Tour of Luxury: Part I

I never thought I would be writing a story about myself doing a ‘guided’ mountain biking trip but here goes!

I have always travelled independently, with a past of long cycle touring trips on a heavy bike and an extremely light credit card, saving dollars to lengthen the trips. Riding huge mileage to see as much countryside as possible, a diet of PB & J sandwiches and roadside cooking isn’t for everyone, but back in the day, I loved it.

The planning, navigating routes, camping, cooking whilst having to avoid the financial burden of standard touristy extras, my style could be described as ride all day…'get the photo'…ride all day...and maybe ‘get the t-shirt’. Regardless of how physically challenging it was, my Macpac tent was my home for 3 ½ years, I tasted beer in 17 countries and pedalled 45,000 km.

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I look back and realise I missed many tourist gems that now I wouldn’t hesitate in paying for. To top it off, the last 900 km to Nelson was ridden in grotty cold weather. A tough finale to an otherwise pretty rad trip… I knew it was time for a change.

28 birthdays later I hooked up with Haka MTB Tours to photograph a group doing their seven day ‘North Island Trail Hunters Tour' from Auckland to Wellington. Very similar to the route of my last 900 km touring back home to Nelson 27 years prior.

Now it was my turn to taste travel in style on a ‘guided’ MTB trip, with a light bike and heavy credit card, comfortable accommodation, bikes supplied, mechanic on hand, not to mention pre-booked excursions and being driven from trail to trail in (God forbid), a bus!

I connected with the group at the end of their first day in Rotorua after their pre-trip introduction and first ride. The group consisted of five North Americans and one Brazilian-born Aussie ranging in age from 24 to 61 and all pretty capable grade 3-4 riders.

I was mentally prepared to capture a huge stock of trail and rider images but found myself shooting a trip that was way more than that. Sure the riding was fantastic but there was something a little extra.

Our guide Morgan Calas (Morgs) began with the usual housekeeping and a glossary of what fun lay ahead. The first day Morgs spent time getting to know the group, assess their skills on an easy ride, then customise the week to suit all.

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This trip gives overseas tourists a good mix of North Island riding but also packs in amazing cultural experiences, great local cuisine, well-chosen tourism centres and most importantly; trail knowledge only the locals know. No need to troll though Trip Advisor’s reviews on meals, entertainment or accommodation and current trail info.

Sharing a week with like-minded mountain bike lovers proved super easy. There were never any awkward moments when talking biking was too much. We had a mix of pretty cool people and everyone got on like a house on fire from the get-go.
An interesting aspect is that the itinerary is not set in concrete, and although all the areas mentioned in the brochure are visited, tracks were chosen according to the group.

I was taken a bit aback by how different this was. It’s true that generally the South Island has the bigger and gnarlier descents with a lot more grade 4-5 trails. However, this trip was designed to be a slightly laid-back blend, dream single track, chill time, and seeing a totally cool part of the New Zealand. Nobody complained about not getting enough riding time, as there were loads of track choices to put a smile on the faces at all levels of ability. Two of the tour group used this trip as a steppingstone warm up and continued on another week around the South Island.

Seeing New Zealand’s cultural tourism through overseas visitors’ eyes made me feel proud of my country’s heritage. I was speechless and a little moved by the strength of the Maori culture and history. My South Island upbringing was more Anglo and fairly sheltered from New Zealand’s true heritage. At the age of 58 I felt a little self-conscious learning about my own amazing culture, alongside a bunch of foreign tourists that had been in NZ for under a week.

One aspect I had to adjust to was not needing to transport my own bike, instead renting a Specialized Stumpjumper and bringing pedals and shoes. At the last minute though, I couldn’t seem to undo my frozen solid SPD pedals off of my trusty Bronson. So, it was going to be a first-time riding flats for me. I figured I would make this a forced opportunity to learn some better techniques using flats. Something I had been putting off for years.

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Day one for me was a rendezvous with the South Star Shuttles in the Redwoods Forest (Rotorua) and Morgs handed us each a ticket for five runs. They run full-sized busses hooked up with the biggest bike trailer I’ve ever seen.
The trails we did were mostly grade 3; well designed, great views and at times the berms felt a little raw through a mix of cut plantation and established forest, with a carpet of pine needles and green ferns.

I got on the crash scoreboard early on a grade 4 with a classic OTB; camera bag and bike on top of me, as I tumbled down the track. Elbow oozing blood, as my elbow guards had been left in the van. This was my wake-up call to get used to the flat pedals, fast. I had never ridden on flats, so I was re-programming myself to pump the bike off drop-offs rather than my old ‘dead mullet’ style; hauling up on the pedals, which never worked anyway.

The weather was stinking hot by NZ standards and the climb looked pretty brutal so we were grateful having the shuttle. I normally love climbing but I was pleasantly knackered well before our last run. It surprised me that grade 3 downhill tracks could grind me down that much if you up the tempo. The five-run pass was more than enough and even my gooey, leaking elbow didn’t stop me having an amazing day.

Back in Rotorua that night it was showers, coffee and a wander into town, thirsty for a craft beer and sublime meal in a funky local brewpub. Again, no guess work or mistakes where to go as Morgs pointed us to his favourite spot, and we weren’t disappointed.

The story will continue in Part II.....

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