A new Rotorua attraction couples wet-and-wild adventure with a serious ecological message, writes Eveline Harvey.
My young companion in the front seat of Rainbow Springs' new water ride, Big Splash, was confident as our boat approached the attraction's grand finale — a rapid 12-metre plunge.
"I was in the back seat last time and I got soaked," she informed me. "I don't think we'll get as wet here."
We were about to find out otherwise.
Cries of "hold on" rang out as the boat poked its nose over the incline until it reached its tipping point and rocketed us downhill for four seconds of pure exhilaration... closely followed by a thorough drenching as bucketloads of water slopped in over the bow.
Our very informal two-person survey then, indicates those who want to avoid a complete dousing should probably stick to the middle seats.
Admission to Big Splash — which opens to the public today — is included in the Rainbow Springs entry fee and there's no limit to how many times you can go on the ride.
The addition of a $10 million-plus interactive ride may surprise the generations of New Zealanders who grew up knowing Rainbow Springs as a place to see kiwi and tuatara and to hand-feed trout, but Rainbow Springs' acting general manager, Michelle Caldwell, said the development was in line with the wildlife park's aims to educate people about conservation and sustainability.
"The story that we've tried to tell... is basically one of the ecological evolution of New Zealand."
Beginning in the mists and native bush of prehistoric times, the nine-minute narrated boat ride goes on to show visitors scenes from a number of key periods throughout New Zealand's history, such as the successive migrations of people from Polynesia and Europe.
Each era is evocatively portrayed through the use of state-of-the-art animatronics and projection technology, bringing long-extinct marvels such as the Haast eagle briefly back to life.
Despite the length of the ride, it covers an area of just two-and-a-half acres, much of which has been densely populated with 7000 native plants and trees.
"I think what we've been able to achieve here is really representative of what New Zealand might have been like," said Big Splash project manager Stewart Brown.
"And probably, in a couple of years, it will be even more spectacular once the trees grow a bit."
But it's not all awe and wonder on this ride — there's a serious message too.
The narrative also details the impact each new wave of settlers had on New Zealand's environment and Caldwell said she hoped people would leave the ride pondering what they could do in their everyday lives to aid environmental conservation.
"The ride is designed to inform park visitors, as well as to entertain... It will make people sit up and take a reflective look about how precious our environment is and the wildlife that inhabits it."
NEED TO KNOW
Location: Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park is at 192 Fairy Springs Rd, Fairy Springs, Rotorua.
Opening hours: Daily, 8am until late.
Big Splash facts: Access to the ride is included as part of the Rainbow Springs admission price. Children must be at least 80cm tall to ride Big Splash; those between 80cm and 110cm tall must be accompanied by an adult when going on the ride. The Big Splash ride operates daily between 9am and 5pm.
What else to do: In addition to the new attraction, Rainbow Springs still offers all the things which have made it a favourite family destination over the past 80 years, including tours of the Kiwi Encounter nursery and hatchery (open 10am - 4pm daily), walks through the extensive stands of native and imported forest, feeding the wild trout who've travelled up the Kaiakuri Stream to the Rainbow Pool and getting a close-up look at the fascinating tuatara. Rainbow Springs is also home to many species of native birds.
Coming soon: Training of a number of exotic parrots is currently underway in preparation for a bird show, to be held in a new purpose-built outdoor auditorium. Some native birds will also be involved in the show at a later date.
Where to stay: The Holiday Inn Rotorua at 10 Tryon Street. Phone 07 348 1189 for reservations or further information.
Eveline Harvey stayed in Rotorua courtesy of Holiday Inn.