The Mangatoa Road

 

 

David Whitley ignores his SatNav to head down a back road that contains all that is good about the west of the North Island

 

Marokopa is a one shop town, and that shop closes when the owner is doing the school bus run. Beyond the pretty-but-functional wooden houses, the beach guides the remnants of the Marokopa river out to the Tasman Sea. The sand is a moody, volcanic black; the spit of dunes opposite largely off-limits. The parts that aren’t ancient Maori burial ground are reserved for nesting penguins and endangered seabirds.

 

Marokopa encapsulates New Zealand’s wild west coast. It’s unheralded, it’s evocative and it thrills with its raw, unpolished beauty. But it’s also the start of the road that nobody goes down.

 

Few people go west beyond Waitomo, the North Island’s well-drilled tourist village of cave adventures. Getting out of Waitomo is usually a case of doubling back and rejoining State Highway 3. Refuse to retrace your steps and you enter a world almost entirely uncovered by tourist information pamphlets.

 

The collapsed cave splendour of the Mangapohue Natural Bridge gets brief mention. The seemingly endless cascading tiers of the heart flutter-inducing Marokopa Falls get the criminal undersell treatment. And the rest is territory to be a pioneer in.

 

GPS systems and Google Maps won’t send you west because a significant chunk of the 58.5km Mangatoa Road between Marokopa and Awakino is unsealed. But it’s perfectly manageable in a conventional vehicle, and it takes in some of the North Island’s most magical scenery. Hobbity hills commandeered by ambling sheep give way to soaring coastal views, dense unlogged forest and wheel-clutching zig-zag descents. It’s the sort of road that turns driving from chore to unbridled joy.

 

A right turn at Waikawau leads through terraced green hills and the sort of dreamy pastureland that’s probably home to cherubs as well as cows. But the road stops before a narrow tunnel topped with an almost Gothic arch. The tunnel was cut through the limestone and made just wide enough to transport cattle through – it was easier to take them along the beach than up and down the hills.

 

That beach, however, feels like a cherished discovery. A brooding capturer of lonely headlands at low tide; an intimate cove at high tide.

 

Arriving Waikawau beach feels like uncovering a treasured secret, but for overpowering majesty, Pukearuhe further south is the king. Again, the sand is a deep, sparkling black. But it’s set against transcendent white cliffs. As long as the tide is not fully in, it’s possible to walk for hours, crunching shells underfoot and looking up at the chalky walls.

 

It may be the road that no-one goes down, but it’s a road to wonderful nowheres. It’s a New Zealand of Heathcliff-style brooding romance; a drive into the unknown for those who want their own special piece of the country to themselves.

 

by David Whitley

 

 

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Shweeb

 

David Whitley experiences New Zealand’s latest crazy adrenalin activity in Rotorua – and learns of plans to introduce the bizarre form of green transport across the world.

 

Jared shuts my glass cage, and disappears behind me. I am suspended a metre or so above the ground, attached to a Lilliputian monorail. Jared gives my pod a shove and I’m suddenly flying. And this, I guess, is where my pedals come in. I start pushing in order to gain speed and I’m soon whizzing around the track faster than I’d ever be able to manage on a normal bike. The kinks and dips in the track make it feel like a self-powered rollercoaster, complete with clattering around corners and faint feeling of exhilaration.

 

This is Shweebing, New Zealand’s new form of absurd adrenalin rush. It’s somewhere between cycling, taking a monorail, Scalextric racing and having a nice lie down. And if it sounds odd, that’s because it is. But if the man behind it has his way, then it might not seem so unusual in a few years’ time. According to Jared, the operations manager here in Rotorua, sixteen licences to operate Shweebs have been issued worldwide. And the intention is to branch out from theme park-style race tracks into lengthy transit systems.

 

The theory goes that Shweebs could be green, healthy ways of getting through forests or caves – the ground isn’t disturbed by people walking on it, and it offers a gimmicky selling point. The inventor also hopes that the principle can be applied to getting around busy local neighbourhoods. It’s all very space age, and yet again New Zealand is leading the way in quirky action experiences. Or so it would seem – the big secret is that the Shweeb is an Australian invention.

 

The idea apparently came to Melburnian Geoff Barnett while he was living in Tokyo. Barnett taught English there for six years, and used a recumbent bicycle to get around. These lying down bikes may look silly, but they’re far more energy efficient to use than a normal two-wheeler.

 

The inspiration came to Barnett as he got frustrated with the Tokyo traffic. “One day he thought: ‘I wish I could just go over the top of these people’,” says Jared. And so the seed was planted. Barnett returned to Australia and worked on his idea for five years, but struggled to find a suitable place in his home country to launch it. So be brought his Shweeb - the name comes from the German word ‘Schwebe’, meaning ‘hanging’, ‘hovering’ or ‘suspended’ – to Rotorua.

 

The clever part of the gimmick is that Jared and co record everybody’s time on the three lap thunder around the 200m track. It becomes a time trial – a race against everybody of your age, gender and nationality that has gone before you.With this – and the option of going head to head with a friend – no-one is going to treat it as a gentle cycle around the park. Apparently Olympic cyclists have had a go at this, but no-one has managed to beat the time of 56.2 seconds by a chap who looked like Prince William and had undergone no training. That’s an average speed of 38.4km/h per hour – something that would be murderous on a normal bike but is perfectly feasible on the Shweeb. There’s no friction from the ground, the body is in prime position and the aerodynamics of the design mean there’s little resistance. According to Jared, you could push one of the empty pods from the start point, and it would come back round without any further assistance.

 

As a comparison point, I am about as athletic as a giant meat pie, yet I still manage to complete the three laps in 63.4 seconds. This is going reasonably hard, but by no means flat out – frankly, I was too busy trying to work out the gears for the best part of the journey. Apparently, I would have reached the 40km/h mark on my way round – 45 to 50km/h is easily attainable – and I averaged out at just over 34km/h.

 

And when you put it in those terms, the idea of using the Shweeb concept for transit systems doesn’t seem quite so much of a pipedream after all.

 

 

Details

Do it: Three laps around the Shweeb track costs NZ$45, although packages with the other activities at Agroventures (Agroventures.co.nz) are also available.

Stay: Base (Stayatbase.com) is a good hostel option in Rotorua, with surprisingly large doubles available for those who have outgrown dorms.

 

 

 

By David Whitley