Malay Peninsula 14: Kayaking at Bor Thor

Thailand is best described as hours of cramped, hot, sweaty transportation interspersed with mind blowingly beautiful scenery and majestically unique experiences. Is it worth it? Well, I might do some things differently if I ever go back, but I can’t deny that the positive experiences will stay with me far into the future. Kayaking at Bor Thor was one of those things that I didn’t even know I was missing until I was there, and now I can’t imagine passing up the opportunity to experience it. Even if it did come with some discomfort.


Day 11 of the trip was a half day journey to some sea caves at Bor Thor with kayaking.

*The kayaking was a half day because I hoped to be doing an elephant experience on day 12 near Khao Sok. The internet revealed that getting to Khao Sok from Krabi was very challenging, but getting there from Surat Thani was easy. I toyed with the idea of staying that night in Khao Sok, but I was told the only transport from Krabi to Khao Sok left at 10am, which would leave me no time to do anything in Krabi at all. But the last bus from Krabi to Surat Thani left at 430pm and was plenty of time to do a half day kayaking tour, then get to Surat Thani for the night and take one of the many bus options to Khao Sok the next morning.  It sounds so good, doesn’t it? Lies. Anyway, kayaking.

Thai Transportation

I signed up for a tour that included hotel pick up and drop off. My pick up time was a 15 minute window and 30 minutes later the driver finally showed up. We drove for a while and then pulled over on the side of the highway. I was ushered from the truck that had picked me up into a minivan with a different driver. The minivan sat there on the side of the road waiting for more passengers, I was told. That minivan never went anywhere. Eventually, another minivan pulled up across the highway and I was instructed to cross several lanes of highway traffic to join them.

That minivan had a few more tourists in it, making me feel less like I was about to join the white slave trade, and we drove a bit further until we paused at a rest stop where we could use the restroom, get a snack and hang out with this giant bird shrine. I’m not sure why we stopped there or stayed so long, because the end of our journey was only a few more minutes down the road and also had restrooms and snacks for sale. Nonetheless, between the three vehicles and multiple stop and waits, it had taken over 2.5 hours to get from my hotel to the pier.

Garuda

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I got curious about this giant bird man, so after my holiday was over, I did some research and discovered that he is Garuda, the mount of Vishnu. Vishnu is a very important god in the Hindu pantheon and plays a prominent role in Buddhist mythology as well. (what? Buddhists aren’t atheists? Yeah, you’ve been lied to your whole life, but I can’t get into that now). I could do an entire dissertation on this creature, but I’m going to try to sum it up and focus on Thai Buddhism (because that’s where this statue is from).

The Garuda are a species of deva (we might call them demi-gods or supernatural in the west). They are giant part man-part bird creatures and are the sworn enemies of the Naga (half man half snake creatures). They have their own culture, cities, civilizations, etc. Not totally unlike how Fair Folk in Ireland have their own cities, courts, and markets. In Thailand, the Garuda have been associated with the royal family on and off since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 1910 that this image of Garuda was adopted as the official emblem of Thailand.

In it’s role as national emblem, the Garuda is the vehicle (mount, ride, etc) of the King of Thailand. The kings are seen as either the earthly descendants of Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) or the earthly incarnation of Narayana (a complicated super-diety that may either BE the supreme being, incarnating himself into the other gods as needed, or may have merely given birth to Brahma, the creator god) Either way it explains why the Thai people revere their King so much! Although both Vishnu and Narayana are originally found in Hindu stories, they are present in Buddhist mythology, and the Thai king is actually required by law to be a Theravadan Buddhist.

Everything I’ve read indicates these emblems are highly regulated. They’re used in all official government documents and buildings, and only allowed to be displayed on private property by royal appointment. In the 90’s it was punishable by jail time to use the emblem without permission and it’s unclear to me if the PM turned that around in his most recent (2001) edict about the treatment of Garuda, but it’s definitely an important and revered symbol in Thailand.

10 More Minutes

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I mentioned this was a half day event? The schedule for the tour I bought was 8am pick up to 2pm drop off. Yet at almost 11am, we were still standing on the dock, waiting for who knows what for just “10 more minutes”, the catchphrase of all Thai tour guides and drivers when something is delayed. It is not a measurement of time that correlates at all to the clock, but rather a phrase of amelioration of putting off confrontation when they are asked what’s going on.

Finally, after what seemed like an aeon of waiting, they were ready to get us into the boats. The boats were 2 person affairs, and not all of us were in pairs, so groups had to be split and partners assigned. A group of three South Asians (probably Pakistani, but could be Indian?), two women and one man, caused yet more delay. Neither woman wanted to row herself (why are they kayaking? I don’t know), each wanted a paid guide to ride with them and do the rowing. I am not kidding. So, a second guide had to be located.

I feel like even if this was the only thing I planned to do all day, I would be frustrated by the time spent just standing around. I have managed to let go of a lot of my need to keep to a schedule and just roll with the punches, especially while on holiday, but I couldn’t help being anxious about the time since my plans rested on getting to the bus station in town in time to catch the last bus. When I thought I’d be at my hotel by 2pm, getting to a 430pm bus deadline seemed easy. Lies.

Actually Kayaking

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Despite all the crazy transportation and infinite time vortex of waiting, the kayaking itself was amazing. I wish I’d had time to do the second half of the day and enjoy more of it. I’d never kayaked before this, just some rafting which is quite different. It didn’t take too long to learn how to use the paddle, but a bit longer for my partner and I to get a rhythm. The river we were on was surrounded by mangrove forests and tall limestone … I don’t even know what to call them, mountains or cliffs or just big rocks, very unique to SE Asia and a stunning backdrop. The day was sunny sunny sunny and while I had put on sunscreen and wore my Korean ajuma hat, I still felt the extra heat of the blazing midday sun on my skin. Each time my paddle splashed or dripped river water over my legs it was a welcome relief.
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The primary goal of the tour was the sea caves. 
We paddled down the river, enjoying the easy going with the current, admiring the view and trying to take pictures without getting our phones wet.  We turned off the main channel of the river into a smaller side stream in the mangroves. A short paddle through the trees took us to the entrance of our first cave. I haven’t gotten tired of caves yet, any more than I could get tired of forests or mountains. Nature is new and unique each time you look at it, and this day was no exception.

20170127_105908Approaching the cave via the water was a special experience all by itself, but gliding through the dark tunnel was wondrously beautiful. First watching the boat ahead of me disappear into the gloom and then watching the silhouettes against the bright background of the other side. We emerged into a closed canyon, the high walls of the limestone mountain surrounding us with lush jungle growth. The guide told us that depending on the tide, sometimes the water was so high, they had to lay down flat and pull themselves through the cave by the ceiling, and other times so low they could not bring boats in at all. The little body of water was like an island in reverse, not land rising from the sea, but a patch of the sea sunken deep within the land around it. I could understand why people would go through the difficulty involved in getting to these places as the price for experiencing the splendor.

Magical Mangroves & Mermaid Cave

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We paddled back out the way we came, the only passage into the secluded cove, and moved further on down the river. Before too long, our guide advised us to make another turn into the mangroves. Our goal this time was not a cave, but the mangroves themselves. Although another tour focused on the jungle, the guides said there were only a few times of day when the little route we were on was passable due to the tides, so they wanted to share it with us, even though it wasn’t a cave. It was much harder to navigate in the tangled roots and we often got hung up on trees and had to back up and try again. My pictures, I’m afraid, do not do the experience justice. But once again, I felt like I was on the inside of a nature documentary. We saw lots of little crabs hanging out in the trees as well as a few large sea snails. The water was so tranquil and we were shaded by the trees. There weren’t as many insects as I was expecting, either. The whole area was quite comfortable.
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Too soon we emerged back out onto the river and headed toward our next cave. The tunnel was longer than the first one, and far more filled with delicate and detailed cave formations. We were told it was called “mermaid cave” because of a pillar formation that looked particularly like a mermaid. The cave itself was the main attraction at this stop and we paddled through to the other side just long enough to turn around and get an awesome view coming back the other way. There are no artificial lights in these caves, because the water level changes so much. All of our admiration had to be done by sunlight, and suddenly I was more grateful for the bright day.

Big Headed Ghost

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The third and final cave was Tham Pi Hua To (big skull ghost), famous for it’s ancient cave paintings. We had to actually disembark from our kayaks and walk to the cave mouth. This presented an interesting challenge since my damaged foot (exposed to sunlight and brackish mangrove water) was not doing so well with shoes, and my shoes themselves were wet and slippery. However, I was excited to see the cave paintings in person, so I put on the shoes and walked up the seashell fossil encrusted pathway to the cave mouth. I tried my best to get around with the shoes, but once we were past the seashells, the ground was slick with mud and to be brutally honest, bat droppings. I nearly had a nasty fall when my wet foot and wet shoe decided to part ways on a steep surface. I had no choice but to proceed barefoot into the cave.
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The Big Headed Ghost Cave is believed to have the highest concentration of mural wall paintings of any cave in Thailand. The paintings themselves are thought to be about 3000 years old, made by nomadic tribes of the time who used the caves for shelter and as burial grounds. I tried to find some official scientific research data on the cave, but it’s not widely published about in English. At this point, I’m taking the Thai tourism and national park service’s word for it.  Our guide used the term “gypsy”, which confused me until I realized he was just referring generally to nomadic people. (Yay, English as a second language!) He showed us some of the most famous paintings in the cave, but due to the fact that he used his flashlight hand to gesture with, I wasn’t able to get a decent photo. You can see my attempts (left) next to the much clearer picture from the official Krabi Tourism website (right).

We saw the most famous one, the big headed ghost, or maybe goat headed man, no one knows for sure. We saw some human figures, a man and a woman that were portrayed more than once around the cave. Our guide constructed a story that these were events in their lives, but we have no way to know. There is a set of hands on the ceiling which are very clear, and one of them has 6 fingers. Whether it’s an artist error or the 6 fingered man visited Thailand before killing Inigo’s father, we’ll never know. I believe there are over 100 different paintings in the caves here, but I couldn’t see them all in the gloomy cave interior.It was still interesting to see the 3000 year old human artworks in person.

We were left on our own to explore the small cave and climb out to the viewing point, through a pair of holes that looked from below like the eye sockets of a giant skull. After a decent period of poking around the cave, we were herded back to the boats to face the long upstream paddle back to the pier. By this time, my boat partner and I had finally found a good rhythm and we were able to stay at the front of the pack. I was quite surprised. I think of myself as not being big with the upper body strength, but there was a noticeable difference when we paddled together and when I took a break to snap pictures. We even raced the girls from France for the last leg of the journey. Far from feeling like dead weight, I felt like a contributing member of a team in a physical activity, which was a bit of a novelty, since I’m always feeling like the slowest one in a group. Maybe I should take up kayaking?

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Lunch With the Kathoeys

We unloaded back at the pier and were invited to sit down to enjoy some food. I was pleasantly surprised since my half day booking had said it included only a fruit snack, not lunch. There was a different meal for the all day folks, but the rest of us got a generous portion of shrimp fried rice and fresh fruit. The tiny pier had a large staff and a diverse one. At least two trans ladies (kathoeys) were present, and it seems employed at the shop there. One was super dolled up on the verge of queening. I noticed her putting on makeup when we arrived in the morning, and that she was still working on her hair and makeup while we were eating lunch. Another had beautiful long natural hair, which meant she’d been growing it for years, very minimal make-up, and simple everyday clothes. It was nice to see how casually accepted they were by everyone else.

*later research has shown me that the term “Kathoey” can refer to any or all of the following: feminized men, drag queens, MtF trans – regardless of how the individual genders themselves. They are and have been a prominent part of Thai culture for a long time and that has resulted in more tolerance and acceptance of their lifestyle out in the open, but there is still discrimination and as yet, no laws protecting them from it.

Moving On

After eating, I began to get a bit worried, as our guide had talked about moving on to the next location for more kayaking, but hadn’t said much about heading back into town. The clock was moving past 1pm, past 1:30, and I was becoming trepidatious about my inability to catch my bus. I fantasized briefly about spending the rest of the afternoon kayaking and just doing another night in Krabi, but I had hotel reservations in Surat Thani and the last plan of my holiday was an ethically responsible elephant visit, which I didn’t want to miss. I finally asked the guide about our schedule and let him know about my concern to catch an intercity bus that day. It seemed to help a bit because they got motivated to start heading toward the parking lot, and by 2:15 (15 minutes after I had been promised a drop off at my hotel) we were stuffed back in a minivan driving back to Krabi.


Adventure, vacation, holiday… these words are loaded with preconceptions. It seems to me by now, I might have come to know what to expect, or how handle it all, and yet the world continues to amaze me in so many ways. Natural beauty, such as what I shared on this little river tour, of course, but just the sheer variety of humanity. Growing up, I was taught to look past our differences and see our similarities. This was some well meaning philosophy meant to decrease racism, sexism, and other isms/phobias. But as an adult, I see the great diversity of the human experience and I despair at the idea that we should have to hide those to get along. I know that I could live a thousand lifetimes and not see all the wonders that the world has to offer, but I hope I can be grateful for every one that I do and that I will never let the obstacles stop me from the journey.

As always, thanks for reading, and don’t forget to like me on Facebook and Instagram to see more beautiful photos of my adventures. ❤

Ten Days in NZ: Glowworms at Waitomo

Glowworms are one of the most unique and beautiful secrets of wildlife in Aotearoa. Although various bio-luminescent insects exist throughout the world (I used to chase and catch fireflies in the New England area of the US when I was a child -releasing them after an hour or so of intense admiration), and however fascinating these glowing bugs are, there is nothing quite like the underground galaxies in the caves of New Zealand. My trip could not have been complete without a visit.  As a bonus, I got to try my first black water rafting experience, too!


While I originally hoped to do the caves before the Hobbits, it turned out to be a good thing that my plans got swapped. Sunday had been beautiful and sunny as I wandered through Hobbiton, but I woke up Monday to a grey sky and light rain. Weather that would have put a damper (pun intended) on Hobbiton became wholly irrelevant to my enjoyment for the day since I would be spending it underground. Prior to my arrival in NZ, I had been under the impression that the glowworms only lived in caves, so I scheduled some time for myself to explore underground. My foray unsupervised into Waipu had been a wipe out, so to speak, but Waitomo offered plenty of guided tours that also included all the special caving equipment. As happy as I had been to learn that glowworms could also be seen in the bush, as magically fairy dusted as I was to have been able to find them not once, but twice above ground, I was still eager to see them in the caves where I was told their numbers were greatly increased, and where we would view them with no other light source but their own bio-luminescence.

There are several companies running a variety of tours in the caves at Waitomo, so feel free to shop around. I didn’t realize how many there were until I arrived at the hostel and saw the wall of brochures. Most of the companies don’t do a whole lot of online advertising, but if the options you find online don’t make you happy, rest assured there are more. The main types of tours are simple walking tours (no equipment needed), gentle boat tours (a group in a boat floating through the caves), adventurous caving/black water rafting (gear supplied, reasonable fitness required, clambering around and getting wet), and insanely adventurous caving (gear supplied, good fitness, zip-lines, fox-lines, rappelling, wall climbing, etc). Each of the companies offers some variety of these and everyone’s camera policy is different, so it’s just a matter of finding the one that fits you. I went with a winter sale that gave me one walking tour and one black water rafting tour. Ultimately, despite the fact that there were three caves to go through, I chose to to both tours in the same cave, Ruakuri.

Entering Ruakuri

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I scheduled my walking tour first. I arrived at the tour center in time to get registered and check out what would be my lunch options later in the day. We didn’t need any special gear for the walking tour, so when the guide showed up, I just hopped in the van with her and we rode off to collect the other guests. (there are multiple pick up spots, too). We had a small group, just 6 of us including our guide, so it was a nice private feeling tour.

Ruakuri means “two dogs” in Maori and as we stood in an entirely fake made-of-concrete cave entrance, our guide explained that the cave was so named because one day the local tribe spotted a pair of dogs in the mouth of the cave. Dogs were rare, as only the kuri that the migrating Maori had brought with them from Polynesia lived in NZ before the British came. Kuri were valued for fur and meat (not necessarily as companion animals the way we think of dogs today), and the fur was reserved for those with the highest standing. So it was that when this tribe found the dogs, they killed them and made their fur into a cloak for the chief. Whenever he would win a great battle, he would go to the cave and lay the cloak down on the ground in thanks. It became known as two-dog cave, or Ruakuri.

The reason we were standing in a concrete cave instead of a limestone one for this speech is that the Maori also believe that caves are entryways to the underworld and would often place the bodies of the dead in cave mouths to help their spirits on the way. The original British invaders didn’t really care, but since then the Kiwis have developed some cultural sensitivity (and laws) about Maori ancestral burial sites, and a new entrance had to be constructed. Given the context, I don’t mind in the least.

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Once inside, we passed through a very James Bond Villain sort of airlock tunnel that was part of the system to help regulate air, temperature and moisture within the cave. We emerged at the top of a spiral of softly glowing lights. When the new entrance was built, the owners of the land decided that they wouldn’t just make do with a stairwell or switchback, and instead installed a rather stunning ramp that gently wraps around the wide cylindrical shaft, making Ruakuri the only wheelchair accessible cave in New Zealand (and several other countries, I’m sure). From the ceiling above us came a thin but constant stream of water, beating down upon a worn stone below. When we reached the bottom, we were offered the opportunity to use the stone basin where the falling water collected to wash our hands, a symbolic act I have encountered in Buddhist and Shinto temples that is also present in Maori beliefs that cleanses the impurities of the world from one before entering a sacred space.

A Cave Walk

20160822_111607Once inside the cave, we were treated to chamber after chamber of beautiful limestone growths and formations. I’m lucky enough to have explored several of the best limestone caves in the US and I still found this one to be both beautiful and worthwhile. Like everything in NZ, the cave could not just be one type of landscape, but changed continuously as we traveled. In addition to the stunning stalagmites and stalactites, we saw curtain formations, several alternate types of mineral formations I don’t know all the names of because I’m not a geologist, some fossil seashells, some heavily layered rock, at least one natural chimney in addition to the man-made tube used to pipe in the concrete for the wheelchair safe pathways, and of course the glowworms. I should mention that anywhere a concrete path would have damaged formations, they instead used metal catwalks, sometimes bolstered from the floor, sometimes the walls, and at least once, suspended from the ceiling. They did everything possible to keep the cave intact while also making it accessible to everyone.

Seeing the glowworms up close in the cave was definitely a treat. Our guide shone her lamp askance onto a wall full of the little bugs, causing the feeding strings to become visible. Although I knew they must be there, when I was in the bush, I hadn’t wanted to shine a light directly onto the worms, and so didn’t really see the webs. But here, because of the shape of the wall, she was able to side-light the webs while still leaving most of the worms in darkness, meaning we could see both at the same time. My camera almost captures what that looked like, and certainly gives a clear view of the feeding lines. While only a few of the brightest bugs show up in the black portion of the photo here, to the naked eye, that space was covered in tiny blue dots of light.

20160822_105000Glowworms are larval insects who secure themselves to something dark and damp like the cave wall, then lower a strand of sticky silk. When some poor unsuspecting flying insect thinks their little glow is the moon and gets trapped in the web, the glowworm can then reel in the line and dine on the trapped flier’s brains. They are also quite territorial, so we were warned to be careful not to move the strands lest they become entangled with one another and cause a fight to the death to ensue between neighbors. It’s a little dichotomous to think of these beautiful serene lights as emanating from violent brain eaters, but then again, the fairies they are so often likened to are said to be beautiful yet cruel as well, so perhaps that metaphor is not so far off.

The cave was nicely lit for the walking tour, and you can see the rest of my photos over on Facebook here.

Black Water Rafting

After lunch, I had my second cave trip planned for a higher level of adventure. Black water rafting is so named because in the cave there is no light, so the water is black. It’s not merely an underground version of whitewater rafting, which is done in multi-person boats down exciting rapids and involves lots of coordinated paddle maneuvering to avoid rocks and whirlpools. In caves the water does not flow so predictably in a space where we can be assured of having air all the time, and there is certainly not enough light to see obstacles far ahead. So black water rafting is instead a kind of wet spelunking with an inner-tube.

20160822_170541.jpgWe started off by changing into some cave climbing wet-suits. These weren’t just regular SCUBA suits; they had special padding on the knees and bottom to help prevent injuries as we crawled and scooted around in the small tunnels. These suits were also 2 pieces, an overall style pants part and a long jacket. I am a short, round person and no neoprene suits were designed to my measurements even a little bit, so by the time I get something that fits my shoulders, bust and hips, its about 6 inches too long everywhere else, legs arms and torso (and rather unfortunately, it pushed up on my neck and chin so I had to unzip the first 5 inches of the jacket just to be able to breathe). In addition, the material is very stiff, so I felt like I was wearing a suit of armor built for someone 6 inches taller than me. I was suddenly very glad I’d decided on the less extreme version of the extreme adventuring.

Training Time

Despite feeling like a sausage in a tin suit, I was excited for the journey and waddled along after the taller and more lithe members of the group toward the inner tubes for our training. There were 6 people (7 with guide) in this group, which was a good size. We learned how to use our helmet lights, and how to link together in an inner-tube chain so we wouldn’t loose each other in the dark float, and finally we learned how to jump off a waterfall backwards. Yep, backwards.

I had read in the description of this adventure that it would include 2 waterfall jumps. I’m not sure what I had in my head, there were pictures on the website of people in inner-tubes floating along, perhaps I though we would just go over that way, or jump feet first with the tubes around our waists, but the reality was much more ridiculous. We went to a short pier over a day-lit portion of the stream to learn the proper backwards waterfall jumping technique. It is this: stand firmly at the very edge of the jumping platform, hold your inner tube to your bottom and resist the urge to bend your waist or knees too much. Kick off and out from the platform into the empty space behind you, splash butt first into icy river water which then floods up your sinus cavity and trickles into parts of your wet suit that were previously warm.

Wet Spelunking

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Once we finished our brief training, we headed over to a totally different entrance of Ruakuri than the walking tour had taken. Within the cave, the river was often not deep enough or wide enough for us to float on the inner tubes, so we spent a significant portion of the adventure carrying them or passing them around. However, the river was always underfoot which meant that walking involved keeping our balance in various intensities of rushing water and finding footing under water we could not see the bottom of (not because it was cloudy, but because of the lack of light and/or the white water foam). We often had to sit and scoot or sit and jump to get down steep ledges. Our guide knew the terrain well, however, and in difficult passages would tell us all exactly where to put which foot, knee, hand or elbow for the best way through.

In one section of the cave, we were getting ready to enter a passage that required us to crawl hands and knees, but it was up from the main passage. The guide pointed to two divots in the rock and told us to put a right foot in one and the left knee in the other to get up. The step was about mid thigh height on me (another advantage you tall people have) which is something that is a little challenging but realistically achievable for me in “normal” clothes. However, at this point the overlong legs of my wet-suit became more than merely foolish looking because the stiff extra fabric was preventing me from lifting my leg high enough to reach the step! I felt like I was trying to lift my foot with a 40lb resistance band on my leg. I couldn’t even get my foot past mid-calf height and one of the other adventurers had to help by grabbing my foot and putting it up into the step. It was pretty embarrassing not to be able to do it for myself, but I was glad to be with people who so readily lent a hand. Once I got in the tunnel, I had the advantage over the taller folks, though, and I wiggled on through getting nice and warm in the process.

We came out back into the same chamber we had left our inner-tubes in. It turned out the crawling tunnel wasn’t strictly necessary but rather a fun part of the caving experience that we could do without loosing our floaties. After all, it’s not really caving if you haven’t had to wiggle through a tight fit, right?

Waterfall Jumping

We were scheduled to be underground for a little more than 2 hours, and quite a bit of that was spent making our way through the shallow but fast running water. When we came upon our first waterfall I hung back a little to try and get an idea of what the whole thing looked like. Our helmet lights weren’t very powerful (probably good so we didn’t blind one another) Even standing near the edge of the fall, I couldn’t get a sense of how far below the water was. When the first brave volunteer took the plunge, it became obvious it was only a short drop and was really no different from flopping down backwards onto a bean bag. Even knowing it was totally safe, knowing hundreds of people had done it before me and that the guide knew the space well enough to help me place my feet in just the right place, I still got some serious tummy butterflies. Unlike the pier, which is flat, dry and made of wood, we had to stand on an uneven rock ledge with water rushing past our feet… backwards. At one point my guide asked me to step a little closer to the edge to prepare for my jump and I think that tiny step was actually more nerve-wracking than the actual leap.

The water got less predictable and less shallow as we progressed. There was a churning whirlpool of doom that was called something like the concrete mixer or the meat grinder, but basically don’t fall in it because it will suck you under and batter you blue. The floor became more uneven so I would go from ankle deep water into knee deep water in one step. I spent a lot of time with one hand on the wall trying to keep my feet from being swept out from under me by the fast moving water, while my other hand held the light but cumbersome inner-tube. I had a blast. I’ve been caving in places that you had to bring your own light, the Ape Caves and Guler Ice Caves near Seattle were like that, but they were merely damp and required no special equipment beyond a light. I went spelunking ages ago with my father in a place that gave us overalls and had us rappelling down walls and wiggling through tiny tunnels. This was the first time I’d been able to do more than just look at an underground river and despite the nerves. It was a beautiful and rewarding climb.

A Galaxy of Glowworms

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The true prize at the end of the tunnel were the two spots of deep slow water where we could lay in the tubes we’d dragged all this way and relax as we looked up at the cave roof. It’s a prize because here is where the glowworms live in large numbers, occupying much more space than any of the passages we had walked through up until then. For the first segment our guide had us link up, holding the shoes of the person behind us to form a chain, and then he grabbed on to my boots (I was in front at this point) and towed us all along behind him as he waded forward. We all turned our lights off to have the best possible view of the glowworms, which also means that while we were all going oooh aaah and floating along, our guide was pulling us along by memory in pitch blackness, so kudos to that guy.

It’s hard to describe the actual sensation. It helps if you’re not claustrophobic, I suppose, but the cave is fairly open at this point. Once the lights go out you have the very unique physical sensation of floating, because you are, with almost no visual reference at all. The water is ice cold, but the suits were doing their job and I wasn’t cold. I was not alone because I had the reassuring grip of the guide’s hand on my toes and my own grip on the boots behind me. And all at once I had no butterflies at all. It was the safest most peaceful feeling floating in the blackness with these people hundreds of feet under the earth.

Then I look up and it is nearly as though I am outside staring up at a night sky free of light pollution. The ceiling is covered in tiny glowing blue lights. It doesn’t look like the photographs. Those photographs are low light exposure or even time lapse and they make the bugs look like LED lights or computer animations from Avatar. I don’t mean to suggest the reality is a let down at all, just that I can’t show you what it looks like in a photograph. When you see a sunset, or the starry sky, or the full moon at dusk and you know that there is no way any photograph will ever capture that moment, it’s like that. As I lay on my inner tube floating in complete blackness, my only cues of movement coming from my inner ear and the slowly shifting perspective of this underground galaxy above me. I realized soon that the bugs weren’t evenly distributed across the ceiling like stars, but rather following a path like the river itself, winding and bending, widening and narrowing as it led us forward.

The Total Ecosystem Experience

With no lights, no watch and no way to tell how long I had stared hypnotized by this phenomenon, I felt both like an eternity had passed and that it had passed too quickly. Soon it came time to turn our lights back on and navigate our way to the next goal. After a bit more climbing, wading and one more waterfall jump, we came to what our guide called the lazy river. The current was strong enough to keep us moving forward and this time we did not link our tubes to float, but set off as individuals. The sensation was different.

Firstly because I had to put my hands in the water from time to time to paddle, and since I had no inner tube behind mine, when I tilted my head back for the best view, my hair dunked into the water as well, giving me quite the chill, though not unpleasantly so. Also, as we were at the mercy of the currents, I often drifted into walls that I had to push off, while not pushing so hard as to throw myself into the opposing wall. This meant that I was more engaged with the cave itself than the first float, but I was also not engaged with the other people except when we bumped into one another. The experience was no less intense or amazing for that, but instead of feeling an almost outer space quality of the first float, I was tangibly aware of the water and the rock through my bare hands, connecting the river, the cave and the beautiful but carnivorous lights above me into one ecosystem.

Wrapping Up & Moving On

I probably could have lay and stared at that view forever, but too soon it was over and we headed to the exit. It was a good level of adventure, physically challenging enough to make me feel like I’d done something and to make me ok with only doing the 3 hour version, but not so grueling as to make me not able to enjoy the calm and peaceful portions. The backward jumping waterfalls were a new type of face your fears activity that really helped remind me of the joy of leaping into the unknown. And the slow floats under the gentle blue glow of the unique little bugs are an image I hope to treasure for many years to come.

20160822_170414When we got back to the base, we took a final victory picture, doing our best to imitate the Olympic rings for the Rio Olympics. Then we peeled off the wet suits and ran shivering in our bathing suits into the hot showers to warm up and clean off before getting into dry clothes. They also had some hot soup and toasted bagels for us in the cafe when we came in so we could replenish some calories and get warm from the inside too. Our guide did his best to take photos of us in the cave, but was by himself that day and often had his hands full helping one or more of us find the foothold or handhold we needed to get through. Nonetheless, they did show the photos of our group up on big TVs for us to see while we sipped our soup. Most of the pictures were of us outside the cave or in the cave mouth, so it’s not especially great at capturing the in cave experience visually. Hopefully I painted a picture with my words.

I spent a long time lingering in the cafe and ended up chatting with two Chinese ladies returning from their own caving trip. We had a good talk about Buddhism and how to look for the teachers the universe sends us outside the temple as well as how to find and follow the path that’s set out for us in each life. This is something I give a lot of thought to, as I tend to spend more time in the world than in the temple. One of the girls said she hoped I could help more Westerners understand Buddhism better, which is a pretty lofty goal. When I found out they were going to Rotorua next, I gave them all my Google Map data for the hot springs there. I may not be destined to spread the Dharma to the West, but I can at least help a fellow traveler find some hidden treasures.



Waitomo was my last full day in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I drove back to Auckland that evening in preparation for departing the next day. It was hard to watch the rural roads return to urban highways, knowing that I would bid farewell to this land that had greeted me so warmly, but the stories aren’t quite over yet. There’s one more post coming after this one, filled with the odds and ends of smaller precious experiences that didn’t fit into any of the larger narratives so far. As always, thanks for reading and please check out my Facebook and Instagram for everyday updates in my travels! ❤

 

Ten Days in NZ: Mostly Waterfalls

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.


Haruru Falls

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.

20160816_164233Waterfalls 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.

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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.

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Whangarei Falls

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.

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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!

Waipu Caves

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.20160817_143921It 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…

20160817_150251The 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.

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20160817_152219.jpgBeyond 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. 20160817_164605The 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.

20160817_155447I 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.

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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.

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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!