When you’re paddling madly through frothing rapids on New Zealand’s Kaituna River, seconds from plunging over a seven-metre waterfall, important life questions flash through your mind. Like, “Ahhhhhhh, why didn’t I just stay home and watch Indiana Jones again?”
I recently blitzed through a multi-day adventure tour on the greenery-laden North Island to get the adrenaline rush Vancouver wasn’t giving me. Hey, the Olympics are long over, the Canucks aren’t in the playoffs yet, and ski season is on, but I ain’t no Bode Miller.
So I took Air New Zealand’s 14-hour direct flight from YVR to Auckland. Magically, drizzly autumn turned into a mild Southern Hemisphere spring. And in spring, a young man’s fancy turns to jet-boating, luging (the Kiwi way), go-karting, off-road jeeping, extreme swinging, zorbing, and whitewater rafting. Such are the wild and wacky activities that people do in Rotorua supervised by local guides whose dry sense of humour equals their professionalism and expertise.
Rival Queenstown, located on the South Island, calls itself the “adventure capital of the world”, but Rotorua could claim that title. This deceptively placid city of 70,000, brimming with native Maori culture and colonial architecture, lies a three-hour drive from Auckland. If you didn’t already know this is one of the world’s most active geothermal regions, the sulphur-scented air will inform your nose.
After checking into the pleasantly fusty Princes Gate Hotel on my first night, I wandered into the palm tree-adorned Government Gardens and gaped at the steam-spewing, fenced-in Rachel Pool. A sign forbade hopping into its 100° C alkaline waters. Surely my upcoming jet-boat tour, destined for the secluded Manupirua Hot Springs, wouldn’t feature something quite this skin-searing?
Fortunately, it wouldn’t. However, the jovial Kawarau Jet pilot gave us a wild, wave-leaping ride across Lake Rotorua at up to 85 kilometres per hour, including 360-degree, spray-laden “Hamilton Spins”, named after William Hamilton, the New Zealand–born inventor of jet boats. Unbidden, Van Halen’s Unchained popped into my head.
Things slowed down in the Ohau Channel, with fishermen waving outside waterfront homes, and bird sightings from black swans to dabchicks. The hot springs offered pure, body-pervading relaxation, as I moved from one thermal pool to another, cooling off with occasional dips in the lake.
The return trip to Rotorua was soft adventure, enjoying shot glasses of port and learning about the romantic legend of the Maori princess Hinemoa, who repeatedly defied her father to swim to a nearby island and meet her warrior lover. (He played a flute made out of a dead priest’s forearm bone. But that’s another story.)
Now I was ready to get crazy and do some driving myself—on land, that is. At nearby Skyline Rotorua, an outdoor adventure park, I steered a three-wheeled, gravity-propelled “luge cart” down winding tracks on Mount Ngongotaha, even catching some air on the advanced run. Afterwards, I refuelled with pavlova, New Zealand’s signature meringue dessert, at the Cableway buffet restaurant with a panoramic view of Lake Rotorua.
There was nothing pedestrian about what unfolded the next day at Off Road NZ, which boasts the country’s newest and longest outdoor go-kart track at 1.2 kilometres long. Years of playing the vintage Pole Position video game paid off, as I zoomed around 11 turns and six hairpin curves, didn’t hit anything, and came third in my heat. Okay, I missed the exit lane after my last lap, but ESPN wasn’t there.
The company’s off-road jeep safari—dense foliage, tunnels, and muddy trenches—climaxed with a masterpiece of trepidation: sliding down an 80-degree hill on a set metal track, braking hard with the Suzuki vehicle in neutral. That’s abnormal behaviour. If I was a jeep, I would have flipped.
Happily, I lived to scream another day. One particular screamfest outdid the others at Agroventures, a year-round Rotorua adventure centre. Not to slight the Shweeb, a human-powered monorail race track, which I pedalled my cycling pod around thrice in 1:02.2, 7.2 seconds off the world record. Or the Freefall Xtreme, which delightfully distorted my facial features as I floated in a flight suit above an enclosed wind column. But the Swoop was the scariest.
For this extreme swing, I clambered into a body harness with my head forward and arms out, flanked by two women. We were towed 40 metres into the air and left hanging. The woman on the right was supposed to pull the rip cord, but her tugs were too timid. After three straight flubs, she cursed as our suspense mounted. Suddenly, she found the strength of an All Blacks rugby player and we released, swinging at 130 kilometres per hour toward the ground. Pure, delicious, New Zealand–grown terror.
When I went zorbing in the evening with ZORB Rotorua, it was more surreal than terrifying. Climbing into a huge, clear plastic ball filled with warm water and bouncing down a green hillside as sheep graze nearby? No problem. Zorbs, invented in New Zealand in 1995, are an easy experience to absorb—similar to the feel of a waterslide, or going back to the womb with a mother who jogs a lot.
However, my Class 5 whitewater rafting finale with River Rats Raft & Kayak was anything but easy. When we shot over the seven-metre Tutea Falls, the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, we vanished into the foam. The raft nearly folded in half as we hit the bottom. Noses smacked into life jackets. Submerged, I fell three-quarters overboard and barely clung to the raft.
And then we were up and out and dripping, and it was good to be alive. Top that, Indiana Jones!
Acess: The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand. To plan an adventure tour in Rotorua, which could also include skydiving, caving, or mountain biking, visit the websites of Tourism Rotorua and Tourism New Zealand.