As the ESA Rosetta mission approached, orbited, and sent a lander to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, a large campaign of ground-based observations also followed the comet. We constrain the total activity level of the comet by photometry and spectroscopy to place Rosetta results in context and to understand the large-scale structure of the comet's coma pre-perihelion. We performed observations using a number of telescopes, but concentrate on results from the 8m VLT and Gemini South telescopes in Chile. We use R-band imaging to measure the dust coma contribution to the comet's brightness and UV-visible spectroscopy to search for gas emissions, primarily using VLT/FORS. In addition we imaged the comet in near-infrared wavelengths (JHK) in late 2014 with Gemini-S/Flamingos 2. We find that the comet was already active in early 2014 at heliocentric distances beyond 4 au. The evolution of the total activity (measured by dust) followed previous predictions. No gas emissions were detected despite sensitive searches. The comet maintains a similar level of activity from orbit to orbit, and is in that sense predictable, meaning that Rosetta results correspond to typical behaviour for this comet. The gas production (for CN at least) is highly asymmetric with respect to perihelion, as our upper limits are below the measured production rates for similar distances post-perihelion in previous orbits.