Rotorua

 

David Whitley takes on The Luge and The Swoop with scarcely any concern for his own personal safety...

 

This is a recipe for disaster. Ten testosterone-pumped all in control of pseudo Go-karts that they have only just learned the basics of controlling, about to race each other on a steep downhill race track, complete with tricky corners and everything.  We are at Skyline Skyrides in Rotorua, which ostensibly is a cable car service to the top of a hill overlooking the city.

 

 

But as with most things Kiwi, they don’t do things that simply. Along with the cable car, gondola and restaurant, they have also built a ‘luge’ track. Why they’ve called it luge I don’t know – as far as I’m concerned, luging is that psychotic sport they show every four years at the Winter Olympics. This is basically downhill karting, and very good fun it is too.

 

There are three tracks to take on: The 2km scenic track (for the elderly, the boring and absolute jessies), the intermediate track (which you’re forced to go on first so you can learn how to steer properly) and the daddy – a 1km long advanced track.

 

This track has steep drops, tight corners, the works, and ten of us are about to bomb down it at once, which is probably against the rules, but like we care. I set off from fourth on the grid, eagerly pursuing the Danish bloke in front of me. He’s not getting away any further, but I’m not getting any closer, as we pelt down the track. But the guy behind me is getting cocky, and is beginning to close in. There’s no way he’s going to overtake me, though, bloody spoon-fed public schoolboy.

 

Unfortunately, we’re coming up to the tightest corner, which is followed by the steepest drop. I do the maths – if I slow down, he’s going to overtake. Therefore the brakes aren’t going on, I’m going to try and take the corner at full speed, and it looks like Posh Boy has the same idea. Bring it on…

 

A few seconds later, I am face down on the bank, absolutely covered in the dirt that I landed in. my competitor has also gone belly up, although he’s somehow managed to graze his knee, shin and elbow at the same time. Boys will be boys, and the rest of the procession fly by, having had the sense to lightly dab the breaks, laughing at the pitiful sight behind them.

 

Eventually we dust ourselves off, and trundle our way down the remainder of the track to the bottom, where we are greeted with jeers and howling laughter. The form of laughter induced at nearby is entirely different. I believe ‘nervous laughter’ is the phrase.

 

When I was a kid, I used to love playgrounds almost as much as heroin addicts do nowadays. Slides were cool, climbing frames rocked, and even those rubbishy balancing beams could pass the odd minute without seeming too dull. Best of all, though, were the swings. I loved swings more than I loved fishfingers - and for a period of three months that must have brought my mother much heartache, I refused to eat anything but fishfingers.

 

I used to like seeing exactly how high I could make the swing go, but in the back of my mind there was always that nagging fear that I was going to push it that little bit too far and fly over the top of the bar. But on the whole, that was the only scary thing about swings. Let's face it, they aren't the sort of things you cry yourself to sleep about at night, are they?

 

Well, as anyone who has been there will know, they do things a little differently in Rotorua, and their version of a swing is a little different to ours. It's called The Swoop and it's at a little pocket of insanity called the Agrodome, a few minutes out of town. The premise is simple: Whilst on the ground you are strapped precariously into a glorified sleeping bag. You are then winched 40ft into the air. Then you have to pull a ripcord, which sends you hurtling back towards the ground again, freefalling for a few seconds of sheer, petrifying horror.

 

Waiting at the top is awful - you’ve got this horrible feeling that you’re going to plummet to your death, but when that cord is pulled, the rush is incredible. We’re travelling at 130kmh, with a G-Force of 3, and plunging towards the ground. Just as I think we’re going to hit it, we swing back up again, and there’s another drop. After that though, it’s just the sheer glee of swinging back and forth until we’re caught by the brave bloke on the ground whose sole job it is to drag the swinging sleeping bag to a halt (oh, alright, he also makes sure we don’t die as well).

 

Suddenly that high swinging of my childhood seems pretty damned pathetic.

 

The Rock

 


 

The fish’s heart pumped and writhed in the palm of my hand like a piece of throbbing sushi. It didn’t look at all appetising but the crew of The Rock had convinced me that eating it would be a ‘cultural experience’ – a sort of initiation to the Bay of Islands. As I popped the pulsating morsel into my mouth I was already wondering why I have always had such a problem submitting to peer-pressure. Bigger boys made me do it.

 

Bay of Islands is renowned adventure travel centre and there are a few adrenalin fuelled trips here: everything from sky-diving to chopper excursions to trips on the bizarrely phallic ‘Excitor’ speedboat (which throbs its way across the bay to penetrate the famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ on a twice-daily basis). But an overnight voyage on The Rock, a veteran car ferry which has been converted into a cruising barge accommodating about forty passengers, is one of the region’s most popular excursions.

 

The boat is so steady, even in moderate swell, that it is even equipped with a pool table in the bar, but there is a spirit of adventure that is still alive and well in this part of the North Island and The Rock does a surprisingly good job of capturing it in what is after all a fairly limited time. Even before we were out of sight of Paihia wharf, a decoy duck (known as Matilda) was trailing off the back of the ferry so that we could take turns trying to blast her with a paintball gun. She was no ‘sitting duck,’ bouncing and jumping in the wake, and I was quite proud to be the only person to hit her with two out of three shots. (But, in hindsight, perhaps it was this that brought me to the notice of the crew and led to my sushi ‘prize’ later.)

 

When the competition was over Matilda was hauled aboard and trawling lines were let out. Within just a few minutes there was a shout as the first kahawai (pronounced ‘cow eye’) was seen leaping on the hook. Adam the skipper handed the wheel over to second mate Ben and came back to do a demonstration of how to gut and prepare this delicious fish (liberally rubbed with lemon-pepper and brown sugar) for barbecuing. His explanation was certainly worthy of the most advanced TV celebrity chef but I forget all the details. By this time I was drinking Steinlager rather than taking notes.

 

We moored somewhere beyond Tapeka Point and ate our dinner at a long communal table. Conversation was varied and reflected the diversity of the group. I was sharing a cabin with a South African engineer, based in Zambia, and a Spanish scientist from Galicia. There were also three German girl backpackers, two American expats, a couple of older English travellers and three generations from a family of Kiwi farmers, celebrating a birthday party.

 

By now it was completely dark and, with the moon not yet risen, perfect timing for a nocturnal kayaking trip. Far from any ambient light and out on the spooky black water we had the most spectacular display of phosphorescence I have ever seen. Digging our paddles hard we could power the kayaks forward and leave a glowing trail of vivid neon-green lights shimmering across the surface. Once back on the boat I dived overboard and, following Adam’s advice, swam under the hull where there was no light whatsoever. As I swam I could see the phosphorescent glow trailing off my fingertips and even bouncing off my nose.

 

I slept well – lulled by the rocking of the waves – but deadlines had been piling up lately and I woke before dawn to go down to the main deck to hunt down some coffee and try get some writing done before the day started. It was difficult to bemoan the hard life of a roving journo though with such an office to work out of.

 

A watery sun came up over the horizon and I watched small flocks of gannets and pied shags diving for their breakfast. The shags apparently dive with such force that most of them die eventually of blindness because of shattered retinas.

 

After breakfast we paddled out to a nearby island to explore and play football on the beach. Then we moored in the lee of one of Bay of Island’s 143 islets and snorkelled for kino (urchins) for lunch. Split open with a knife the skimpy rations of meat that the urchins yield is nevertheless extremely tasty.

 

Back on the boat Jonny Greener – the owner of The Rock – called me over to point out a little blue penguin floating on the swell. I was delighted with my first ever wild penguin sighting. As we watched my eye was drawn to a splash farther off on the watery horizon and I realised that a group of dolphins was heading our way. Another boat had already spotted the small pod of bottlenoses and was on its way towards them. Jonny and his crew are against these sort of invasive dolphin tours and refuse to chase the dolphins or to swim with them, unless the dolphins come to investigate the swimmers. In this case, however, the other boat was chasing the dolphins straight towards us and we had a grandstand view as several of the magnificent three-metre creatures leapt and tail-flipped through the water, seemingly playing water-polo with clumps of seaweed.

 

It was the perfect ending to this fleeting glimpse of the Bay of Islands. The Rock cruise had been a tantalising morsel that, like the sea urchin meat, left me wanting more. But, unlike the raw fish heart, it was an experience I would like to repeat at the first opportunity!

 

For more information on The Rock visit rocktheboat.co.nz

 

 

By Mark Evelegh