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.

 

Auckland

 


 

Auckland and I have never really seen eye to eye. That’s mainly because, while I am no oil painting, Auckland’s eye is pretty darned ugly. Even the most proud Aucklander would struggle to deny that the city centre is a hideous scar on what should be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The city lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea; it has two sprawling natural harbours, islands off the coastline and 40-odd volcanic cones dotted within its boundaries. Yet, in what seems like a calculated bid to stick two fingers up at Mother Nature, Downtown Auckland is a high-rise monstrosity from which any architect with the faintest hint of flair or soul has clearly been banished. A troll stands in the shoes of a princess.

 

 

 

In my former incarnation as a backpacker magazine editor in Sydney, I had to come to Auckland once a year for conferences and expos. I never really saw beyond the city centre. Since then, I have stopped for the odd night in between the Pacific Islands and Australia (the city is the major connecting hub). Again, I was more interested in getting the hell out the next day, so I always stayed in the city centre for the sake of convenience. Time for a fair crack of the whip I suppose; I’ll give it two days to win me round.

 

The key, somewhat unsurprisingly, is to get out of Downtown Auckland, to break beyond the utilitarian waterfront and out to the islands. Rangitoto is the newest, formed in a volcanic eruption around 600 years ago. The lava fields and Pohutukawa trees provide an intriguing contrast. Waiheke is the most fun – head there for beer and wine tasting in the sunshine. But Auckland’s biggest surprise and greatest treasure lies out to the west, beyond the identikit sprawl of low budget suburbia.

 

The Waitakere Ranges don’t feel like they’re part of Auckland at all. The villages there feel far too laid back, and are full of shambling beardy types. From the hilltops, it’s possible to see both harbours in the same field of vision, and the in-your-face, saturation-turned-to-eleven standard of the greenery is staggering.

 

Within the Ranges are some of the few remaining ancient kauri trees. Some of these giants have been standing for over 1,000 years; they were there before the first humans ever landed in New Zealand. Something of that stature deserves a degree of respect. But my epiphany – that Auckland really isn’t all that vile after all – arrives at Karekare Beach. It is reached via a steep, winding road that corkscrews down the mountainside with thick forest to either side. It manages to be simultaneously moody and dazzling at the same time; the black sand and headlands fight against the sun bouncing off the stream which flows into the sea.

 

It’s a little slice of magic, and proof that even your least favourite places deserve that chance of redemption.

 

More photos here