Rotorua: Follow that bird of prey

By Dionne Christian

Dionne Christian is cleared for a nervous lift-off on a Rotorua eco adventure tour.

Walking up to the zipline with the Rotorua Canopy Tour.
Walking up to the zipline with the Rotorua Canopy Tour.

There are moments in life when you pause and ask yourself is this really a good idea?

So it was one stunning Saturday morning in Rotorua as I prepared to launch myself off a platform, 22m above the forest floor and built around the trunk of a 500-year-old rimu, and abseil along a 220m zipline (flying fox) to the other side.

I was safely and securely harnessed on (trust me, I checked regularly) but 22m is a long way up, especially when you're teetering on the bottom of four narrow steps which lead directly out to ... thin air. My heart had not beaten so fast since white-water rafting 20 years ago. I don't know how, but I stepped off and whizzed like a bird - a heavy one, but a bird nonetheless - along the Tui Song zipline, the highlight of Rotorua Canopy Tours' three-hour eco adventure tour.

Exhilarated, invigorated, alive, amazed; those adjectives don't even come close to the overwhelming feeling experienced when you touch the earth on the other side. The "ride" took me across a long-forgotten valley which is part of the Mamaku Plateau.

Most of the plateau was de-forested years ago but - and no one knows why - a 500ha slice was kept in virgin native forest. Opened last year, Rotorua Canopy Tours is a thrilling blend of action/adventure and conservation education which takes place in 10ha of this forest, the only pre-historic native forest zipline tour in New Zealand.

Taking a ride on the 220m zipline.
Taking a ride on the 220m zipline.

We were fitted with a harness and listened to a safety briefing at company headquarters, before being driven to a "secret forest" 12 minutes away, where the fun really began.

Informative guides (we had Brad and Phil) explained the forest history, flora and fauna, and the conservation aims of the attraction. The journey involves zipping along a 1.2km network of flying foxes, which offer a view from above the forest floor few of us ever see, coupled with some bushwalking.

There are six ziplines - Tui Song is the longest and the highest - as well as two swing bridges and 10 platforms on which you can catch your breath and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the bush. The guides outline the challenges of preserving native flora and fauna, helped by well-appointed, informative displays. It never feels like a lecture, but a unique and exciting way to gain an appreciation of the natural beauty around us.

Rotorua has been a tourist magnet because of its geo-thermal attractions but the area is one of our country's most environmentally rich regions. With 18 pristine lakes and more than 200,000ha of forest, it boasts the highest number of conservation groups per capita in the land and a growing number of eco-tourism attractions.

My weekend stay in this eco-city also included a visit to another unique attraction, Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre. Its breeding and release programme is centred round the karearea (native falcon), kahu (swamp Harrier Hawks), ruru (morepork) and barn owl.

A kahu or swamp Harrier Hawk.
A kahu or swamp Harrier Hawk.

Karearea are rarer than kiwi - there are thought to be about 70,000 kiwi and 10,000 karearea - and now risk extinction. It's known as a raptor because it catches food with its feet and has a hooked bill to "subdue" prey and tear flesh into edible bits.

The professionals who work with these birds, such as Ineke Smets, have pretty cool business cards; I mean, the term Raptor Aviculturalist has got to be a talking point at parties.

Executive director Debbie Stewart and her team are involved in long-term conservation, research and education programmes and Wingspan is the public face of these. Surrounded by pasture and rolling hills, the centre has a spacious aviary where you can observe the birds and learn about their habitats and personalities.

It's best to arrive about 1.30pm because you can enjoy a walk through the aviary, then watch a flying exhibition featuring two of Wingspan's stars, Ozzy and Millie, as they show off their skills, swooping to catch food in mid-air.

NEED TO KNOW

Rotorua Canopy Tours are suitable for those aged six and older (its oldest client was 93), with a limit of 10 people per tour. Bookings essential. Ph (07) 343 1001.

Wingspan Birds of Prey Centre is open daily from 9am-3pm; flying displays are at 2pm. Ph (07) 357 4469.

A single weekend isn't long enough to explore all of Rotorua's eco attractions. Try Rainbow Springs' Kiwi Encounter, Mokoia Island in the middle of Lake Rotorua, a river and rainforest tour in the Whirinaki Forest with Foris eco-tours or a wetland board walk along the Lake Okareka walkway. Then soak your tired feet in a gorgeous hot pool.

Further information: See rotoruanz.com.

- NZ Herald

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