Baldwin St

 


 

David Whitley limbers up for another of New Zealand’s unique adventures – climbing the world’s steepest street in Dunedin.

 

I’m approximately two-thirds of the way up, when a horrific thought strikes me. Imagine actually living here, and not having a car? The buses only go past the bottom end of the street, and having to surmount Mt Baldwin every day would probably send you into nervous breakdown territory. Baldwin Street isn’t really a mountain, although crampons and an ice axe probably wouldn’t go amiss in the depths of winter. Amongst New Zealand’s cavalcade of adventure sports, getting to the top of this suburban street doesn’t exactly rank high on the scale, but it has become one of Dunedin’s most popular tourist attractions.

 

Baldwin Street is – according to Guinness World Records – the steepest street in the world. Only drivers with the utmost faith in their brakes would consider parking on the upper stretches, while for joggers it offers a new level in masochism. It’s in an otherwise non-descript suburban location, yet throughout the day people can be found trudging to the top and shelling out $2 for a certificate and the supremely tacky shop at the bottom.

 

Every year, during the Dunedin Festival, the Baldwin Street Gutbuster race takes place. The theory is simple, even if the execution isn’t – the quickest to race up to the top and back wins. I pity the fools. While the first stretch is surprisingly gentle, the rest is pretty sweaty work. The street is only 161.2m long, but climbs a vertical height of 47.22m. That’s an average gradient of 1 in 3.41 and the steepest stretch boasts a gradient of 1 in 2.86. During this section, the sloping pavement is mercifully converted into steps. Many less-than-hardy adventurers seem to take this as a cue to have a nice sit down. Not me, however. Oh no – I’m made of sterner, sweatier stuff than that – and I painstakingly trudge onwards like an old donkey about to be melted down for glue.

 

And it’s from the very top – where a bench and water fountain have been thoughtfully provided – that you realise just how steep Baldwin Street is. From the bottom, the slope looks deceptively unintimidating. From the top, it’s like looking down from the highest point of a rollercoaster, just before you hurtle downwards. The views of hills and patches of woodland on the horizon contrast with the little ant-like cars at the bottom.

 

I make my way down on the opposite side of the road, and just at the bottom of the steps is a delightful splattering of vomit. Baldwin Street has clearly busted yet another gut... 

 

Lots more photos here

 

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