Still in the northern peninsula through day 4, I spent the afternoon of day 3 and the morning of day 4 at 2 spectacular waterfalls, then my afternoon attempt to go caving was subverted by a subterranean river and a lack of waterproof shoes, and turned into beautiful hike up the mountain instead.
After my exploration of Russell, I made it back over to Piahia (where I’d left the car) with enough daylight left for my other nearby photo-op: Haruru Falls. GPS told me the falls were a mere 10 minutes up the road and I had seen signs for them on my way in to town the night before. I expected to be led to a car park from where I could walk to the falls. In the US, nearly every natural sight worth seeing is a goodly distance from the road. It’s a serious effort to protect things from commercial development in the US and most of the State and National Parks have a sort of buffer zone of nature between development and whatever the highlight of the park is. Yellowstone Falls, for example, requires a long drive through the park and a longer hike through the woods before you can view them. While I was living in Washington state, I pursued a couple waterfalls. One fall was used as the backdrop of an expensive country club and I only got to see it because I went to a wedding there. Most falls that were free to view, however, came with a hike. My favorite one, Murhut, is a long drive down a winding gravel road and a mile of hiking up the trail… and that one’s considered close.
So, when I parked by the Hururu Falls signs that came just after the bridge over the river within easy view of the main highway and some nice suburban looking homes, I expected a walk. Nope. The falls are actually visible from the bridge itself and not in a binoculars way, but right there. I scarcely had to walk a few meters to be right on the edge of the river looking down over the tumbling water. Looking up, I could see people’s homes. This waterfall was practically in some backyards. I didn’t know it at the time, but this comes back to the public waterways laws in NZ, which meant that the homeowners and land developers couldn’t claim the land on either side of the river, making the falls a free public trust.
Waterfalls are a rare occurrence in my life but I treasure them. I ended up climbing out on the rocks to get close and then just sitting and breathing it in. There’s some kind of chemistry that happens to air that’s churned in a waterfall and it makes us feel better, happier (negative ions, no really, look it up). There was a trail along the river, but I’d had a full day of dolphin swimming and island hiking already and was content to soak in the late afternoon sun on the water and watch the rainbows dance in the spray above the valley below.
I made it back on the road before dark, but I had to pull over a few more times just to watch the sun set over the hills and the painted pink clouds opposite dancing around the near-full moon.
Whangarei waterfall is quite a bit taller than Haruru but not so wide. There was some construction at the view point near the car park and I was a little underwhelmed by the viewing angle provided. Haruru had been so impressive and I was feeling out of sorts form a morning social media mishap (never read the comments!). I was hoping that the mere sight of some stunning falls would blast me back to happiness, but it wasn’t quite so simple. I looked at a nearby map which indicated there was some kind of loop that led down to the base of the falls and took about an hour to walk so I decided to go for it. This time, the nearness of the urban life wasn’t quaint and attractive, it was orange, brash and constructiony, so I was hoping to put that behind me on the trail. As I crossed the grated bridge at the top of the falls, I tried to scrounge a little whiff of negatively ionized waterfall air to bring my mood back in line with my environment.
The trail led briefly along the edge of a field and then back into the woods on the other side of the river. There were some stairs, but it was mostly gentle switchbacks and the fresh air of the river and woods was a treat to the senses. I had a nice leisurely walk down to the riverbed and by the time I emerged from the woods to see the falls properly, I was much happier. Good thing too, because Whangarei Falls are best viewed from the bottom. It was still morning and the light was coming in from behind the top of the falls. The river appeared to be transforming from light into water as it dove from the cliff. There were side trails around the small pool at the base allowing visitors to get up close views of the falls from several angles. I found a little shaded area that blocked the sun from my eyes and my camera lens for some great photos, then wandered around the bridge and the small beach where some ducks watched me and the other tourists with suspicion.
Water is one of the most cleansing experiences we can have, not just to wash our skin, but also our hearts and minds. Water that is still and reflective, water that is rushing, or water that is testing the very boundaries between itself and the earth or the air. A waterfall does all of these. The more of them I visit, the more I love them. I thought I was lucky in Seattle to be near so many good waterfall hikes, but clearly I knew nothing of what it really means to have accessible waterfalls. Just one more reason NZ is awesome: the Queen’s Chain!
I did have one more event for the day before an especially long drive for the night, so with some reluctance, I headed back up the other bank to return to the car park and on to Waipu Caves. It’s about 45 minutes from Whangarei and reputed by online sources to be a free cave where visitors could view glowworms with only the aid of sturdy shoes and a flashlight. We have unguided cave walks in the US, several in Washington state. I spent some lovely summer weekends exploring them before I got this blog up and running. We really did go in jeans, jackets, gloves and good shoes with some flashlights and it was great. It didn’t seem odd to me that similar caves could exist in NZ. However, my sources were less than forthcoming.It turns out that there is quite a bit of water in the Waipu caves, and on top of that, they are subject to flooding if it rains too much. It hadn’t rained on me much in my visit but winter is the rainy season there. Just inside the cave mouth I encountered a stream that blocked my path entirely. Now, if the weather had been warmer, if I’d had spare shoes, if I’d had (most importantly) another person there for safety, I might have kept going and braved the wet and mud for the experience of seeing glowworms. But as it was, looking at wet cold everything with no spares, and the very real possibility of slipping in the mud to become hurt or stuck with no help made me turn back. I like doing crazy things and I’m usually ok with getting dirty, but in the end, life safety won the day, and I decided I’d just have to see glowworms in Waitomo instead.
After exploring the shallow cave entrance, I decided to walk up the trail into the hills above the caves. I’m not sure whether to call these land formations mountains or hills. They are largely made of rock, and that’s mountainy, but they are not that tall, which is hilly. Plus, many of them have been deforested and covered in grass for the sheep and cows to graze on. Farm in New Zealand doesn’t equal crops, it equals herds. Either way, the sign said it was a 2km hike, which didn’t seem bad. Off I went, forgetting in my enthusiasm that my hiking style was likely to make this 1.5 hr walk actually take 3 or 4…
The park service in New Zealand hasn’t really mastered the loop trail and this was no exception. The trail led up to a single point and returned along the exact same route. It was marked by the occasional tiny orange triangle nailed to a tree and for a while I felt like an intrepid explorer in Middle Earth. The forest was deep and green and dotted around with huge rocks that looked like nothing so much as Bilbo’s trolls turned to stone and broken down. I even found one that looked like a giant stone foot! Other places the rocks became less like the remains of curving carved statues and more like the square blocks of a fallen castle or fort, like the ruins of Cair Paravel. Of course, all the rocks are natural formations from glaciers, but it was fun to imagine. This part of the hike is the easiest and quite possibly the lovliest. If you’re here for a short visit, I’d say it’s worth it to walk as far as the bridge, at least.
Beyond the bridge the landscape changed. The rocks all but vanished and the type of plants completely altered. Now instead of lush green trees there were scraggly gray thorn bushes taller than me that were growing their first bright yellow spring flowers. This let out into another forest, but much more jungle/rainforest in theme than the boulder-filled fantasy below. There was a stretch of farmland too, which I thought may have heralded the end of the trail as it led onto a nice little grassy terrace with a view all the way to the ocean, and a little wooden bench to sit and rest. This bench would be my second recommendation for turning around if you’re getting tired. The view is nearly as good here as it is at the top, so unless you’re an achievement junkie like me and just need to say you got there, it’s a fine place to end the hike. Or you can look for the little orange triangles on the gate past the bench and keep on trekking up. It’s a lot of up, and mud, through what is fundamentally a rain-forest.
I came across a goat on the path with her baby. They were both snowy white and I stopped to watch them for a while before they crashed off into the undergrowth. I hadn’t seen any goat farms around, just sheep and cows so I wondered if she belonged to someone or if her ancestors had escaped captivity, and now she and her kin roamed the park lands wild. After much muddy trudging, I emerged into daylight again only to be greeted with a fence and a businesslike sign advising me that I had reached the end of the trail and should now turn around. No monument, no viewing platform, just this electric fence and sign. The sign informs visitors that they are welcome to admire the view from the property line, but to be cautious as the fence is live. Ok then. It was a nice view, but there was not much room to move around and nowhere to rest, so I soon headed back down the hilly mountainside to find the bench I’d left behind.
The trip back down was less strenuous but not really faster. Steep muddy slopes and slippery steps meant I had to go slow and cautious, because spraining an ankle up here would not be a good time. I actually did slip in the mud once and was worried I may have sprained my wrist landing (it seemed ok by the time I went to bed that night). However, because I was moving slowly, I wasn’t making much noise and managed to sneak up on some little evening critter digging alongside the path for dinner. It had ears shaped like a rabbit’s, but shorter, and a long bushy tail, though not ringed like a raccoon’s. It reminded me of a gray-tone version of Pikachu. I tried to get some pictures, but the low light made it difficult and eventually the wind shifted enough for him to notice me and he took off up a tree. I have since identified the adorable furry mess as a brushtail possum, pictured below in a zoo setting. This was another surprise since the opossum in North America is a kind of drowned rat looking thing that is usually associated with roadkill and dumpster diving. The brushtail possum was imported from Australia for it’s fur, which explains also why I kept seeing clothing items of wool and possum in gift shops.
When the silent spell of wildlife watching passed, I realized that it was quickly getting dark, and I tried to hurry on back down the trail. It had taken me about 2 hours to reach the top, but I stopped a lot, so I was hopeful returning would require fewer stops to admire scenery I’d already seen. The whole thing was like walking from one fantasy land into another, Middle Earth, Narnia, Fern Gully, Jurassic Park… it’s one thing for a landscape to be beautiful, but it’s wholly something else for it to be 4 landscapes at once!
Back at the base, I took another gander around the cave entrances, refusing to believe that this was really it. I had a brief conversation with some folks waiting in their car who hoped to see the glowworms in the entrance once it got to full dark. As tempted as I was to stay and see if that worked. I had an appointment with low tide in a town 4.5 hrs away and almost exactly that much time to get there, so I had to wish them luck and hope that the next caves would treat me better. My post-holiday research has since revealed that the cavern with the glowworms at Waipu is the third chamber and requires special equipment, experience, and should not be done alone. I’m still not sure if it’s possible to see any in the entrance, but I did find out later that night that it’s possible to see glowworms outside of caves.
The northern peninsula alone offered many splendors and wonders. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and that you’ll stay tuned to see the Coromandel Peninsula and the unique Hot Water Beach! Enjoy the full photos from Haruru, Whangarei and Waipu on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!