Wednesday: Pahia to Waitomo and Glowworms
Today was primarily a transit day, with a 7:30am start from Pahia, back aboard the NakedBus to make our way back to Auckland. Phillip, our driver, brought his own iPod and connected it to the coach’s stereo system and he provided us with a great range of music as we wound our way back into the City Center.
From here, we picked up a free City Circuit bus and made our way back to the SkyTower, the closest stop to our rental car facility in the city. A few short blocks later and we had arrived at the Auckland Centre Hertz location to pick up our car for the next 5 days.
Sanjay, the manager of the location took care of us, and set us up with a super blue Mazda 3 (we will not lose this car in any car park, I assure you) and we cautiously made our way out onto the streets of Central Auckland and to SH1 (State Highway 1) to begin our trip south.
Being that we have been here for several days, we had multiple opportunities to see how driving on the left was treated here, so the transition to reality wasn’t terribly difficult. A few quick pointers that were immediately observed: 1) The turn signal and windshield wipers are swapped, so Natalie always knew when I planned on changing lanes because the wipers suddenly began flying across the windshield. 2) When backing out of a parking space, you turn your head the opposite direction, otherwise you will find yourself on the borderline of breaking your right hand driving neck trying to see all of the space behind you. 3) Driving left roundabouts will give you a serious headache. You must fight every instinct a right handed driver has to pull off roundabouts here as you want to make about 15 shifts in lane position, driving direction, and turn signal responses every time you run through one of these things.
About 30 minutes south of Auckland, the highway dropped down to a single lane in each direction, and we were back among the same green hills and farms that had made the trip to the Northland so enjoyable. We had our iPod plugged in and we were just admiring the view as we drove along towards our destination, Waitomo, about 2.5 hours away.
Just about 15 minutes before we reached our destination, in the tiny town of Otorohanga, we made a quick stop at a grocery store to pick up our dinner ingredients, and then headed into the town of Waitomo to our accommodation at the Waitomo Caves B&B.
Our warm and gracious hosts, Colin and Janet, immediately made us feel at home as we were taken to our second floor unit overlooking the entire Waitomo Valley. As Natalie began to get us unpacked, Darin prepped the dinner meal of BBQ burgers, potato chips, and steamed veggies. Colin advised that since we had gotten into Waitomo earlier than expected, that we should consider heading to the Glowworm cave this evening to avoid all of the big tour buses.
His suggestion was a great one, as we made the final tour of the day at 5:00pm and rather than going on a the tour with 40-50 people, we were seeing the caves in a group of 8. Our guide, Delfina, a relative of the owner of the cave, introduced us to the mysterious, beautiful, and unique reality of glowworms. Huge cavern ceilings of the cave system are covered in tiny photolumiencent blue dots. In some places dozens… In others, hundreds… As we made our way through the caves, admiring the work of tens of thousands of years of limestone carving by rainwater, the lights were slowly turned off to reveal huge numbers of glowworms covering the ceilings, like brilliant galaxies of stars in the night sky.
Once we had seen them from this vantage point, we moved along deeper into the cave where we reached the bank of an underground river. We boarded a boat and in the pitch black darkness (using guide ropes), Delfina guided our group and the boat into a number of caverns where the ceiling was covered in thousands of blue glowworms. Though you couldn’t see an inch in front of your face, the feeling here was exceptionally peaceful, calm, and just beautiful as we all admired this very special place. The Maori consider caves “tapu” or sacred as well as it is believed that caves are a manner for spirits to travel. So as we wound our way back out of the caves and back into the diminishing light of the day to end our tour, we quietly exited our boat and here ended a great first cave tour at Waitomo. On our way out to the carpark, we admired the beautiful architecture of the new Glowworm Visitors Centre, that was constructed in 2005, following a fire that had destroyed the original structure.
On another recommendation of our B&B owner, Colin, we headed to the Ruakuri bushwalk, a short walking track about 5 minutes drive from the Glowworm cave, where we could walk into the pitch black darkness (yes, we were slightly skeptical too) along a trail path to into the hills and onto a bridge that separates two sets of limestone caves. Sometimes taking a chance has its rewards as once we got to this bridge, the limestone walls to both our left and right began to glow blue with glowworms in the darkness. On this empty bridge, over a rushing stream, stood just the two of us, in the dark, with thousands of glowworms on both sides. It was pretty amazing. Just proves that the risk of doing something new, different, or even slightly scary can have benefits far beyond what you might imagine.
Thursday — Ruakuri & Aranui Caves and Drive to Rotorua
Thursday morning started off wonderfully with breakfast (including a number of Gluten Free options for Natalie) in the dining room of the B&B freshly prepared by Colin and Janet. Toast, croissants, fresh fruit, cereals, yoghurt (spelled correctly here!), marmalades, honey, hot chocolate, and fresh juice meant plenty of great options from which to choose.
From here, we headed out on two morning cave trips, Ruakuri, the largest of the three caves we would visit, and Aranui, the smallest. The trips were both led by exceptional guides (Lucas and Mark) and both tours only had 5 people, including us. The intimate nature of these trips made them so much more enjoyable and the guides seemed to have even more fun as they could tailor their presentations and information to the participants.
In Ruakuri our guide Lucas, a photographer himself, gave us all a tremendous amount of latitude to spend as little or as long as we wanted in the passageways, as long as we strictly abided by the rules and were always within eyesight of him. He was exceptionally knowledgeable about the caves, their structures, and the limestone and glowworms within them. He should be as he helped to construct the pathways that wound their way through all of the caverns.
One other amazing point was that Ruakuri is a completely handicap accessible cave — a huge feat given an initial drop into the cave of over 150 feet down a huge spiral ramp and the passageways traversing through nearly 90 minutes of walking distance through dozens of caverns, all of which could be navigated via wheelchair. We even got to turn the lights on and off in the caverns as we moved from one section to another. Pretty cool to press a button and see a nearly pitch black cavern suddenly light up to reveal spectacular limestone outcroppings, cathedral ceilings of rock, and see small trickling rainwater waterfalls make their way down the cave walls.
At Aranui, Mark, with his witty and slightly dry sense of humor introduced us to the “glowwormless” cave, but equally spectacular in height, limestone features, and the huge number of stalagmites and stalactites that covered nearly every square inch of the caves.
It was a wonderful morning and it was great to see millions of years of geologic activity presented in such delicate and amazing formations within the caves. Waitomo certainly lived up to high expectations
From here, it was time to say goodbye to Waitomo and begin the not too long trek to Rotorua, about 2.5 hours away. We took yet another recommendation from Colin, (this guy knows his stuff!) and we headed south on SH3 and east on SH30 through forest, driving over a hydroelectric dam, and into the tundra before arriving into the geothermal center of the country. Along the way, we encountered exactly one tiny populated town — beyond that it was scenic driving at its very best.
We checked into our hotel, the Ibis, just a couple of blocks from the lake, and headed out to pull together a picnic dinner — roast chicken, coleslaw, potato chips, and fruit, to enjoy as we prepped for our next two days in “Rotovegas”, the nickname for the most visited tourist attractions in the country. More on that in the next entry… Talk to you all again soon!
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