Monday, May 27, 2019

Rotorua Canopy Tours is stoatally different

Ziplines. They're everywhere these days, hardly anybody ever calls them flying foxes any more, and I've done plenty. They're always fun, especially if you do a tandem one with a friend, and I'm always up for another. Because of my trust/lack of imagination issues, I never feel nervous about accidents, and simply enjoy whizzing along, just mildly irritated that I invariably end up going backwards. So it was easy to say yes to trying out Rotorua Canopy Tours recently. 

Of course, with so much competition, there's a strong focus on providing a point of difference, and RCT has two. For a start, they really are up in the canopy - and of not just your boring old pine forest, but between 1000 year-old rimu trees, above a pocket of the scant 5% of virgin native bush left in New Zealand. So that is special - and the engineering is impressive, too. The lines are fitted between the trees with as little trimming as possible, there are elegant spiral staircases up around the trunks of those big old trees, and dainty swing bridges linking the zipline sections. One of these has side-wires only knee height, so that's an enjoyable novelty (you're still safely clipped on to a line overhead). It's all been very well, and sustainably, done - and that's RCT's second focus.
When they started up in 2012, the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve was a shadow of its current self: full of bare branches, empty forest floor, and no birds. RCT set up a vigorous programme of trapping, and in the first two weeks killed over 800 possums, rats and stoats. They kept at it, experimenting with a variety of traps and methods, and decided to concentrate on the NZ-invented self-resetting Goodnature trap (I've got one - so far it's only caught one fat hedgehog, which is officially a pest but I'm still sad about it). Now they have a partnership with DOC, and some of each punter's ziplining fee goes into the fund for keeping the programme going. 

They're rightfully proud of what they've achieved: on my visit, it was visible from the moment we got out of the van. Virgin bush is thick!  I'm used to being able to see through the tree trunks, but here it was a, well, forest of green. Ferns, vines, fungi... and above it all, towering trees thick with leaves and epiphytes. And birds! Noisy, and bold - RCT has a special licence to feed native birds, so I held out my hand with a mealworm on it, and a bouncy little North Island robin flew down to grab it. Cute.
We heard all about the birds we might have seen, if people hadn't been so greedy and careless - moa, Haast's eagle, huia, NI takahe and lots more, all gone extinct in 800 years - and, later, the detail of the company's efforts to preserve what's left. And then we got on with the ziplining - six of them, 1200m altogether, one 400m long, one tandem set, and all way above the forest floor, invisible now under the solid green canopy of tree leaves and tree fern fronds (which are especially beautiful from above: like a crown). 

It was such good fun. There were only three of us - the others were a US couple three days out from their wedding - so we had time to sit on the cliff walk, dangling our feet over the void 50m below, and have a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a chat. The clipping on and off was reassuringly brisk and efficient, Kiwi guides Emily and David were cheerfully laidback and droll, the day was bright and sunny, and the zooming along was exciting. We finished with an 18m controlled abseil, which one of us (not me - you had to ask?) did upside down. 

Rotorua Canopy Tours - recommended.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The rough before the smooth

I paid for my own travel to last week's TRENZ conference in Rotorua. Last year they flew me down to Dunedin FOC but, since Rotorua is less than a 4-hour drive from Auckland, they laid on a coach from the airport instead. Getting to and from the airport would have cost me more than taking a coach from Auckland Central right into Rotorua, I discovered, so I opted to go by Skip Bus. What a revelation: it cost just $24 return, standard fare, and the bus, far from being the backpacker-level transport I expected, was just your regular, comfortable, long-distance coach, that left on time, had free WiFi, and was super-efficient. Amazing value. Recommended! 

So, anyway, to get some more immediate payback than I'll achieve from my more general begging around the exhibition halls, I arranged to stay an extra night and do some stuff. Said stuff was a zipline outing with Rotorua Canopy Tours in the morning, followed by a treatment at the Polynesian Spa. Excitement followed by relaxation, was the selling-point. Made sense. And it would probably have worked, had I been a more touchy-feely type. Not a big fan of the massage, I have to say. I've had plenty, most of them free, and the only ones I've actually enjoyed and felt beneficial were one delivered by a former sports masseur at Uluru, and the medicinal ones I went to back home after dislocating my shoulder in Norfolk.

All the others were mainly just intensive moisturising sessions, really. A couple made me feel uneasy. Many were physically uncomfortable, and not in a beneficial way. One left me with bruises. This one? It started fine, the usual fluffy robe, hushed lounge, herbal teas. The Spa is right by the lake, surrounded by steam from pools fed by two geothermal springs. There are 28 pools, all different temperatures, some acidic, some alkaline. What I should have done was go for a wallow before the treatment, but there wasn't time (I have done it before - it's lovely).

Instead I was taken to a chilly treatment room and laid out under a towel, wearing disposable knickers, while the oddly-named Dante rubbed an exfoliating mud/kiwifruit pip/ground walnut shell mixture all over me. It was hard to relax, especially when she got to my thighs, where the prodding was painful. Then she slathered on a different mud treatment, which went on nice and warm, but soon cooled, wrapped me in a towel and left me for a while to reflect on the marvel that people pay good money for this. The best bit was then stepping into a hot shower to rinse it all off - that  was glorious. But after that I had to get back on the bench for the moisturising, with honey and lavender, which was ok; and then Dante delivered a scalp massage, which was SO uncomfortable I was gritting my teeth and willing it to be over - but it went on forever. Horrible.

Finally the treatment came to an end and I - of course - said, "Lovely! Thank you, Dante", and scuttled out of there, determined that I will never, never, submit to a free massage again. (Unless it's feet. Foot massages I do enjoy.) And I didn't even get to soak in the pools because it seemed a waste of what would otherwise have been my money to wash all that moisturiser off straight away.

UPDATE: Massages are like childbirth - the pain is soon forgotten in the pleasure of the result. And, regular ๐Ÿ˜ƒ reader, there was a result: my skin afterwards, a week later, is still noticeably, delightfully, smooth and soft. I had no idea I'd been so barnacly. All that exfoliation - polish, to use their unexpectedly entirely accurate term - had an actual, empirical, beneficial result. Who'd have thought it?

Friday, May 17, 2019

Not dancing in the dark - much more fun than that

One of the many enjoyable things about working in the travel industry is that even when you're at something as intense and focused as the annual exhibition/conference, there's a lot of fun to be had. I'm sure other types of business do junkets, but I suspect most of them are ostensibly anyway worthy team-building exercises and suchlike. Not us. In tourism it's all about showing people a good time, ideally better than the other suppliers. 
So this week I've been to a couple of parties at the Blue Baths, which were built in 1933 and feature geothermally heated fresh water in an outside pool. There used to be an indoor deep diving pool too, but it's been covered over and is now used for functions like our two. The first one was good, but the second was brilliant - lots of atmospheric theatre smoke drifting about in arty lighting, and an actual theme: earth, air, fire and water. The food stations were in on it - despite the lure of the seafood, the best dish by far were the pulled pork bites with crackling, of which I had far more than my share. The entertainment fitted the themes too. At various points during the evening, groups of local performers emerged out of the shadows to dance for us, and they were very good, especially the semi-traditional Mฤori haka, which was dramatic and spine-tingling - though the Parris Goebel-style hiphop was excellent too.
Best of all though, was the wind-up function on the last night up at the Skyline. This place is a must-do for any tourist to Rotorua, and I've been there a number of times - but never at night, and never when everything was FREE! We gondola-ed sedately up to discover the hugest feast I've ever encountered - honestly, it just went on and on, room after room. There was one room devoted entirely to cheese, and another to desserts - and it was all there for the taking! 
There was an accomplished DJ mixing her heart out, as well as a programme of live music that included Tiki Taane - so there was dancing (to observe) as well as the eating, the drinking, and the gazing out over the lights of Rotovegas below. Best of all, though, were the rides that people go up there for. First was the Skyswing, where three of us were strapped in and hauled up backwards 50m high. The one in the middle had the release button, which set us loose to zoom down at up to 150km/h in the dark, shrieking fit to bust. It was so much fun, and all over far too quickly for my stomach to organise itself into a protest.
Next I did the luge, choosing the scenic route solely because there were oysters and champagne halfway down. Even though it's the gentler route, you can still go pretty fast if you ignore the Slow signs, and in the dark it felt much faster anyway. There were indeed oysters and bubbles to enjoy, and I did, before remounting my luge to continue to the bottom. 
It was very pleasant, creaking slowly back up on the chairlift, listening to the music and watching the spotlit luge riders rumbling past underneath. Then I did the last activity, which was the zipline. It's 400m and again felt faster in the dark, so it was fun too - but not as exciting as the final thing, which I hadn't known about beforehand. When you get to the platform at the end of the zipline, you're instructed to step off backwards - in the dark - to do a 40m freefall to the bottom. That's freefall as in controlled abseil, naturally, but it did give me a moment's pause before I stepped into the void. Final thrill of the night!

So, well done TRENZ, and well done Rotorua - you're a great combination.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Skiving off

Despite complaining in the last post about the relentless pressure of business hours, business people, and business, I have to concede that the TRENZ organisers are well aware that some of us attendees are delicate flowers, and they timetable an afternoon of activity for us all, away from the halls and their every-20-minutes appointment schedules. My choice from the media selection was the Tarawera Experience, which started with something familiar but then entered literally new territory.
It was as well that I've done a floatplane flight over Mt Tarawera before because, irritatingly, the cloud was too low for us to head over that spectacularly huge split in the mountain from when it erupted in 1886, killing 100+ people and wrecking the local geography. It was disappointing for the others though. We were flying with VolcanicAir, who are very efficient and friendly, even if their choice of "the three lightest people" for the small plane was brutally brisk. The rest of us, and our hurt feelings, piled into the 9-seater, each with a window, and took off across the lake, flying over the lushly green Mokoia Island. 
We hopped over to the next lake, Tarawera, and landed there super-smoothly, in a cloud of spray, and taxied to its edge. We paddled ashore, shoes tucked under our arms, and wandered along to Hot Water Beach, which I had thought only existed on the Coromandel, but no, here was another. It was hot, too - boiling, in fact, and I scalded my big toe briefly.
Then we met Karen of Totally Tarawera, who welcomed us with a karakia and led us on board Sophia, a nice old boat in which we glided across the lake. It was named after the famous Mฤori guide from back in pre-eruption days, who took tourists to see the world-renowned pink and white terraces. If you think tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and also that New Zealand is much too far away for you to even contemplate flying to, consider that in the mid-1800s people came here from Europe by sailing ship - taking at least a couple of months - and then spent a week bumping down-country in a horse-drawn carriage to Rotorua, to hike, in their clunky Victorian clothes, through the bush to see these famous and beautiful glistening silica terraces.
They do look spectacular in paintings from the time - but now, post-eruption, there's no sign of them. After trailing across an isthmus through native bush decimated by Australians - possums chomping the leaves and shoots in the treetops, wallabies gnawing at their bases, and wattles pushing in and crowding the native trees out - we got to Lake Rotomahana where we boarded another boat and were taken to where the terraces used to be, now hidden under the water. All is not entirely lost, since these days there is of course an app that allows you to see, moving the phone around, what would have been the outing's highlight. To be honest, it was a bit underwhelming on a titchy phone screen, and I was more taken by the delicious packed lunch they gave us. There was plenty of good thermal activity along the lake edge to enjoy though, including a small but helpfully reliable geyser.
The last phase of the outing was in a bus along the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which I might have been to before, but too long ago to remember. It's worth a visit, with an inviting walkway along the valley past a series of pretty impressive thermal lakes. There's a good bus service for shuttling back and forth. Steam wound up through the trees, swirling across lake surfaces, parting and then concealing again the milky turquoise waters. Fumeroles spattered, hot streams splashed over rocks coated red and yellow with minerals, there were hollow gurgles deep inside cracks and caverns. Just your regular Rotorua scenery, then.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

This working life

This week I am at TRENZ, which is the annual tourism jamboree here - on a vastly smaller scale, the equivalent of IPW in the US, which I will be missing again this year (it's going to be in Anaheim, and it will consequently be spectacular). Our event is in Rotorua this time, or Roto-vegas as it's sometimes called. That's because the town is full of things to do, and is a bit tacky and gaudy - plus, it smells, though that's solely a Rotorua thing. There's also a big emphasis on Mฤori culture, which is another element missing from the Nevada original.

I haven't been here for three years, so it's fun to see it again, wreathed in sulphurous steam from all its thermal activity, and bristling with all sorts of new activities since my last visit. Bristling, but not buzzing, exactly - just ticking over quietly, from what I can see. It is winter, after all. What is buzzing, and humming, virtually seething, is the Events Centre by the lakefront, where more exhibitors than ever are showing off their wares to tourism people from - theoretically - all over the world, but mainly Asia from what I can see. Most of them are agent-type people, but there are media too, and I am one of them.

This is my fourth tourism conference, and it's still a bit of a novelty. This time though I am a lot more practised and brazen about my begging spiel, which essentially amounts to showing selected operators what my stories look like, and then asking for free stuff. I'm quite shameless. What is still hard to get used to, is getting up at 7am and reporting for duty at 9am and then spending the entire day on my feet, talking to people or sitting on a hardish chair listening to moderately dull media presentations. That's not how we freelance writers roll, you know. Or not me, anyway. No, I ease into the day with a morning walk, a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper, and after my habitual coffee and nuts, might sit down at the laptop (in an armchair, in the sun), at about 11am. And then I work solidly till it's time for the 6pm news. Except when I don't, of course. It depends a bit on Twitter.

It's a privileged lifestyle, I know, and I actively (the opposite of actively) enjoy it - especially when I shall return to it after three long days of business hours, business people, and business. It's just plain exhausting. I was going to go on to say something about having forgotten about that kind of working life but in fact, with a history of being a student, a groom and then a teacher, the 9-5 routine has always been foreign to me.I don't know how you, dear regular ๐Ÿ˜ƒ reader, do it.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Music and food

I was at a long and very enjoyable Intrepid lunch yesterday where the CEO outlined the company's new focuses for the year ahead and then spent the rest of the meal enthusiastically discussing the (highly unusual) good news about English football teams' achievements in the current Champions League. But there was plenty of travel talk too, since of course everyone there was in the trade in one way or another.

I chatted for a while with someone who'd just got back from the Kimberley in north-west Australia, and we were enthusing about it to someone who hadn't (yet) been. I raved about the bright orange cliffs, the blue, blue sea, and how remote it was, almost impossible to get to by road, but very accessible on a cruise, like the one I did.
Right then, the restaurant's musak launched into a track by Passenger - and no, regular ๐Ÿ˜ƒ reader, his professional name is not the tenuous connection I'm trying to make today, and nor is the fact that I've seen him in concert here in Auckland. What is, is that on that cruise on the Kimberley Quest I met a brilliant, and very individual, photographer called Jarrad Seng, who I recommend you follow on Instagram if only for his terrifying, and insouciant, perched-high-with-no-railing photos from buildings and mountains. One of his regular gigs is to be the on-tour photographer for - now, who do you think? 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Cheering links

We're good with this now, aren't we, regular ๐Ÿ˜ƒ reader? Coincidences are standard, connections are daily occurrences, nothing to see here, right? [Er, see here, right.]

Today, it's the announcement that  a weapon-detecting AI system is to be installed in the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch that was the site of the first terror attack on 15 March. It's the first time in the world that it will be used in a place of worship. It was invented in San Francisco - actually, Silicon Valley, so more accurately that would be San Jose - and is already in use in public spaces and (sigh) schools in the US. It apparently notifies authorities within seconds if it identifies a threat.

Since the March attacks, an organisation called Keep Mosques Safe has been set up, and it's they who are funding it for Christchurch. And where is KMS based? In Qatar, where it was the initiative of the chief executive and founder of Al-Ameri International Trading. I'm a bit vague about the function of the company but, now that I've (just!) been to Qatar, I can easily believe it has both enormous funds at its disposal, and some forward-thinking and generous people behind it.

So, Christchurch, San Jose and Qatar, all coming together in a tidy and beneficial bundle.It's very satisfying, and goes a small way towards mitigating what has become, routinely, the spirit-sapping ordeal of reading the world, and domestic, news.


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