North Island

 

 

David Whitley survives where Steve Irwin perished, feeding stingrays from the beach on New Zealand’s East Cape.

 

There’s something of an aquatic scrum going on in front of us. The plucky cormorant is on his own, but is diving between the increasingly aggressive kingfish with impressive bravado. It’s rather like a hyperactive child running between the legs of annoyed adults at the drunken stage of a wedding reception. In the midst of all this mayhem, the real big boys of the bay are attempting to glide serenely around the trouble, and enjoy their meal in peace. It’s these stingrays that we’re supposed to be feeding, but the ongoing feast has attracted interlopers. And they’re far more aggressive about going for the bait than the placid rays.

 

The chaps at Dive Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape are keen to restore the formerly good reputation of the short-tailed stingray. Since the tragic death of Steve Irwin as a result of a toxic barb through the heart, these largely harmless beasts have developed an unwarranted reputation as killers. “They’re incredibly good-natured,” says Dean Savage. “It’s extremely rare for them to be aggressive, and they’re absolutely fine around us.” 

 

Dean started out by offering dive trips and fishing charters from his scenic little pad on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the stingrays have quickly become the most popular draw card. The human-ray interaction at Tatapouri started by accident. At one stage, a crayfish depot sat just off the beach, and the used bait and scraps were left at the water’s edge. For the stringrays, this meant easy pickings. From there, says Dean, it was relatively easy to move them on to hand-feeding.

 

And that’s what a line of 15 visitors kitted out with deeply unflattering waders and bamboo staffs has signed up for. The waders are to stop us from getting wet as we stand in the shallows, while the staffs are partly to help us walk out there. Mainly, though, they’re to stop the stingrays from sneaking round behind us.

 

Dean asks the group to stand close together with the staffs evenly space in front of us. This theoretically stops the rays from having contact with the waders, but all it takes is a small deviation from the military formation for them to start nuzzling at your shins like an over-affectionate Labrador. The rays are probably more interested in what’s in Dean’s bucket than what’s in our waders, however. Big chunks of barracuda are on today’s menu, and Dean hands me a piece.

 

“Hold it out flat, as low as you can in the water,” he says. “And then just let the ray swim over it.” Despite a couple of smaller eagle rays being rather keen, the 200 kilo short tail wins out. I rest my hand on the rock, just below the water’s surface, and it glides over my fingers. Soon afterwards, my hand is engulfed, and the chunk of barracuda is sucked up. It’s somewhere between a vacuum cleaner taking in a ball of fluff and a UFO beaming up an unsuspecting earthling.

 

The ray stays long enough for me to give it a stroke. The skin is unbelievably soft – the texture feels like velvet. “Pretty loveable, aren’t they?” says Dean as he hands over another chunk of barracuda. He also attaches a piece to the end of his bamboo staff, and the ray follows it around as the lure is slowly dragged through the water. Whilst leading the ray on a wild goose chase, he asks us to look at the tail. “The barb is about one third of the way up,” he explains. “It’s razor sharp and full of toxins, but unless it gets you through the heart, it won’t kill you.” He explains that pouring hot water on the site of impact is the best way to draw out the sting, but that this should never be necessary. “As long as you don’t try jumping on top of the ray, it’ll see no need to defend itself.”

 

The rays aren’t allowed to get reliant on the handouts. The feeding doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes won’t happen for a few days at a time due to weather conditions. It’s thought that 40-odd live in the immediate vicinity, and regularly come in for their free meal. But most of the time they have to fend for themselves, and compete with the kingfish.

 

And hand-feeding the latter is an altogether less elegant experience. Instead of the hover and hoover approach, the kingfish opt for pouncing like a shark on fish, fingers, the works. It’s a ferocious gummy nip from a fish not known for its placidity.

 

Despite their unfortunate killer image, the rays are absolute pussy cats in comparison...

 

David was a guest of Tourism Eastland (Gisbornenz.com), Dive Tatapouri (Divetatapouri.com) and the Teal Motor Lodge (Teal.co.nz).

 

 

By David Whitley

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