A clean Shweeb: on board the Googlemobile

Putting the pedal to the bubble, David Whitley takes a futuristic pod on a race around Rotorua's countryside.

JARED shuts my glass cage and disappears behind me. I am suspended a metre or so above the ground, attached to a lilliputian monorail. Jared gives my pod a shove and suddenly I'm flying.

And this, I guess, is where my pedals come in. I start pushing in order to gain speed and I'm soon whizzing around the track faster than I'd ever be able to manage on a normal bike. The kinks and dips in the track make it feel like a self-powered roller coaster, complete with clattering around corners and a faint feeling of exhilaration.

This is Shweebing, New Zealand's latest adrenalin-fuelled adventure. It's somewhere between cycling, taking a monorail, Scalextric racing and having a nice lie down. And if it sounds odd, that's because it is.

If the man behind it has his way, it might not seem so unusual in a few years. According to Jared, the operations manager here in Rotorua, 16 licences to operate Shweebs have been issued globally. And the intention is to branch out from theme park-style racetracks into longer transit systems.

The theory goes that Shweebs could be green, healthy ways of getting through forests or caves - the ground isn't disturbed by people walking on it and it offers a gimmicky selling point. The inventor also hopes the principle can be applied to getting around busy local neighbourhoods.

This isn't just pie-in-the-sky thinking; web giant Google has just invested $US1 million ($1.01 million) in Shweeb as part of its project to invest in future technology. Of 154,000 submissions worldwide, Google chose the Shweeb as one of the elite 16. Not a bad effort for a novelty ride on a New Zealand farm.

It's all very space age and yet again New Zealand is leading the way in quirky action experiences. Or so it would seem - the big secret is that the Shweeb is an Australian invention. The idea apparently came to Melburnian Geoff Barnett while he was living in Tokyo. Barnett taught English there for six years and used a recumbent bicycle to get around. These lying-down bikes may look

silly but they're far more energy efficient to use than a normal two-wheeler. Barnett was inspired on the back of his frustration with Tokyo traffic. "One day, he thought, 'I wish I could just go over the top of these people,"' Jared says. The seed was planted.


Barnett returned to Australia and worked on his idea for five years but struggled to find a suitable place in his home country to launch it. So he brought his Shweeb - the name comes from the German word "schwebe", meaning "hanging", "hovering" or "suspended" - to Rotorua.

While Queenstown on the South Island is regarded as New Zealand's action-sport capital, Rotorua in the north has a reputation for being open to innovation and experimentation. In 1998, it was here that the now-ubiquitous Zorb - the giant plastic hamster balls that adventurers roll down hills inside - made its first permanent public appearance. The Zorbing run is still there and just opposite is the Agroventures complex.

Here you can bungy jump, float above a 185km/h wind turbine, ride what is claimed to be New Zealand's fastest jet boat and "Swoop" from 40 metres in the air inside a specially made sack. It's an impressive array of ways to bring back your lunch, with the Shweeb being the latest (and arguably least-terrifying) addition.

The clever part is that Jared and company record everybody's time on the three-lap thunder around the 200-metre track. It becomes a time trial - a race against all those of your age, gender and nationality who have gone before you.

With this - and the option of going head to head with a friend - no one is going to treat it as a gentle cycle around the park. Apparently, Olympic cyclists have had a go at it but no one has managed to beat the record time of 55 seconds. An average speed of about 38km/h would be murderous on a normal bike but is fine on the Shweeb. There's no friction from the ground, the body is in prime position and the aerodynamics of the design mean there's little resistance.

According to Jared, you could push one of the empty pods from the start and it would come back around without any help. As a comparison point, I am about as athletic as a giant meat pie, yet I still manage to complete three laps in 63.4 seconds. This is going reasonably hard but by no means flat out. Frankly, for most of the journey I was too busy trying to work out the gears.

Apparently, I might have reached the 40km/h mark - 45km/h to 50km/h is easily attainable - and I averaged about 34km/h. Put in those terms, the idea of using the Shweeb for transit systems doesn't seem such a pipedream after all.

The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand, Base and Agroventures.

Trip notes

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Rotorua, priced from $458.90 return, 13 24 76, airnewzealand.com.au.

Staying there

Base (1140 Hinemoa Street) offers surprisingly large doubles for from $NZ55 ($42) a night. +64 7 350 2040, stayatbase.com

See + do

Three laps around the Shweeb track costs $NZ39, although packages with the other activities at Agroventures are available. +64 7 357 4747, agroventures.co.nz.