Surely only a fool dons a pair of skis for the first time and takes the chairlift straight up to the top of a precipitous mountain without taking at least one beginner’s ski lesson?
Well, I was that fool.
Two teenage mates who had skied once before persuaded me they were “experts”. Obviously there was no need for me to book ski lessons, they said. They could teach me everything I needed to know, they said.
Foolishly in my youth, I followed. But as soon as we reached the summit they took off in a race against each other.
In my nightmares, I can still hear that “See you at the bottom!” echoing down the piste as I fell off the lift, unable even to do the most basic snowplough.
So I’m not going to make the same mistake with my first real attempt at mountain biking.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAX NZ
Especially given the traumas the world’s first purpose-built mountain bike park has endured since it opened briefly in December 2016, only to be devastated by a calamitous bush fire two months later.
The Christchurch Adventure Park – that cost $24 million to construct – was meant to be a symbol of Christchurch reborn.
After the horrific earthquake of 2011, the adventure park – conceived and built by Select Evolution, the Canadian-based company that also runs Whistler Bike Park – was a vote of confidence in a city that had endured the worst.
For eight weeks the new park was a wonder. A 20-minute drive from the continuing construction site that is Christchurch’s CBD, the adventure park delivered hope.
A much-needed piece of tourism infrastructure and a joint venture between the New Zealand government, Christchurch City Council and private investors, it could honestly claim to be the only adventure park of its kind in the world.
With 50 kilometres of downhill mountain bike tracks serviced by almost two kilometres of chairlift over a 358 hectare mountainous park on the outskirts of the city – what could possibly go wrong?
The bushfire started on February 13, 2017. Helicopter pilot and former SAS hero Steve Askin, a father of two, died the next day – Valentine’s Day – trying to stop the fire spreading to the park.
Prominent Christchurch journalist, Vicki Anderson, summed up the mood of the city as the bush fire encroached: “Any damage to the Adventure Park and the beautiful trees that surround it is particularly galling. It’s a fun-filled giant symbol that Christchurch was moving forward – that, finally, something was happening in the rebuild.”
Still the flames devoured the park.
By the time it was safe to hand back to its owners in March 2017, so much had been lost. Not just the ziplines and parts of the chairlifts, but the trees that bound the mountainside together.
Fast forward to the present.
The Christchurch Adventure Park reopened on December 10. It’s now back doing a roaring trade (if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun).
“It was a difficult 10 months,” concedes Anne Newman, the general manager. “But if feels fantastic to be up and running again.
“It’s not the same as it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good as it used to be. The removal of so many trees means the views from the top of the chairlift are now unreal. We are constantly opening new tracks and the riders are raving about them.”
Apart from the reborn mountain bike trails (and more are under construction), one of the world’s longest dual line ziplines, an uphill trail for those hardy souls who don’t want to use the 1.8 kilometre-long chairlift, much more is planned including a 1.5 km Mountain Coaster (imagine a high-speed luge on rails), plus a range of chalet and dormitory accommodation.
But enough talking, it’s now time for action.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ
Having been kitted out with a full-face helmet, knee and elbow guards, cycling gloves and a pretty cool-looking mountain bike (a Giant Glory II), I’m ready for my 90-minute “DH apprentice” course. (Read: absolute Beginner.)
My guide is “CJ” – real name Clinton Jackson – a bearded, pony-tailed former professional mountain biker who beat Australian cycling legend Cadel Evans to win the world’s single gear championship in 2003. So I vow to follow his every instruction.
Even when it does seem stupid.
Take lesson one. How to use the brakes.
Not that I’m actually allowed to ride the bike at this point. That would be too risky. Instead CJ has me walking alongside it on a completely flat piece of grass, next door to the children’s practice park where kindy kids are already getting serious air as they bounce off the jumps.
He shows me how to use each little finger to gentle squeeze the brakes while keep the rest of the hand firmly on the handlebars.
But though I’m feeling a tad foolish, I see his point. These brakes are far more aggressive than the ones I’m used to on my own mountain bike back in Oz, which (like my 4WD) is mainly confined to the asphalt. So having mastered the brakes, I’m allowed to mount the bike. But first, he lowers the saddle, letting me into a trade secret: “You’ll be standing up for most of the descent, so you don’t want the saddle getting in the way as you lean the bike into the turns.”
For the next 30 minutes CJ demonstrates various drills and positions. There’s the “neutral pose”, which involves bouncing up and down to restore balance; the “recovery position”, which should prevent me going over the handlebars if I brake too hard; the correct technique for negotiating steep corners safely and at speed; the proper way to position my arms over the handlebars with elbows outwards.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
By the time CJ declares that I’m ready to ride on New Zealand’s longest chairlift, capable of taking 1200 people and their bikes every hour up the 430-metre vertical rise, I already feel I’ve done a serious gym workout.
As we enjoy the views from the chairlift – the first purpose-built quad mountain bike carrier in the world – CJ explains the mountain tracks are graded according to difficulty like ski runs: green, blue and black. We’ll be going down Duncan’s Donuts, at 9.6 km the longest green run at the park.
All those “foolish” exercises I’ve been taught now come into play. Once or twice, when we pull over to look at the views, other cyclists come thundering through. Many have already got into bad habits, some look like casualty patients in waiting. We, on the other hand, descend at a speed which, while thrilling, always feels safe.
When we finally reach the bottom of Duncan’s Donuts my relief is palpable, especially when I discover my arms are shaking once I take them off the handlebars.
After lunch, I join nine others for what (by comparison) is a “tame” zipline tour. Our two cheerful guides put us through the safety briefing and demonstrate the brake position. There are four stages, ranging from 400 metres to 1.1 km, with the zipline suspended up to 180 metres above the valley floor.
It’s the first time for all of us, but most attention is on the talkative 10-year-old girl and her competitive seven-year-old brother who race each other down the dual lines as if they are vying for Olympic Gold. (The boy invariably loses because his sister is not only older but heavier: sometimes, paying attention in science classes counts.)
Many laughs later, there’s time for a relaxing locally brewed ale on the sun deck of the chalet-style cafe.
It feels like apres-ski, with the same camaraderie after a day well-spent in the mountains. Except there’s no snow and the summer temperature is so perfect families are having picnics on the lawn.
From our grandstand view, we’re able to watch the final twists and turns, bumps and grinds of the expert mountain bikers as they descend one of the black runs.
Now, at that point, I may have said something loud and foolish, such as “Why’s that guy sitting down on his saddle? It’s far too high!” Or, “obviously, she never learned to brake properly on the flat!”
Just a tip if you ever do get a chance to qualify as a DH apprentice … take off the coloured wristband that shows you are an absolute beginner before you share your insights.
The Village Cafe has a large, covered deck, a fire in winter and is fully licensed.
There is a range of activities, packages, full hire facilities and free shuttle bus (no bikes!) from Canterbury Museum. The Do the Double mountain bike introduction and zipline experience costs $190. See christchurchadventurepark.com
Steve Meacham was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.