Anaconda at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg, South Africa might just be one of the prettiest steel coasters anywhere. Its lines are graceful, its setting tropical, much of it is over water, and the color scheme is wild, but appropriate for the park. (More recent photos indicate that the coaster's unique color scheme has been repainted with black trains running on orange track with orange supports. Pity.)
It's an inverted coaster, meaning that the track is overhead and the cars hang below like a ski lift. This type of coaster was invented by prolific Swiss design firm Bolliger and Mabillard (B&M) in 1992 with the first of many "Batman: The Ride" coasters. The design utilizes short trains with four seats per row, as seen in this shot of "Nemesis" at Alton Towers in the UK:
The short, wide trains have a couple of notable issues in terms of the ride: if you aren't in the front row or on an edge seat, you can't see anything and the shortness of the train means that the ride feels pretty similar no matter which end of the train you ride.
Anaconda was designed by now-defunct Swiss firm Giovanola and utilizes longer, two-across trains thereby eliminating both of the drawbacks of B&M's design. It should be noted that Dutch firm Vekoma also uses two-across trains in their version of these rides, but with a much different track design that has been blamed for their rides being rough and jittery compared to the box-beam track style of B&M and Giovanola. The Vekoma rides are sometimes referred to as "hang and bang" coasters by enthusiasts.
But enough about all that - we're here to look at Giovanola's one and only inverted coaster. It's the signature ride at Gold Reef City and it has quite the commanding presence there.
The loading station is a big flat rock, quite different from those of B&M and Vekoma, which feature floors that sink down out of the way as the train dispatches. This means that the train is quite high in the station to make sure that no feet can be touching the floor when the train enters and exits. It also means that most riders will have to make a bit of a jump up and backwards to get into the seats. Once the train dispatches and climbs the lift, riders are afforded a nice view of the park and surrounding area.
At the top, the train makes a speedy left-hand dive into the first "holy crap" moment: there's a boulder in the way.
At the last second, the sight lines reveal a TINY hole in the boulder. While you're happy that there's a tunnel, it seems far too small for the train to fit through. Instinctively, you pull your feet up and duck your head, not caring that you look quite foolish doing so. The train somehow manages to squeeze through the opening and on the other side is a lot of water (the coaster sits atop the park's river rapids ride) and track that bends up and out of sight into the first loop, followed by a perfectly-executed zero-G barrel roll.
The roll is more spread out than the B&M version of this maneuver, leaving riders with a lengthier span of weightless, spinning motion. It's very effective and one of the ride's highlights.
The roll is followed by another vertical loop.
At this point, the layout of the ride is very similar to the many "Batman: The Ride" coasters at parks all over the US (some known by different names). Curved drop, loop, roll, loop. But the longer train with two-across seating really makes a difference here. Every seat has a view and the elements feel quite different depending on which end of the train you choose to sit in.
But forget all of that for now, because it's after this second loop that Anaconda ditches the familiar and sets itself apart. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to have your mind blown.
There's this big rock with a mining cabin on top. The track coils around it like a... well, like a snake, duh. "Anaconda" after all. You begin at the top in a tight clockwise spiral that comes ridiculously close to the rocks. As it drifts away from them, the track becomes steeper, diving back at the rocks, increasing the G forces, gaining speed. Your legs begin to feel very heavy and you wonder if your shoes will stay on your feet. The rocks are really, REALLY close now.
Seeing what lies ahead of you is impossible due to the rocks blocking your sight lines. When you round the last turn, there is yet another moment of "holy crap" when you really don't believe there's room for the train to thread itself through the opening. It's impossible not to want to pull your feet up here, but the G-forces are too strong for you to actually do it. For some reason, your brain tricks you into believing that holding your breath and closing your eyes might help - but you can't seem to do that, either.
Amazingly, you get through that tiny crevice and blast into the sunlight right into a double corkscrew, which might just be the most perfectly-engineered corkscrew of any coaster in the world. The transition from heavy G-forces in the spiral to near-weightlessness while flipping over and sideways in the corkscrew is one of the most satisfying and mind-bending uses of G-force variance I've ever experienced on any coaster.
The final bit of frenzy is an oddly-shaped, counter-clockwise helix with lots of fun variations as it makes its way around, but honestly after the wicked stuff you've already been through, you mainly just use this part to recover from what has come before... and to wave at the people in the queue line below you.
In a little park in South Africa, there sits a truly world-class coaster. I took my rides on the opening weekend in 1999, and was completely blown away by the uniqueness, smoothness, and power that this coaster offers. I went back in 2003 and was even more impressed.
One interesting tidbit from the opening weekend... the brakes that slow the train down before it arrives in the station were set too strong and the train would come to a complete stop rather than just slow down. The angle of descent into the station is very slight, so the train would take a long, long time to creep in to the unloading area - which made the queue stack up pretty quickly. The solution? As soon as the train stopped on the trim brake, they would release the restraints and unload the train there (the trim/station area is one long platform), then the queue line attendant would ask for volunteers to come up from the queue onto the platform and push the train into the loading area. No, really! It was fun, it solved the problem, and it would never, ever be allowed in the US.
Anaconda is an exceptional coaster experience in a beautiful park in a truly spectacular part of the world. I can't wait to go back.