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!