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Not Acting My Age

December 4, 2022

New Zealand’s border is now completely open, tourists are starting to come back and the summer season is promising to be busy.  We decided to beat the crowds and take a couple of days off and head to a popular spot about three hours from Auckland.

Last weekend, my wife, her brother, Tehmus, and his two sons, Yazdy and Xerxes and I went to Rotorua, a town of about 58,000 which is also known as The Little Yellowstone because it is a thermal area and full of hot pools and geysers.  All through the town you will see little (or sometimes big) clouds puffing out of the ground and, depending on which way the wind is blowing, you get a good whiff of sulfur.

I hadn’t been to Rotorua in 31 years, when my wife was my fiancée and we’ve often talked about a return visit, but with so many other amazing places to visit, the return trip hadn’t materialized. Other than the natural geological features, the big draw is now adventure tourism.  Mahrukh is not a fan of speedy sports, but Tehmus, Yazdy, Xerxes, and I are, so we decided to celebrate our birthdays with a weekend doing a couple of the many adventure activities on offer in Rotorua.

We left early Saturday morning and were there by ten.  We got settled in and our first activity was something innocuously called the Rotorua Canopy Tour.  It is a tour of a native New Zealand forest, except not on the ground.  You traverse the forest on swing bridges, ziplines and walkways that are held up, to all appearances, by invisible skyhooks.

The tour takes three and a half hours.  Half an hour is taken driving to and from the site and safety briefings.  At the beginning and end you walk on the ground for about 5 minutes and the rest of the time you are in the canopy. 

I can’t speak for the others, but I really don’t like heights, so there was a bit of comfort zone management.  And another thing, the canopy walk didn’t involve a lot of walking it was mostly zipping through the forest holding on for dear life.

We walked to the Canopy Tours office in town and checked in.  The first thing they do is weigh you and that determines the kind of gear they put on you.  My guess was that the heavier you are the thicker straps, but everything was colour coded, so I can’t be sure.

Here we are, ready to go:

We were in a team with 6 other people plus two guides.  The guides gave us a safety briefing and bundled us into a van for the 15 minute drive to the forest.

Once there, we got some more safety information and then took a short walk through the woods.  The guides explained various aspects of native New Zealand trees and plants. 

There were two main challenges–crossing long, scary bridges and traversing valleys on what’s called a zip line.  Here are some of the bridges we crossed:

Don’t look down!

The last bridge was the scariest.  Instead of heavy cables and fencing for railings, it had thin wires.  And a lot less stability.  Only two people were allowed to cross it at a time.

Fortunately, we were attached to an overhead cable.

Which came in handy because the bridge bounced so much, it was hard to keep your footing.

The bridges weren’t the main way we got through the canopy.  Early on we reached a point and the guides pointed to a tree with a platform right out the The Lord of the Rings and told us it was our next destination.

We were informed that we would get there by ziplining from the top of the tree we were currently standing under.  The first challenge we faced was getting up into the canopy.  When you book a walk, you have to sign a release which, among other things, says you can walk up six flights of stairs without assistance.  We had to climb a spiral staircase up to the platform on the tree.  I didn’t take a picture because I was preoccupied with wondering how I was going to do the climb—we were tethered to a pipe on the stairs but everyone was hanging on with both hands. 

Before we started up, the guide demonstrate how to zipline on the demo setup on the ground.  There were lots of dos and don’ts, including the proper way to ascend the stairs. 

Once we got to the top of the platform, I was questioning the wisdom of the whole idea of a canopy walk.  We were all attached to a cable that ran around the tree, but I still didn’t feel like getting too close to the edge. 

I looked up and took some comfort from the fact that the platform could have been higher, but wasn’t.

We had two guides and the first one hooked up and took off down the line so she could catch us as we came in.  The second guide hooked us up and helped us launch.

And then came the really hard part.   You had step out on the platform and then . . . let go.

There were seven ziplines altogether and each was different in terms of length, speed and departure platform.

The longest line had a lot more support infrastructure.

After the first zipline, I started to really enjoy it, but never fully mastered landings.  The landing platforms were marginally bigger then the launching steps and the idea is to approach and run up but that was never going to happen.

As we progressed, the ziplines got longer.

One is a double line where you race another person.

At one point I even managed to take a picture without dropping my camera.

The ziplines were amazing—fun and exhilarating.  There were also two other bits of excitement.  One was a narrow walkway built around the side of a hill. The railing was only on the inside!

But after a few ziplines, everyone feels pretty brave!

Of course, now that we were in the canopy, the last part was getting back down.  But they didn’t’ make it easy.  The walk ended with an 18 meter (60 foot) drop from a platform.  They called it a “controlled descent” and in order to get up to the platform we had to walk up a stairway.  The first part was fairly normal as far as stairways in the middle of a forest go.

The reason for the gate is because on the next part of the stairs, there can only be one person at a time and the guide controls the traffic up. 

Once you get to the top, you can look down and wonder how you made it up!

And after all that, you just jump off.

Once we were at the bottom, we had a short walk back through the forest and piled into the van for the trip back to town.   It was a fantastic experience and everyone really enjoyed it.

The next day we did a slightly less adventurous activity which I’d done on my first trip to Rotorua 31 years ago.  Back then, Rotorua was a shadow of its current self with most of the emphasis was on enjoying the thermal sites and Maori culture.  Over the years, more and more adventure type activities have come to town and we had an up close opportunity to see that.

Back then, you took a cable car up to the top of a mountain and from there you could enjoy views of the town and Lake Rotorua.  There was a nice restaurant there and a luge track.  These luges are a little more user friendly than the Olympic kind—you sit on them and control them with bicycle type handle bars.  You ride down a curvy track and since you are about an inch off the ground, the sense of speed is amazing.  And with the curves, it’s totally possible to wipe out.  I know it’s an anecdote, but a native told me that when it opened, the luge was the main cause of Rotorua Hospital emergency room visits.

Here I am doing it in the old days.

Things have changed.  In those days, there was just one track.  You’d take it to the bottom and then take a chair lift to come  back up for another go.  Since then, they have added four more tracks and a fancy starting gate.  And also instituted some safety procedures—like helmets.  

Once you get started, you pick the track you want to take and zoom away.

The ride is still a lot of fun, but there is no similarity to the terrain from thirty years ago.

This is how the lift ride back up used to look—you can see the town in the background.

This is more or less the same shot today.  Have a look at how the town has changed.  They are also putting in more luge tracks and bike trails.

And this is an old/new view of the ride up.

And in addition to the old restaurant, they now have a café and a jelly bean shop.

Complete with mosaics made of jelly beans!

There was one more adventure that Tehmus and Yazdy did, but Xerxes and I decided we’d had enough of aerial activities. It’s called the sky swing and, it’s well named because that’s what you do—get pulled up into the sky and swing.  Among other things, it was the pictures of the people on the stairway that put me off.

They load you into a sort of cylinder and then the operator hooks the car up to a winch which pulls it back.  And up.

Once the car gets to the top, it sort of locks in place and you are suspended, facing down.  There is a lanyard and you have to pull it in order to release the swing.  That part doesn’t sound too good either.  I don’t want to think about what the free fall feels like!

Tehmus and Yazdy opted out of the offer to go again for half price!!

We still had one more off the ground activity, and that was the cable car back down.

On the way down on the cable car we could see where they are building bike trails and a motorcross track as well.

Rotorua may have changed a lot externally, but we still found the locals as interesting and friendly as ever and we’re looking forward to another trip soon.  I hear there is a night canopy walk!

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