Free and easy?
You might think someone like me who writes regularly about cameras gets loads of free gear thrown at them. The fact is no-one has ever given me a camera or lens. What normally happens when I’m writing the Expanded Guides is that the publisher buys the camera and lends it to me for the required period, usually 4–6 weeks. My aim is always to put the camera through its paces as exhaustively as possible in that period. It then goes back and normally they’ll sell it on.
That’s not to say I’ve never received any gear for free, but it’s been things like camera backpacks – and I’ve got a review of one of those coming up soon.
However as a writer covering travel and outdoor subjects, I do get a fair amount of supported travel/accommodation. The quid pro quo is that the providers get a decent mention in the article or book that results. Of course there are ethical issues here – what if the accommodation isn’t up to the standard it should be?
I’ve actually faced that very question with a hotel in Helsinki. Normally standards in Finnish hotels are very high but this one didn’t measure up. Maybe they’d just put me in one of their worst rooms – but that is a daft thing to do when you know the guest is writing about you. Anyway, I consulted with the FInnish Tourist Board, who’d arranged it, and agreed that I couldn’t in good conscience give that hotel any publicity. I gave them plenty of detail about what was wrong and they agreed to take it up with the hotel.
Which brings me to my recent (well, November/December last) trip to New Zealand. This has now borne fruit in the form of a big feature in Privateer magazine – and what a joy it’s been to have over 4000 words to play with instead of the more usual 1200–1500. However, I actually started out with nearer 6000 words. Privateer’s editor, Tym Manley, decided to focus on the epic back-country exploration I’d shared with the Kennett Brothers and Hoz Barclay in Pureora Forest, which meant that some of the places I’d been and people who’d helped didn’t get quite as much coverage as I would have liked. So this is one way of saying thanks and giving those people a bit more exposure.
Thanks to the generosity of the people at Avanti Bikes in Auckland I had a great bike to ride during my trip to NZ – in fact two bikes: one for North Island (the brown one) and another for South Island (Queenstown). That's the blue one. Apart from a different rear tyre and a dropper seat-post on the Queenstown bike, they were essentially the same, and all comments from now on apply generally.
The bike(s) in question is/are the Avanti Torrent 3. My first ride was a less-than-pleasant tussle with Auckland’s feral highways, which reminded me that the great Josie Dew described New Zealand’s drivers as the worst she'd ever encountered. However, as soon as I got the Torrent onto the sandy trails at Woodhill MTB Park, I felt instantly at home on it. The Torrent is a beautifully balanced ride; it climbs and descends well. It was happy on the downhills of Queenstown Bike Park and also on the wilder side of things at the Pack Track in Skippers Canyon. OK, Skippers isn't that technical, but Vertigo Bikes give their clients full-on downhill bikes for it.
I’m not a professional bike reviewer so for anyone looking for detailed run-down on the Torrent, here’s a review from Australian Mountain Bike magazine. British reviews are a bit thin on the ground as the brand is only just finding its way into the UK market.
I’ve already mentioned Skippers Canyon Pack Track. I was able to ride here thanks to Vertigo Bikes of Queenstown, who run regular guided trips during the season. Special thanks to Vertigo boss Tim Ceci and guide Mike Aubrey.
Tim Ceci explained that Skippers Road is officially the most dangerous in New Zealand. Born in the Gold Rush, which began in 1865, it took seven years to build; two years after it opened, the gold ran out. Today its main users are rafting companies accessing the Shotover River. It's also the “easy” option for a guided bike descent. Though technically trivial, it’s a long descent with loose surfaces, and massive drops on the right. Overshooting a bend could be fatal.
Across the canyon, the Pack Track (used by miners before the road was completed), is relatively safe, albeit more technical. Of course you could say it's still a packaged adventure, with transport to the Saddle, a guide to tell you what comes next, and (on the full Vertigo package) full-dress downhill bikes. I was perfectly happy riding it on the Avanti Torrent and felt distinctly surprised, even smug, to find that the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club map rates it Gr5 (on a 1–6 scale). But the grade hardly matters. Skippers Pack Track is just a darn gorgeous descent. You want flow? Here it is.
You can ride it without a guide, naturally, but unless you want to tackle the road back up, you do need transport, and the road is off-limits to rental cars. You could also book Queenstown’s Bike Taxi, or join in one of the QMBC's social races. The record is about six and a half minutes, including climbing over a couple of stiles (cyclo-cross skills would help here). For me, going with Vertigo (and thereby gaining several models for the photos) was ideal. I’m pleased to say Privateer went double-page with this shot of Mike and three clients cruising down the Pack Track.
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