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Word Travels - The Great Gonzo Blowout by Robin Esrock
The Great Gonzo Blowout
by Robin Esrock / Published April 15 2008
Robin goes for broke in Rotorua, throwing himself into a story of Zorbs, Shweebs, Swoops and Sledges.

Tired.   Exhausted.  It's been a long journey.  Many rivers crossed, many miles stamped with the fist of Gonzo. My eyes are even redder than normal, stained with red wine, and it's clear to everyone; I need to liven it up.   Something to put me back inside the travel bottle, shake it up, pull out the cork and let me fizz all over the green fields of New Zealand.  What's this?  Rotorua.  Ro-to-rua.  The name sounds like a machine designed to trim the weeds of boredom.  Cut the hedges, take out the whacker, Modern Gonzo is coming to town, and the long grass is quaking in their roots.  Rotorua.   Maori Country. It means "second lake", a quiet town surrounded by volatile geothermal geysers, lush forests and crystal lakes. 

Located just a few hours from Auckland on the North Island, it's small with a big heart, fast building a reputation as an adventure capital to rival Queenstown in the south.   Here, even the land is extreme, the ground bubbling with volcanic heat, the earth blowing off steam right in the heart of town.   The air smells of sulphur, but you get used to it, the way you get used to anything, and the sulpher, well, that just reminds you to use all your senses, and that the earth, Mother Nature, well, she can be a cold, hard bitch if she wants to.   So if you're going to jump out a plane or raft over a waterfall, it's best you pay respects.  With New Zealand laws the way they are (good luck suing anyone), I'll be lucky to escape the next week unscathed.  But then luck has followed me the last 11 months, attached itself like a charm to my backpack.   Nothing to lose.  Time to wake up and smell the adrenaline.  Go for it Modern Gonzo, go for it.

Kiwis are insane. Just look at the Zorb.   Invented in Rotorua, a Zorb is giant plastic ball with a hollow core.   It's spin spin sugar, spin the black circle, and spin me round like a record round, round.   Zorbing was my chance to finally hop inside the tumble dryer (every kid has thought about it – better check on yours now).  Inside, the heat was sticky, and the light filtered in as if the PVC bubble were made of jellified pee.  I opt for the Hydro Zorb, no harness, just a puddle of warm water in the middle.   I manage to stand for about a second before the Zorb tossed me around on its zigzag course, like that one sock you always lose at the laundry.    I wished I had a couple of young lady friends inside to distract me – three people can go at a time in the Hydro Zorb.   But no wet T-shirt contest for me, just tossed lettuce, a whipped egg of Esrock.  Soaked, rinsed and spun out, I lay in the sun to iron out my creases, catch my breath, and ponder life as a garment.   Which way is up? Which way down?   Either way, I’d be keen to give it another spin

Bodyflying, or extreme freefall,  involves a modified DC-3 prop, rubber padding and catch net to prevent budding Gonzo flyboys from taking off over the 12 metre-wide platform.   It’s the only contraption of its kind in the southern hemisphere, designed to blow you away, literally.  I felt like a big magnet repulsed by its pole, a plastic bag in the wind.   The considerable rush from below has me floating in mid-air, although it's quite a feat to remain front and center for more than a few seconds.  I drift out of the circle and fall over like a sack of meat, despite the best efforts of the guides on either side.  My cheeks blow into a frozen smile, the loose fitting overall inflated with air to create the impression, however short, that I really was a superhero, coming to save the day with steroid-monkey muscles at the ready.  After just a few minutes, I am exhausted.  Wouldn't it be neat to master this art of the hover?   Unfortunately, that would take more time, and a lot more money than I would ever have to spare it.    

I climb into the canvas cocoon, a hanggliding harness zipped and secured to a crane that was raised until the pod dangled 40 metres above the ground.  With me is the Swoop’s marketing manager, and I hope she gets some kind of danger pay.   It doesn't sound like much, but believe me, it's high enough to get the nerves revolting.   All I have to do is pull the ripcord and we'll freefall for a second before the wire catches and we hurl forward at 130km/hr, as fast as Superman rushing home because he forgot to turn off the stove.  It's a G Force factor of 3, and I don't know what that means, really, except it was fast, it was furious, and I left my vocal chords back at the ranch.    "Don't be afraid if I scream like a girl," I yell shortly before pulling the ripcord.   And I do.

Jet Boating
A New Zealander named Hamilton in the 1950's invented jet boating. He wanted to zoom around his farm on shallow river water, fast and easy.  Today, it has evolved into a sport with aquatic rocketships, powered by engines with up to 1000 horsepower and with the acceleration of F-16 fighter planes.  There is nothing on land or water that goes faster than a souped up jet boat.  I tagged along for a ride on Agrojet, the fastest commercial jet boat in New Zealand, able to hit 100km/hr in 4.5 seconds.   The 1km purpose-built track did not seem large enough for a normal boat, and it isn't.   For an Agrojet, spinning 360 degrees on the head of a needle, it's just fine.   The acceleration pinned me back in my seat and sent my eyes to the back of my skull.   No engine in the water means the jet boat can fly over water only inches deep, and the spins and doughnuts performed by Jason literally robbed me of breath.  It's already running on aviation fuel - fix wings to this sucker and it could fly to the moon.

 4x44x4 Safari
I'm impressed by the Suzuki 4x4.   I do everything I can to kill the bastard – tip it on its side, drown it in deep puddles, gun it up hills.   As my friends will testify, putting me in control of any car is dangerous.  Allowing me to run wild on a terrain course, and then hurl the jeep off an 80-degree vertical drop, well, that's just the Kiwi way.  With the brakes on, the handbrake up, the Suzuki goes down hard, a c-c-c-runch as it hit the bottom.   It must have sounded worse than it is because these cars do this all day, every day.    As for the drivers, well, Off Road NZ provides fresh underwear back at HQ.     Then it was time to Sprint Car, driving the full-sized, roll-caged racing machine like I stole it, which I kind of did for a couple of laps when I didn't see the red light.  Burning rubber must be hardwired into a man's gonads.  That's why women drivers, despite popular male wisdom, are survivors.   On my final lap, I execute a screeching, smoke-burning doughnut, completely unplanned of course.   Next I hop aboard a Monster 4x4 with front and rear steering for a wheel-bound rollercoaster, including a descent into a modified mine shaft.  All I had to do was strap in and enjoy the ride, the Monster truck stuck to the ground with a loud roar.   Suitably covered in mud, I'm looking forward to getting back to my 15-year old Honda Civic to really put it through its paces. 

River rafting is fun and all, but why raft when you can sledge?   Take a plastic kickboard, a pair of mermaid fins, hold on tight and throw yourself off the same rapids that rip those large, industrial-grade rafts.   No teamwork.  Just you, and you’ve fallen in the soup and better start dealing with it.   As you fly over the edge, you push in, turn your head to the side, embrace for impact.   Rocks are everywhere, undertows and whirlpools, so keep kicking and whatever happens, don’t let go.    At one point I find a neat little rapid, pointing my Sledge upstream and getting caught in the ride.  It’s got me screaming at the sheer bloody fun of it all. Then I try a barrel roll, get pushed downstream and kick my way out of it just in time to hurtle over the next waterfall.   Incredibly, I emerge unscathed.   Unscathed, and completely elated.  

Another world first designed and built in Rotorua, the Luge is a small three-wheeled plastic cart with a low centre of gravity and a simple steering and braking system.   Push back the handles to brake, otherwise, ride these babies down three mountain courses as fast as your nerves can handle.   A modified ski lift returns you and your Luge to the start of the course.  The 2km scenic route looks over the town and lake, but things start getting interesting with the Intermediate and Advanced tracks, with dips, twists and steep corners.  One traveller showed me his impressive road burn, after ignoring the speed warnings and tipping himself down the concrete track.  I pushed it as much as I could, but I was racing against myself, which is never as much fun as racing against someone else.  By the last descent, I was pushing it for the thrill, but a near-wobble reminded me how long it takes skin to grow back.    I coasted to the bottom, watched a meathead and a stripper make out on the chairlift in front of me, and headed back down the Gondola into town.   

It could well be the answer to the nightmare of urban traffic, and once again, it’s up to tiny Rotorua to bring it to the world.   The Shweeb’s inventor, inspired by the crawl of Tokyo’s gridlock, has created the world’s first human-powered monorail.   Inside a plastic pod, I sit, pedal, and power the orb forward along a steel circular track.  Capable of reaching speeds in excess of 70 km/hr, faster than I could ever pedal it, the pod zips around the track, a cross between a bike and a rollercoaster.  All the while, I’m thinking how a Shweeb track linking key areas in any major downtown core would ease congestion, get people from A to B, and be a lot more fun than sitting in a car looking at the exhaust fumes rise in front of you.   Environmentally sound, it’s more of a concept than a thrill ride, but well worth doing to appreciate the idea, and the engineering ingenuity needed to make it a reality.

RotoruaMaori Culture
Rotorua has a large Maori population with a rich heritage, eager to share and educate visitors about their unique traditions and history.   They are one of the few indigenous populations ever to fight back, and win, against impeding colonial armies.  New Zealand’s Maori population give it a unique edge, a rich world of folklore and national pride.   There are several tours to some of the local villages that surround Rotorua, now evolved into super slick tourist operations offering cultural shows, model villages, outstanding art and geothermal wonders.    We rope in some help to learn two traditional Maori dances, the Poi and the infamous Haka.    The Poi, traditionally performed by women, involves the use of small pom-pom like balls attached by string.  No surprise they are inspired by an ancient weapon.  The haka, reserved for men only, is the traditional war dance performed by Maori, made famous by New Zealand’s rugby All Blacks, who terrify their opponents with the performance of the haka before the start of a match.   The haka includes intense postures, clenched fists, big eyes and scary expressions, all designed to intimidate.  Akama Te Kama Te Kia-or Ki-ora – performing the ritual literally makes you want to go out there and kill somebody.   I slap my thighs and stick out my tongue (which symbolizes aggression and even that Maori warriors would looking forward to eating their opponents), veins popping.    For a brief moment I’m transported a world of tribal battle.  Then we finish up, and once again I’m just a skinny white guy looking kind of ridiculous. 
At the Te Puia complex, the Prince of Wales is the name given to a particular geyser that sprouts regularly over 30m in the air.   The ground here literally bubbles with heat, the resulting formations and colours are stunning, even with the stink of sulphur in the air.    This geo-thermal wonderland has been attracting tourists for centuries, drawn to its healing hot springs. 


And so it came to pass, this Great Modern Gonzo Blowout.  My itinerary was chock full of fun, leaving me exhausted, grabbing meat pies as sustenance along the way.   Backpackers in New Zealand live on beans and toast, but save up for months to come and blow their loads on the dozen of thrill seeking activities found in towns like Rotorua and Queenstown.    There is just so much to do, but too little money to do it all.  As an adventure travel writer, invited to experience the best thrills on offer, I know I’ve hit the jackpot. 


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