Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hell on wheels.

Queenstown, New Zealand. The menace is loose again. Daylight savings is back and with it the "Wednesday Wheels" bunch ride; a pack of insubordinate cyclists thundering through the back streets of Queenstown like a herd of panting, Lycra-clad wildebeest; with muscle to burn, a disrespect for motorists and a loose middle finger; following only their most basic instincts, which at six o’clock on a Wednesday night tell them it’s time to migrate.

These bunch rides exist thanks to a regrettable legal loophole that permits freedom of assembly among cyclists, even going so far as to let them to ride two abreast so long as they don’t "hold back traffic”. Exactly what constitutes holding back traffic is unclear and so the Wheels have been known to take to the streets en-masse in groups of up to thirty cyclists, forcing motorists to exhaustingly lift their foot off the accelerator, delaying their journeys by tens of seconds.

The riders don’t pay a cent in registration or fuel taxes, so while the beleaguered motorists are forced to endure the tedium of turning the steering wheel by a few degrees to avoid colliding with a mass of sweaty flesh and carbon fibre – the cyclists ride, mockingly, for free. Exactly how they get away with this is unclear because lord knows those two-centimetre wide tyres must dish out a brutal beating to Central Otago’s road network. Next time you sink axle-deep into a spring pot-hole, don't blame the tourist busses or the cattle trucks - it'll be the cyclists that are responsible.

Until now the Wednesday Wheels and the imitation rides they’ve spawned on Tuesday and Thursday nights have been at a tolerable level for motorists, like a tune on the radio that’s not quite annoying enough to make you change channel. But Queenstown’s cyclist problem could be about to reach full-on Van Halen levels of intensity.

Mountain bikers, road cyclists’ even filthier cousins, have been allowed to cut a network of trails through our pine plantations. Those trails have led to more bikers, which have led to more trails, which have led to more bikers and so on. Now, it seems this influx of lucrative, socially desirable, ecologically friendly visitors has piqued the interest of our national human trafficking organisation, Tourism New Zealand. The result is massive infrastructure projects like Nga Haerenga, a world-class national network of cycle trails designed to lure even more bikers from around the world.

The problem is, as sure as night follows day, where mountain bikers go, road cyclists will follow. If we let our country become known as a biker-friendly destination then we’ll inevitably see roads crawling with gangs of “roadies” jacked up on endorphins, speaking in their own lingo and performing rites and manoeuvres so bizarre that one can only conclude their sole purpose is to disturb the regular motoring public.

It’s not too late to stop this nightmare from happening. But Queenstown will need to take a cold hard look at itself and decide: do we want to give our town over to the spandex wearing scourge or do we want to preserve every man’s inalienable right to automotive convenience? I think the answer is obvious.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Welcome to Fiordland

Hello children!

Something very exciting is happening right now near Milford Sound: New Zealand is getting its first proper theme park – Fiordland!

Very soon the boring old tramping tracks and huts will be replaced with fabulous gondolas, ecologically sensitive monorails (a bit like a rollercoaster but slower and painted green) and spooky bus tunnels.

The Department of Conservation has already given its okay to the first of the theme park rides; the spooky tunnel (officially known as the Milford-Dart Tunnel Project) pending a public review. So as long as the grumpy locals and dirty hippies don’t spoil the fun it should be opening up soon.

This ten-kilometre-long, five-metre-diameter tunnel is going to be an engineering marvel and although it’ll be a little spooky it’ll be completely safe, just like the Pike River Mine was and totally earthquake proof, just like Christchurch was.

So don’t worry kiddies there’s absolutely no chance it’ll ever make international headlines for all the wrong reasons like the Mont Blanc tunnel did back in 1999 when a margarine truck caught fire in it sending 39 people off to heaven.

The next couple of rides: an all-terrain-vehicle and monorail ride between Lake Wakatipu and Lake Te Anau and a Gondola through the Caples Valley; might take a bit longer because the Department of Conservation isn’t playing nicely with the businessmen, but don’t worry they’ll be here just as soon as DOC rubber stamps the proposals and goes back to bothering the possums.

This isn’t just great news for children around the world – it’s great for the economy (yes, eco-no-my is a bit of a big word kiddies, it means is it’ll make the rich people happy).

You see, letting the big businesses build the rides means they get to decide who goes on them and how much they’ll have to pay – and that will make them lots of pocket money.

Of course they won’t keep it all to themselves – that’d just be mean – they’ll share it with their friends the lawyers and the property developers… and they might even give a bit with the politicians while no one’s looking. They’re not supposed to – but we won’t tell anyone will we. 

Every theme park needs a theme and although the ideas for the rides have come from different companies they’ve landed on exactly the same theme – convenience. They’ll all shorten the ten-hour trip to Milford Sound to as little as four hours.

What a clever idea! After all who wants a place like Milford Sound to be remembered as wild, rugged, and untamed? No, we’d much rather have our theme park remembered as cheap, convenient, and looking exactly like it did in the brochures.

Around the world convenience theme park projects like this have been a wonderful success. In Tibet and Nepal, once upon a time you had to endure weeks of heathen culture and prehistoric infrastructure to see the big mountains, now you can just take a train or a bus most of the way – it’s very convenient.

Some people say that the road has spoilt an ancient way of life for the families who’ve made a living looking after travellers for centuries and that the railway to Tibet is just a way to encourage Han migration to Tibet to legitimize China’s territorial claim. But those people just need to lighten up and realise that change can be fun.

Likewise, in Italy, the big businesses have done such a good job bringing visitors to Venice on big convenient cruise ships to see the city’s culture that the little Venetian locals can’t afford to live there any more – and so have had to take their culture elsewhere.

That’s okay though, because the tourists’ Venice is much more fun than the real Venice ever was so no one really minds.

In fact, we know for sure that no one really minds because in 2010 some cranky Venetians staged a protest at the loss of their culture, dressing in costumes and handing out admission tickets to “Veniceland”.

But the protestors didn’t realize that American tourists don’t understand sarcasm and so they thought they’d seriously opened a theme park. Silly protestors!

Once Fiordland opens there’ll be no telling what fun attractions might come next. Perhaps a tunnel under McKinnon Pass, so people can do the Milford Track on Segway scooters. Or maybe a giant ferris wheel at Sandfly Point – just like Melbourne’s Southern Sky. With an open mind and a pro-business government in the Beehive, the possibilities really are endless.

All this is coming soon children but it’s not here quite yet. So you must be on your best behaviour. That means no sending angry emails to the Minister for Tourism, no writing letters to the newspapers, no lodging submissions to DOC – and absolutely no sending silly satirical columns to Wilderness Magazine!

If you misbehave then Fiordland might just stay a boring old national park.

[As published in Wilderness Magazine April 2012]