Today, I say goodbye to Frank, The Dog (it’s now become his official full-name), and head out of Taupo. Frank’s parents are returning and, though I’m sure he wants me to stay, apparently this isn’t a permanent situation. So, after packing up the car, I drive north towards Auckland. Last week I found a housesit just to the north and I’ll be staying with a cat named Solie and fourteen sheep (oh so New Zealand). I don’t believe the sheep have names so I’ll be coming up with names for them. (Feel free to help me in the comment section.) You can just call me Little Bo Peep! As I have a day in between the pet sits, I stop on the way to Auckland and see what there is to see.
Two-hours later, I’m in Waitomo, home of the world-famous Glowworm Caves. The name Waitomo is made up of two Maori words; ”Wai,” which means water, and “Tomo” meaning entrance or hole. As their website says, “Waitomo can be translated as the ‘stream which flows into the hole in the ground’.” While this could also be the definition of a pit-toilet in an outhouse, the Glowworm Caves are much prettier (and the smell a whole lot better).
I stop by the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company and book a trip for tomorrow morning. There are many ways to see the Glowworm caves, from a basic walk-in tour in which you stroll along walkways and paths, and eventually climb aboard a boat in order to look up and view the glowworms sticking to the ceiling, to abseiling (what we Americans call “repelling”) down 35 meters (nearly 115 feet!) into a hole before flying through the caves in zipline style (remember Flight of the Jungle Bee?) and taking a seat in an inner-tube to float underneath the lights of the Glowworms. I choose the Labyrinth Tour, a three-hour adventure which enters through a hole in the cave and doesn’t require me dangling over a bottomless pit.
After taking care of tomorrow, I need to find a place to stay. I drive on and find myself at the Kiwi Paka Accommodation. This has, what those in New Zealand call, a “Backpackers’”, which translates into hostel (a popular way for some of the young ones – and some not-so-young – to travel here), as well as a motel part. I choose the motel part, bring my bags inside, and turn the heater way up. Except for a variety of small hotels, motels, backpackers’ and B&B’s, and, of course, the caves, there’s not much to the town. Oh, but there’s a bar, and it’s right next door to my hotel.
I head over to Curly’s Bar, order up the steak and stout pie along with a local brew, and sit and chat with three young women who are staying at the backpackers’ part of the accommodation. They’re from England and Canada and traveling for various lengths of time. We chat about their future plans and, hopefully, I inspire them to live their passion.
Tummy and bladder full, I head back to enjoy the lovely heat of my basic motel-room (more twin beds). I awake in the morning, grab a bite to eat at the motel restaurant, and head over to The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. Why is it called “black water rafting?” Well, we’ll be rafting (tubing actually) in the water flowing through the caves and, being caves and all, they’re quite dark. As it’s low-season, there are only three of us on this tour (see, another benefit to coming to a place in low-season). Kat is another American from California, and Michael is from Germany. Our guide Katie instructs us on how, and in what order, to put on our equipment before sending us off into the locker rooms to make our best attempt at putting it on.
Kat and I head into the ladies locker-room to wrestle with our wetsuits. I strip-down to my bathing suit which I’ve worn under my clothes and first put on my booties. They’re already wet and have been sitting outside in the cold. It gives new meaning to the term, cold feet. I try to ignore the numbing cold and move on to putting on, what Katie has called, the ugly, brown shirt. It’s literally an ugly, brown shirt which is supposed to help keep us warm (I have my doubts). Now comes the hard part; the wetsuit. Like the booties, the wetsuit is, well, wet. Oh and it’s inside out so I must first wrestle with it to turn it right-side out before stepping into it and making a courageous attempt to pull it past my knees. Kat and I share the struggle of getting the damn thing over our curvaceous female butts and hips. (My next career might just be a sausage-stuffer.) We encourage each other while providing tips on what seems to be working. After finally getting the thing over my butt (yet still the crotch of the wetsuit doesn’t quite reach the crotch of my body), I wiggle it up past the next set of curves at my chest and hook the Velcro at the top in order to secure it. Next, there’s the wetsuit jacket which, compared to the rest of the suit, goes on easily. We step out of the locker-room to see Michael headed back into the men’s locker-room. He’s put his wetsuit on inside-out and must repeat the struggle.
Finally, we’re all suited up and ready to head out to the cave. We climb into the van where we’re joined by Logan, the driver, and Vaughn, who is training today. Logan drops us in a small parking area where we climb out and follow Katie to a river. This is where we get to practice jumping backwards into the two waterfalls which will be in the cave. We stand on the edge of a wooden platform and, one at a time, hold our tubes behind us and jump outwards while keeping our feet up. Like jumping from a twenty-story building, the hard part is not the jump, it’s the landing. Unlike jumping out of that building, it’s not that the landing is hard, it’s just that, once I do, I’m engulfed in blanket of ice-water.
Following that frozen trial (Let it Go), we head over to the cave entrance, a small hole leading through rocks in the ground. Katie explains how we should hold our tubes as to not let them get pulled away by the current at any point, and instructs us to turn on the lights on our helmets. Oh yes, our helmets; did I mention that as part of our equipment? We’ve been given helmets with lights so we kind of look like we’re headed to go dig in the mines. One after the other, we climb down the rocks until we find ourselves fully immersed in the darkness of the caves.
We walk through the water, stumbling on hidden rocks, sinking into unseen holes and fighting against strong currents in order to stay upright. We exit the water and climbing up into a tunnel while crawling on our hands and knees to explore.
As we reach the first waterfall (pretty small and unintimidating), we’re reminded of our practice run. This part is easy as I’m pretty darned good at falling.
Afterwards, we take a moment to turn off our headlamps and check out the glowworms hanging above us. I’m entranced by them while Katie explains their bioluminescence and formation. It’s all a bit magical until she tells us that these “glowworms” are really insect larvae. What? I freak out when there’s a spider in the bathtub yet I’m floating under insect larvae? I see why they’ve been nicknamed glowworms; better marketing.We continue to wind our way through the labyrinth of the cave – thus the name of the tour – before arriving at the next waterfall. This one is larger, yet still an easy drop.
As there are only three of us, we move faster than if there were a full group of twelve and therefore, we get to take a detour and step out of the water to explore the caves through a walkway which is included on one of the other tours. Our water-logged wetsuits weigh heavy while walking as we enjoy the spectacular beauty of the caves. It looks a bit like a scene from Frozen. These are truly some of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
We climb back into the water and float with the current along the cave walls which feel like high, dark cliffs looming on either side. We’re soon instructed to line up while sitting in our tubes, hook our feet onto each-others’ tubes, turn off our headlamps, and enjoy the ride. As I’m in the front, Katie grabs my foot and begins pulling us through the water while we enjoy the beauty of the glowworms hanging from the cave ceiling above us. It looks like a clear, night-sky with constellations lighting our way. It’s a spectacular finish before we reach a lit area which returns us to the surface and allows us to climb out of the caves into the sunny day.
Logan picks us up in the van to take us back to headquarters where, after a laborious struggle to remove our cold, wet, wetsuits from our cold, wet bodies (Charlton Heston and his cold, dead hands comes to mind), we step into warm showers and are fed tomato soup and bagels. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience (who knew insect larvae could be so enjoyable) which you should do if you come to the North Island of New Zealand.
Next up – The Good, the Bad and the Thank-you’s
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**Thanks to The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company for the photos!