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We Take to the Racetrack22.01.2008

Tags: New Zealand       Comments: 0

From a steaming geothermal power plant to an A1 Grand Prix circuit, doors open quickly for Louis Palmer and his vehicle wherever they go, including the gate to a few laps of the racetrack.

I see the Wairakei geothermal power station’s plume of steam from a long way away and spontaneously get idea of topping up my batteries here with environmentally friendly electricity. I stop at a boom gate, barbed wire everywhere. The sign says, "Welcome to the world’s second-oldest geothermal power station!" The boom goes up. Accompanied by Tim and wearing a white builder’s helmet I drive the Solar Taxi out to the thermal fields. Steam pours out of the earth and kilometer-long pipes feed it into powerful turbines.


With its tangle of pipes and tubes the plant looks surreal, like a huge factory or an open-air laboratory, but it works in a fairly simple way. Instead of coming from a remote sun or burning coal, heat is drawn from the earth. For over 50 years, heat from this plant has been generating 160 megawatts of electricity, which is about a sixth of the power produced by an atomic power station. The technology has stood the test of time and in two years a new, more modern station will be built nearby.

Solar Taxi on the Racetrack

My next port of call is the racetrack at Taupo where the international A1 Grand Prix is being set up. They’ll have no idea about environmental protection, I think to myself, so I’ll have to go there. I can hear the test track’s deafening noise when I’m still miles away. In the reception area a nice young woman sees from the expression on my face what I want to do and ten minutes later, when the break begins, the boom gate goes up and I do a quick lap of the circuit with John, the Grand Prix’s Webmaster.

The lady has asked me not to drive faster than 50 km/h for safety reasons. What a shame! But we can still hardly believe how uncomplicated New Zealand is. Unfortunately we won’t get even close to today’s best time.

A bit later Neel Jani from the Swiss team, which is leading the championship at the moment, is sitting in my driver’s seat. "You know," he says, with his broad Bern accent, "we need environmentally friendly cars. We’re even adapting our racing cars. This weekend we’ll be using bio fuel for the first time in the history of Grand-Prix car racing!"

After my trip to the Grand Prix I feel like a racing driver and speed away from deep-blue Lake Taupo, over the almost empty Desert Highway up to a height of 1,000 meters, shooting past a snowy peak and a lava dome. Although the sun burns, it’s relentlessly cold, even at midday. The landscape is phenomenal. The world shows its best face here. For hours I see no houses, only a few scattered solar plants that provide power to mobile phone antennas.

Hanging off the roll bar

In the evening I get an e-mail from a girl called Katja. She has read about my tour in SPIEGEL ONLINE and asks when I’m coming to Picton. I answer "Tomorrow at 12!" and drive the Solar Taxi to the Wellington fire brigade. Their gate also opens promptly and the Solar Taxi gets a safe parking space for the night among the fire trucks.

Early next morning I make what might be the most beautiful ferry trip in the world: from Wellington over the foaming Pacific into Malborough Sound and up to the small town of Picton. Katja, a student from Frankfurt, stands on the pier, excited. She is backpacking and staying for two weeks is in a hostel in Picton.

We travel a kilometer or so together. Unfortunately I can’t take her any further because there’s toolbox on the passenger seat (our escort vehicle is waiting for us in Sydney) so she has to cling to the side of the Solar Taxi, hanging on to the roll bar.

Welcome to the South Island!


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