Segway to go

Not all activities in adventure capital Queenstown require you to be an adrenalin junkie, writes Guy Wilkinson.

New Zealand's Queenstown is home to some of the world's most terrifying activities. It's a place where you can thrash your way along white-water rapids, hurl yourself off a bridge, steer your own jet-propelled rocket through a canyon or take a speedboat ride so fast, it could turn your hair white almost instantly.

Why, then, am I pottering around a deserted car park on a bizarre two-wheeled contraption, which, at first glance, might seem best suited to a pensioner on a shopping spree?

First, to partake in an activity not normally associated with Queenstown's high-octane reputation. Second, I was looking for something to do that was relatively cheap. Call me Scrooge but in a town where the discerning thrill-seeker can plough through cash faster than a sheikh at a horse auction, an inexpensive jaunt was a welcome prospect.

That's when I happened upon Segway tours. Segway machines are the brainchild of American inventor, Dean Kamen, who holds more than 440 patents, many for innovative medical devices. The then president Bill Clinton awarded him the US National Medal for Technology in 2000.

Resembling two-wheeled golf buggies with space-age control panels, Segways take a little getting used to. It's not that they're overly complicated. You'd hardly compare it with learning to fly a helicopter for the first time, for instance. It's more that they have a unique way of working. Electrically powered, they contain a series of high-tech electronic sensors that can detect even the slightest trace of movement. To travel forwards, all you have to do is lean in the direction you're headed. To stop, you simply straighten upright. If you want to turn, just twist the grip on the handlebars to rotate either left or right.

Simple enough but for those used to driving, it rebels against your natural instincts to fumble for a gear stick or crank a throttle lever.

Segway on Q guide and pioneer Kev Hey soon wraps up the practice session, leading us to the edge of Lake Wakatipu to kick off the tour. Surrounding the perfectly calm, turquoise, cold waters are the gigantic Remarkables range. These are serious mountains, their jagged peaks stabbing at the sky like snow-dusted daggers.

"In Maori legend, the great giant Matau was burned to death after he stole a chief's daughter," Hey begins, his bright red fleece and baseball cap lending him a certain children's TV presenter air. He attacks his job with the enthusiasm of someone genuinely passionate about their business.

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"The fire was so great that it melted a hole in the surrounding snow, forming the great lake we now know as Wakatipu."

Continuing along the water's edge towards the town centre, we get our first real chance to let loose on the Segways.

For safety reasons, Hey has ensured all of us are initially restricted to the slowest setting but it's still possible to cruise at about 10kmh. The higher settings mean you can reach double that speed but you have to prove yourself first before being promoted.

It's a liberating sensation, gliding along the tarmac while leaning forward like the Roadrunner.

On a Segway you are soon the centre of attention. Onlookers stop in their tracks to witness us silently gliding past. Most look bemused, others plain shocked.

We head towards the picturesque Queenstown Wharf, lapping up the attention we get from passers-by. In addition to historical information about the region, we're also given more practical advice, such as decent bars and restaurants to visit.

Later, we wheel our way towards the outskirts of town for some more challenging riding. Around the quieter residential areas are some of Queenstown's steepest streets.

One by one we head down precarious roads perhaps more suited to a Steve McQueen car chase than a Segway tour. It's these unexpected detours that make the whole activity a lot more fun than you might expect. Perhaps this explains why Segway tours are springing up in countries all over the world. Tours operate in Sydney, Wellington, Christchurch, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Budapest, Atlanta, Washington, Vienna and New Orleans to name but a few.

Even New York's Finest announced earlier this year that they had purchased a small fleet of the vehicles to assist with New York Police Department patrol duties.

Finally, we head towards Queenstown Gardens for a demonstration of frisbee golf. For those unfamiliar with the "sport", it basically involves hurling a frisbee into an unusual makeshift metal pole or target. Tees are indicated by a series of arrows on the ground and there are 18 holes on the course.

Pulling a frisbee from his rucksack, Hey gives us a quick demonstration.

I vow to return the next day for a full round.

We wrap things up with an informal race alongside Lake Wakatipu. Most of the group lean forwards, pushing into the wind. None of us come close to beating our guide, though. If asked, he could probably jump through a hoop of fire on one of these contraptions.

Segway tours might not be the first choice for those craving the ultimate adrenaline rush. But if you're looking for a fun activity that's as quirky as it is informative, it's a good bet.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Qantas has Red e-deal fares from Sydney to Queenstown starting from about $420. See http://www.flightcentre.com.au or phone 133 133 for further information.

Further information: Segway Tours Queenstown: Segway on Q has a number of different tours in the Queenstown area, including golf packages and corporate events. Tours start at $59 for a basic one-hour Bay Ride tour. A full Bay Tour (maximum four people) costs $89 a person for two hours. Phone +64 3 442 8687 or see http://www.segwayonq.com.

For footage of Kev riding a Segway up the world's steepest street enter "Kev Hey Segway" at http://www.youtube.com.

For other information on Segway tours around the world, check http://www.citysegwaytours.com.

Frisbee Golf: Queenstown Visitor Centre can provide all information necessary. Phone +64 3 442 4100 or see www.queenstown-vacation.com.

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