Friday, November 03, 2006

Glow in the dark

There was a little confusion after we left Taupo. Because I was doing something and not watching the road we sailed past our turn off. This led to travelling up and back down two sides of a triangle totalling about 50km in length, when we should have just taken the third side at about 20km. It wasn’t such a big deal. The road passed mainly through pine forest until we got back to where we should be. We stopped for coffee in a small town (Benneydale I think). I should have been warned off by the fact that the coffee selection on the sign consisted of, ‘coffee’. I’m particularly fond of a well made flat white. This was burnt powdered coffee (not even granules) and almost undrinkable.

Coffee and navigational disasters aside, I was quite enjoying the trip. We were driving through hilly sheep grazing land. The grass was very green, and the sky very blue such that it looked like a photograph with the saturation bumped way up. At times it was almost painful to look at. Somewhere along the road some farmers were moving a mob of sheep across the road. One guy was out on the road motioning for Gemma to stop. She hadn’t seen the sheep and thought the situation looked dodgy, and so refused to slow down until the very last moment. I thought for a moment that she was going to flatten the poor farmer, and judging by the expression on his face so did he!

We arrived quite late in the village of Waitomo and checked into the van park there. In the evening we had pizza at the Morepork pizzeria across the road and then settled in for an exciting evening of watching the antics of the young bulls in the field next to us. It was better than most TV I’ve seen recently.

Waitomo is famous for the extensive cave systems in the area, the name meaning something like ‘Water Hole’ in Maori. The caves here are especially famed for their populations of glow-worms, which is what we’d come to see. Typically for New Zealand a lovely place has been ‘adventured’ up for tourists. I can imagine the tourist board meeting, ‘These caves are beautiful, the limestone eroded throughout the ages leaving huge underground caverns with rivers running through. In the darkness you look up to see an enchanting ceiling of lights that look almost like a galaxy of stars above you, a perfect tourist draw’

‘Naw, it’s missing something. I know, how about we jump down into the cave from a height then shoot down the rivers on an inner tube. Oh yeah, maybe we’ll look at the glow-worms too.’

In the morning when we went over to the museum-cum-visitor centre to get a ticket I told the lady that I didn’t want a tour with, ‘Jumping, falling, crashing or whizzing through the caves.’ Her response was, ‘But you want to white water raft down them, yeah?’. No! We managed to get her to tell us which were the sedate tours and then booked on the longer, the Spellbound tour. The advantages of which were that it was a small group tour away from the more busy caves, taking in two caves and which allowed photography.

We were glad we did that tour. Our guide was quite a character and vastly knowledgeable about caves, limestone, glow-worms and a lot more besides. After a drive out to the caves with a running commentary about the geology of the area we were given helmets with torches on them and led into the first cave. A river runs through the cave, bringing in the insects that are the food source of the glow-worms. The conditions in there are perfect to support a massive amount of glow-worms. Our guide explained the different life stages of the glow-worm, not actually a worm but the larval stage of a mosquito-like fly. On the roof of the cave we could clearly see the ‘worms’ and the sticky strands of silk that they use to trap their prey (and quite a few examples of the prey being munched upon.)

We all boarded a small inflatable raft and set out deeper into the cave. Our helmet torches were put out and after a somewhat fruitless attempt to get some photos of the glow-worms glowing on the cave roof (even a professional photographer in the group was having problems) we continued down the river. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dark the cave just began to light up in front of us. It truly was a spellbinding sight. Thousands of tiny specks of light glowing away in the darkness and looking like the stars on a beautiful clear night.

Outside we had a quick cuppa before entering another cave. This was without a river and had a built walkway and lighting throughout it. The cave had some interesting decorations, but nowhere near as many or such stunning shapes as other caves. It was still very interesting though, the guide explaining how animals got trapped in the cave. We could see the bony evidence of this, with goat and possum bones and even the skeleton of the extinct moa, a giant cousin of the kiwi. By the end we knew we’d made the right decision over which tour to take as we’d really enjoyed it.

Back in the van we headed out westwards along the Marokopa road. We stopped at a couple of stunning natural attractions. The first, Mangapohue Natural Bridge, is huge chunk of limestone that has eroded into the form of a giant arch. Gemma kept repeating, ‘So that is all made of tiny shells then?’ The second, Marokopa Falls is a large three tiered waterfall. The rain that had fallen over the preceding few days made the falls into a spectacular sight, vast volumes of water pouring over them.

We didn’t fancy staying in the tiny village of Marokopa so swung north and up to Kawhia. This small fishing village stands on the harbour of the same name, although when we arrived there wasn’t any water there, instead we saw a vast muddy flat plain. We stayed in the very small van park in Kawhia, with virtually no-one else around.

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