When you travel, motive is key. There are some things you do for the historical importance, remembering high school history classes and the words of your college professors. Sometimes it’s the cultural significance that draws you in, perhaps a UNESCO World Heritage distinction or some other stamp of approval beckoning your attention. The list goes on, your time divided between can’t-miss churches and must-see museums, and before you know it, you’re calling it a day. But every so often, there are some things you do quite simply for fun, for the sheer heck of it.
I’ve mentioned before all that Rotorua is known for – the sulfuric hot springs, the manicured gardens and Maori culture – but left out one important attraction: zorbing. Invented by Andrew Akers and Dwane van der Sluis in Auckland in 1994, zorbing involves jumping inside a giant plastic ball Wikipedia defines it as “the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb, generally made of transparent plastic,” but I call it the best fifty bucks you’ll ever spend.
Of course, over the years Zorbing sites have been opened around the world – in locations as diverse as the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Guam, Thailand, Slovenia and Argentina – so it’s not as if the experience is unique to New Zealand. But having been invented by Kiwis and the with the first permanent Zorbing site opened in Rotorua, Zorbing in Rotorua hits the same notes of sacred pilgrimage as does bungee-jumping in Queenstown. It’s just something you do.
Although there was the option of a dry “Zorbit” run – whereby the “zorbonaut” is strapped inside the ball in a harness not unlike that found on a roller-coaster – the majority of those there that afternoon chose the Zydro ride, or “hydro-zorbing” – myself included. That meant donning swimsuits, waiting as attendants filled the inside of the ball with a few inches of water, and then diving in through a small opening.
Finally, the time came to join three others – an English guy and an Australian couple – in the back of a dirty SUV as a Maori guy named Ryan drove us to the start of the course. This zig-zagging track up the hill was by far the roughest part of the day, the ruts and bumps sending us all over our seats and leaving us more than happy to scramble out up top. As I waited for my turn, Ryan made conversation, talking about growing up in Rotorua and asking where I was from. I told him I was nearing the end of a year in New Zealand and this seemed to impress him. What most certainly could not have impressed him, however, was my failure of a jump into the orb. A running start is supposed to give you enough speed to dive all the way through the hole, but I got stuck, wiggling my way through like a fat kid down a tube slide.
Just as he was about to open the chute, Ryan peeked his head inside the orb and said if I enjoyed the ride, to just hop in the car at the bottom of the hill for a second turn. If I enjoyed it? “Are you serious?” I asked, it suddenly dawning on me that he might find me cute. “Of course, gotta look after our backpackers,” he said with a wink. Whatever it takes, right?
And then it was go-time. To get started, they tell you to stand up as the orb is released, leaning against the front for a little extra push. This doesn’t last for long. Pretty soon, you’re picking up momentum, falling flat on your bum, and swishing and sloshing around like a load of laundry in the washing machine. It felt at once like a hamster must inside his wheel. It felt like popping through a gumball machine. It felt like someone had taken the yellow slip ’n’ slide of my childhood and rolled it into a sphere. But most of all, it felt like hilarious bliss. I couldn’t stop laughing. Not only did it feel much faster inside the orb, but the ride seemed to go on forever. All my “fears” of disappointment were erased and that free second ride didn’t hurt either.
The OGO website goes on to say, “It’ll swallow you whole and spit you out a cleaner, sparklier person. A new you, with a bigger, bolder, brighter smile and an outlook on life that says: ‘I’ve been to the other side and it was GREAT!’”
One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more. Although possibly the most expensive thirty seconds of my life, zorbing was one half a minute I won’t soon forget.