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.

 

Tongariro Crossing?

 

 

After conflicting reports, David Whitley takes on the Tongariro Crossing (well, half of it) on New Zealand’s North Island.

 


“The Tongariro Crossing is for pussies”, I had been told elsewhere in New Zealand. “If you want to spend your day in a queue of people walking across a mountain, then great. But it’s really not that much of a challenge.”

 


The Tongariro Crossing is the big boy, sat high on the pedestal waiting to be shot at. It has long been one of New Zealand’s prescribed must-dos, and this status means it attracts both flak and tens of thousands of people wanting to take it on every year.

 


When half of it is closed due to volcanic activity – as is currently the case – there must be a temptation to file it in the overrated basket and skip it.

 


It’s when you get to the south crater that you realise succumbing to that temptation would have been a terrible mistake. Yes, you’ve hardly got it to yourself and, yes, the severity of the uphill grind to get there is vastly overstated. But my word, the scene is magnificent.

 


The South Crater is a vast flat, dust-blown field. A white track, created by footfall crosses the centre of it, and tufts of hardy grass manage to poke through an otherwise totally barren landscape. It looks like the sort of giant amphitheatre that would be used for some ultra-bloodthirsty Colosseum-style entertainment by an evil galactic emperor in a sci-fi film.

 


To the left, Mount Tongariro slowly climbs towards its summit. To the right, Ngauruhoe soars upwards, the perfect volcanic cone. It’s merely a vent of Tongariro, but it is higher. Small figures can be seen on its slopes, attempting to crawl up the brutal scree at a 45 degree angle. It’s a dangerous undertaking – rocks regularly tumble down into the would-be climbers’ path.

 


The figures are humans, but I half expect them to be Hobbits. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson and co had to do surprisingly little to make it look so deadly and forbidding.

 


The rest of Mordor comes into view as we climb along the ridge that leads out of South Crater. Over to the west is the Oturere Valley, a black and bumpy place formed by centuries of spilling lava.

 


Mordor is not the goal, though – the Red Crater summit is. And the views from there are so remarkable that I want to yabber about them to everyone I’ve ever met, whilst simultaneously weeping and drooling. Behind, the iron oxide stains the Red Crater a deep crimson. A sweep round brings into view Ngaurohoe, and Tongariro’s summit. But it’s the no-go zone ahead that’s the cherry on top. Inside the stark central crater, the Emerald Lakes dazzle with seemingly impossible intensity – the blue and green colours alarmingly vivid.

 


Beyond, looking deceptively close, but an hour’s walk away, is the Blue Lake. And behind it is the reason we can go no further. A white cloud rises above the water. It’s the Te Maari crater, which erupted twice in 2012 and is now being carefully monitored as it continues to let off steam.

 


It’s a reminder of where this landscape of lava flows, rusty orange rivers and bleak, rocky plains came from. And it’s a reminder that it has not finished changing.

 


We have to turn back. It’s not yet safe to make the full crossing. But despite occasionally having to wait for other people to go past or get out of the way of your photo, and despite not being the grand physical endurance test some people build it up to be, there are few places on earth that can compare. It’s not a walk into the unknown and it’s not a walk into solitude, but it’s a walk into something truly special.

 


Disclosure: David went on the Tongariro Crossing as a guest of Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures and Destination Great Lake Taupo. He stayed in Taupo as a guest of YHA Taupo.

by David Whitley

 

 

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