Andy’s Great Rides of New Zealand: The St James

south island mountain bikingAndy continues his cycling journey around New Zealand. This week he’s headed deep into the southern wilderness to ride the St James, a unique backcountry mountain biking experience in North Canterbury where the tough get going and the adrenalin really kicks in!

Kenichi has a big grin from ear to ear. “This is like Disneyland,” he says.

I look at him in amazement, wondering how he can compare this unique alpine wilderness to a crowded, corporate theme park.

This is our third mountain bike ride in as many days, and three hours into our six-hour ride we’re already hurting. I’m just hoping that Kenichi – my Japanese MTB cycle guide and Aloha Bike Tours Owner – isn’t hallucinating!

The St James is not a ride for the faint hearted; its unforgiving terrain can throw some curve balls and a mechanical breakdown way out here in the wilderness could easily mean a freezing night under the stars.

But when fitness, weather and great mates combine, riding the St James can be pure heaven.

Today we’ve started the ride at the Marling Pass carpark and are heading towards the Homestead. Travelling in this direction gives us more downhill riding and some extra assistance from the predominant wind. On a ride as tough as this, we’ll take any help we can get!

It’s an easygoing start out to Marling Pass, followed by an exhilarating descent through beech forest to the Waiau River Valley. Keep an eye out here for the rabbit-proof fence, seen to the right of the trail. Completed in 1889, it extends 125km from the Main Divide to the coast.

We push onwards, following the well-formed track along the tussock and wildflower valley floor and crossing the crystal-blue waters of the Waiau River at Saddle Spur bridge. Now the riding gets more challenging, with some hard climbs, uneven surfaces and tricky descents.

A sighting of the St James wild horses, framed against the backdrop of the rugged snow capped Southern Alps is a memory worth holding onto. If the uphills don’t take your breath away, then the scenery certainly will.

From Macarthurs Bridge the trail follows an old 4-wheel drive track up a series of terraces to Edwards Valley and then on to Peters Pass – our last major hurdle of the day. (I’ve since been told there are some hot pools just after Scotties Hut at Cow Stream – I’ll be looking out for them on my next trip in October!)

Totally exhausted from our seven-hour ride, we round off our day with a well-earned soak at Hanmer Spring’s natural hot pools.

Stunning high country scenery
Challenging terrain
Definitely not Disneyland, but truly one New Zealand’s great backcountry mountain bike rides.

Grade 4
This is a ride for ADVANCED riders only.

From Hanmer Springs take Jacks Pass Road, before turning right onto the steep, gravel Clarence Valley Road. Turn left onto TopHouse Road at the Y junction. The Marling Pass carpark is about 30km from the turn off.
As you drive out along TopHouse Road, you will pass the old St James homestead on the left after about 3.5km. This is the end of the St James Cycle Trail.

Inspired to hit up the mountain bike trails of New Zealand?

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