene and “Destination Man” who just wanted to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
A personality type well suited to an international pilot. I eventually arrived at Von River, a
huffing, puffing, sweating, pulsating wobble of a woman and plonked myself inelegantly by the side of the lake.
Beside me the yoga instructor deftly finished her stretches against a farm fence, not a hair out of place.
A water taxi transported us and our bikes around a short inaccessible area of the lake to Greenstone then it was back in the saddle for the seventeen kilometre ride to Kinloch.
Our bodies now warmed to the challenge of cycling, the twinges minor and the sense of “I can do this” was stronger than ever, which was just as well because this leg of the ride was more challenging.
Undulating trails lined with golden beech trees showered us with tiny gold discs at each whiff of a breeze as we settled to our own pedalling rhythms and became lost in our own thoughts.
Kinloch Lodge was a welcomed sight. Twinges had grown into aches and stomachs were growling. There was a passing thought of throwing myself off the Kinloch jetty into the refreshing waters, but that was all it was, a passing thought.
Day Two took us from Kinloch to Paradise, a distance of 29 kilometres, an area dominated by Mount Earnslaw which rises up from the Forbes Mountains with their long finger ribs of steep ranges plunging towards the river valley and mountain tops tinged with the old blue ice of a glacial past.
For a while the milky grey water and powdery shoreline of the Rees weaves along beside us but it is the clear, cool waters and intriguing braids of the Dart River with its stony banks warm from the sun which lure us into stopping for a sleepy lunch break.
The tranquillity only broken by the whine of the Dart Jet and its shower of white spray.
As we pushed towards Paradise Valley for our second night, Diamond Lake sparkled alluringly beneath the shadow of Mt Alfred and thickets of seemingly ancient trees dripping in lichen with roots dressed in green moss encased us.
This area had a dark energy and as we rode through the shifting afternoon shadows and dappled light we all pedalled a bit faster. None of us were surprised when Matt reveals that this was the haunt of the Dark Riders during Lord of the Rings.
Finally, an insignificant moss covered sign indicates that we have arrived at Paradise Lodge. This 19th century tourist guest house built by New Zealand’s first architect William Mason in 1883, was transformed into a guest house by its second owners the Aitken family; early pioneers of environmental tourism in the region.
Seasonal wear and tear, fires, the Great Depression and general neglect chipped away the finery of the stately home until ownership was taken over by the Millar family.
David Millar, a visionary who saw the importance of safeguarding the area from commercialization, put provision in place before his death in 1998 to protect the property by offering its sale for $1 to whoever produced the most effective plan for the protection, conservation and preservation of the area.
A trust was formed and in 2010 the fully restored guest house with all of the features, ambience and trimmings of an early colonial era was reopened.
After soothing tight spots on our now finely tuned bodies Kate drove us to Glenorchy’s famous G.Y.C.(Glenorchy Cafe) for our evening meal.
The cafe is the locals gathering place and before the evening was over it felt as though every one of the 470 locals had passed through, joined us for drinks,shared local knowledge and the odd bit of gossip.
Just when I thought my body had become a finely tuned cycling machine the final hill on the last leg of Day Four was a reminder that I’d probably never be an endurance cyclist.
I followed Kate’s advice,kept the bike in granny gear and inch by inch made it to the top. From that point there was only one thing to do, legs up off the pedals and whooping wildly my bike and I free-wheeled down.
Breathless with excitement I dismounted and sprawled on the ground totally satisfied.
I had experiencing the changing colours of Paradise, heard the babbled calls of its inhabitants, smelled its dank bush, trembled in its shadows, been humbled by the power of its towering ranges, forded its rivers and most importantly, discovered a bit more of myself. I had ridden The Paradise Trail.
How to get there:
Air New Zealand and Jetstar run regular flights direct to Queenstown. Private car or rental vans are also a flexible option.
What to Bring:
Cycle pants, casual shoes, light jacket and breathable clothing suitable for cycling.
If you can ride a bike you can do the trip. Options are available for those who want more exertion.
October to April
Maximum 12 riders.
email : email@example.com
0800 2 RIDE IT
+64 3 409 2999