And when I say monster, I mean not a taniwha (the Maori version of the Loch Ness monster) but instead the fear of Okere Falls, a seven metre vertical drop into a swirling, bubbling cauldron of whitewater.
Okere’s the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, and has attracted international coverage through the like of TV’s Amazing Race and Jack Osborne: Adrenaline Junkie. Now it’s going to cover me and my crew of six fellow adventurers, who are going straight over it.
As a result, there’ll be three outcomes: we’ll either land, submerge slightly and then exit the froth; we’ll land, submerge slightly and then surf the whitewater; or we’ll land upside down, losing members of our seven-strong crew and who knows what else. Option two’s the best, Raana, our guide tells us.
Until this point, we’ve been cruising the Kaituna, taking a few minor drops, learning to paddle as a team. But now our monster – our ball of fear, trepidation and anxiety – is ready for us. It demands we meet it. Raana pulls our raft to the side of the river as we each crane our neck to try and see what lies ahead. We can’t quite.
Before we paddle around the corner to face our fear, Raana asks those who have gone before us for strength: he chants. After each of his three chants to ask for bravery, strength and patience we respond by yelling “Toa!” cry at the top of lungs. The result is akin to a gorilla beating his chest. Adrenalin pumps though my veins, fear is momentarily forgotten and I’m ready, nay excited, to meet the monster.
And then Raana pushes us off. “Paddle, paddle,” he orders, and each of us dig in. There’s no turning back now. “Down,” Raana commands as we reach the lip of the waterfall. There’s no second take and we plunge into the unknown with scarcely time for startled profanities.
Everything goes white and wet. Extremely wet. I’m disorientated. Am I in our out of the boat? Are we upside down? What’s happening? Then daylight. And I look around to see all my crew safe. Then it hits me: option two; we’re surfing the whitewater. Result.
Tamaki Maori Village
My hand shoots into the air. Well, they did ask for a volunteer. I’m still a bit miffed I didn’t put myself forward on the bus ride to Tamaki Maori village when the driver was seeking a “big, strong handsome chief” to lead us into the village. But then no-one did – and the honour fell to Steve, a lanky Scotsman. He had to a face a warrior challenge and had the responsibility of leading us into war should things go wrong. Yeah, I probably didn’t want that role anyway.
However, my aim in this instance is to take part in Maui-Matau, a stick game being demonstrated under the shelter of Tamaki’s expansive Tawa forest. So far, as we’ve toured the village to take part in and learn about Maori cultural traditions and I’ve seen other visitors perform averagely with their lack of skill at performing a haka, singing and poi-twirling.
There’s a discernible lack of commitment; a fear of getting it wrong. So when I step up, I’m determined to win – irrespective of whether Leanne, my girlfriend, is also competing. We each hold the top of the stick and the gamesmaster, dressed only in a grass skirt and some fearsome looking tattoos, commands either Maui (left) or Matau (right), requiring us to drop our stick and move in that direction. Move in the wrong direction, hesitate or lack agility and you’re gone.
A fast game’s a good game and soon it’s only me and Leanne left standing. I’m ready to win. “Matau,” the gamesmaster yells and although I lunge to the right, I find I can’t quite make it to my stick. It crashes to the ground in slow motion, creating a mini dust cloud on the forest’s dusty carpet. The crowd hollers with laughter as I turn to see the gamesmaster with my shirt in his hand. Leanne glows with pride as he whispers in my ear “Well done Waiheke (the name of my hometown). You gave it a good shot.”
And after a cultural performance in the Wharenui (big house) featuring joyful singing, expert poi twirling, rhythmic guitar playing, a fearsome weapons demonstration and a talented man who can replicate bird calls, I give the hangi meal a good shot, too. Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potato, kumara: a feast all cooked in hessian sacks in a coal pit beneath the earth. Any thoughts of losing Maui-Matau are forgotten and I think to myself that next time, I might just put my hand up to be chief.
I hate heights. If I was ever being tortured, I reckon I could withstand a bit of Chinese water interrogation, a good beating or two – hell, perhaps even some waterboarding.
But here I am, strapped in on Agroventure’s Swoosh ride, one of five at the adventure park, waiting for someone I met half an hour ago to pull the rip cord of this superswing, which will send us plummeting to the ground before correcting in a huge arc to hurl us high, backwards and forth. I don’t care there’s a camera on me; I’m just going to try and talk my way through this one. It’s all I’ve got.
“Hurry up, pull the cord,” Leanne yells to the operators on the ground, not realising that alongside us, Ben, our guide, has it in his evil little hand. “3,2,1,” he counts down. And then it happens. My stomach comes up to meet my heart, which seems to be racing to meet my brain. There are split seconds of blur, split seconds of clarity and a rush of adrenaline.
Survival comes down to fight or flight, but there’s no fighting here – just flight. The ground rushes up to meet us. My hand grips Leanne’s arm tighter and we all yell “ Faarrrrrrrrkkkkk” as the rope saves us from death by helping us avoid the ground by what feels like mere centimetres.
We shoot upwards into the sky, the feeling of weightlessness at the very top of the arc worth the price of admission alone. My whining turns to laughter, the laughter of someone who’s escaped from his torturer and lived to tell the tale. That wasn’t so bad, I tell myself. Perhaps I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome.
Anyhow, it makes everything else Agroventures has to offer seem a walk in the park, although they’re all great fun: the Freefall Xtreme skydive simulator, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere; the Shweeb, a one-of-a-kind aerodynamic racing pod; the Agrojet, NZ’s fastest jetboat in which you reach speeds of 100km/h.
The home of the Zorb
Diving down a hill inside a giant ball filled with water seems like madness. Until I do it. And then I want more. I must have more. Luckily for me, I can. I can do it solo. I can do it with someone else. I can do it wet. I can do it dry (although wet is better). I can go higher, faster, smoother, bumpier. And so I do.
Zorbing never gets boring, because each journey inside the big orb is unique. My speed changes, I hit different points on each ride, and I find another way to ride the inside of these happy, bouncy rubber orbs.
It’s a wild ride, spinning in the variation known as the Zydro, in which me and Leanne are sloshing around in cold water on a hot summer’s day (in winter the water’s warm). I can’t help but laugh seeing her face as she initially freak outs and then bursts into spontaneous laughter after realising she’s safe. And the tumbling continues, into a huge fence, down a tiny drop, while we remain cushioned inside, the only danger getting the stitch from laughing too much.
The Zydro is similar to a waterslide, but far more fun and far less predictable. We emerge from our zorb, a couple of drenched rats, with ear-to-ear smiles and beating hearts. We take on all the rides, including the famous ‘Zig Zag’ track, although my favourite is definitely ‘The Drop’, in which I try and remain on my feet, riding the zorb down a steep decline which offers a heart-stopping fall, after which my laughter of relief is quickly overtaken by my whoops and hollers as I gather my fastest speed of the day.
I’m flinging myself down a gravel hill on the coolest bike I’ve ever been on, a 2013 Santa Cruz Heckler. I pedal like a maniac and then jam on the brakes and slide along the gravel, leaving a trail of dust in my wake. Josh, my of Multi-day Adventures guide, looks on, impressed at my skid. It’s not good enough to beat his, but then he’s a pro and I’m a casual rider. Still, I’m getting better. One day I’ll win a skid contest.
Me, Leanne and Josh are about to head off into the Whakarewarewa Forest, which features an incredible ever-evolving network of mountain biking tracks that stretch for over 90km. The terrains is that good that mountain bikers from all corners of the globe descend on Rotorua to take advantages of the awesome tracks, only five minutes from the city centre. To give you an idea of how good the riding is, the economic value of mountain biking to the forest is estimated at five times its annual timber revenue.
Josh is the perfect guide, telling us of the pitfalls to watch out for, but also encouraging us to let loose and “just ride”. If we’re going to tumble, it going to happen (although it doesn’t) but we soon discover that it’s actually safer to ride faster – as well as a hell of a lot more fun.
Despite being sheltered from the sun by the forest canopy, it’s hot work and Josh senses we may be flagging as we ride higher into the forest in preparation for another run. “You keen to get wet?” he asks. “Definitely,” I reply, although I’m puzzled at the lack of rivers around here. Are we gonna splash about in some septic forestry water?
“Local knowledge,” he says, as he disappears down a hidden track at the side of the road. “Follow me.” We do, lugging our bikes down a bank in the bush, before stalking through branches and vines to emerge at an old water reservoir, built around a natural fresh water spring. I’m first to leap in, and although it’s a hot day the water is ice-cold, refreshing but unbearable after 30 seconds.
I climb out, quickly dry off under the hot Rotorua sun and then perform a couple more bombs before we make our way out of the bush.
Refreshed, we ride into yet another trail, again navigating the winding run, getting air off mini jumps as Whakarewarewa keeps on providing all the adventure you can pack into a day.
Where: Rotorua is found in the central North Island, a two-and-a-half hour car journey from Auckland
When: Rotorua is an all-year-round destination, but summer is definitely the best time to visit
Out on the town: Head down Rotorua’s pedestrian-friendly ‘Eat Streat’ for a spot of alfresco dining. Knock back a pint or two at award-winning Brew, which serves up a top variety of craft beer.
Stay: YHA Rotorua Treks Backpackers, the best backpackers in town.
Treat yourself: Head to Hells Gate Mud Spa, the region’s most active thermal park, for a relaxing afternoon wallowing in geothermal mud and water. Massage and pampering packages are available too. hellsgate.co.nz
Photos: Agroventure Park,Tamaki Maori Village