Woke up early. Got up. Read some. Around 7:45 a.m. I wandered out to go check out the Visitor Information Centre. Didn't find anything that piqued my interest, so I walked the half block back to the hotel and read some more. Eventually Erin woke up, showered, drank the magic elixir coffee, and we were ready to start our day.
First stop, The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. On the grounds of the institute is the home of the Te Whakarewarewa thermal valley, including the Pohutu Geyser. The site included numerous other geysers, bubbling mud pools, and steam vents. We wandered around the grounds for a couple of hours, taking several rolls of film each, before stopping at the café for lunch.
In retrospect, we probably should also have visited the Hell's Gate Thermal Reserve, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, and the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. But we didn't. Already I was feeling pressured for time. The ferry crossing was on Friday, and I definitely didn't want to miss the Waitomo Caves area. Neither of us knew how long it would take to drive to Wellington from the central north island, and I wanted to play it safe. In retrospect, we should have seen more of Rotorua. My next visit will include more time in this beautiful area.
From Rotorua, we headed west toward Cambridge on SH5 and then on SH1. Our goal was the Waitomo Caves, south of Cambridge near Otorohanga on SH3. Well, actually, they built SH37 for just a bit to get to the Waitomo Caves. I had wanted to do a black water rafting tour where you raft underground in the caves for a few hours. Not quite as adrenaline-laced as the kayaking that sarmonster does, but still it looked like fun. Erin would have none of it though, and as the circumstances would have it you have to be there relatively early in the day to do a rafting tour.
We arrived around 2:45 p.m., which was just in time to tour both of the most well known caves in the area, Waitomo Glow Worm and the Aranui caves. First was the Aranui cave, as the last tour was at 3 p.m. It turned out to be a small group, and pictures were allowed. We waited a few minutes for the guide to arrive, then tramped across a narrow wooden bridge and up a leafy hillside to the narrow cave entrance. At some point, someone had built walkways and added lighting to the cave. Took a full roll of film inside, although the public portion of the cave is not long. Aranui doesn't have glow-worms, as it has no river running through it. More about that in a moment.
After touring Aranui, we walked the Ruakuri Gorge trail. This was actually pretty impressive. The trail follows along a cliff, then cuts through the cliff and on the other side far below can be seen a rushing stream. Further along, you can see where the stream takes almost a 180° turn. Rounding the cliff from high above, we saw that the stream emerges from a large cave. On the other side, the trail takes visitors along two viewpoints where you can see into the cave through what appeared to be natural openings near the top of the cave wall. Far below could be seen the river. Then the walk takes you lower to the forest floor and the stream itself where you could see the stream entering the cave. Another roll of film used.
The trail back was a little interesting. It crossed the stream using a narrow wooden bridge suspended by rope. It swayed deliciously when you walked across. Erin did not like that at all. I should also mention that on the way up the trail we got to see where one of the black water river rafting tours ended, as a number of tourists (several German) were climbing out of a nearly submerged opening carrying inner tubes. Next time, I'll get to do that.
We drove back to the main car park but just missed the 4:30 p.m. tour. So we sat around as several unscheduled tours started for tourists from several Asian countries. Our tour started at 5 p.m., and included four French nationals, a New Zealander with a cute girlfriend and another girl. You had to stoop to enter the cave, but once inside it quickly became impressive. First item to see is a 14 meter deep tomo or hole. Wai means water. Tomo means hole. Hence the Waitomo Caves are water holes. Maori name marketing at its best. After the tomo, the cave becomes very commercial. Very fine stairwells and lighting have been installed. We were told not to touch any of the formations, but the French nationals touched anyway. Bad French. No fries. We were also told no photographs in this cave, because the flash disturbs the glow worms. Of course, the early part of the cave has no glow worms and non-flash video cameras were not allowed either. So I played like a supportive tourist and bought their post cards instead. But back to the cave. We got to see the
choir loft and cathedral of the glow worm cave is nearly 20 meters high. Also nicely flagstoned, the guide invited us to sing because of the fine acoustics (used by Kenny Rogers and Rod Stewart, how could we resist?). The cute American girlfriend of the NZ guy volunteered. Turned out she had some training and warbled a fine Spanish love song (not that I could translate the words). She really was quite good, and the Asian tour group following us applauded heartily. That group didn't have any singers though, they just clapped in unison during their opportunity to test the acoustics.
After the formations part of the tour, we got to see our first glow worms. Similar to how fire flies produce light through bioluminescence, glow worms produce light in caves and other dark areas. Primarily they do this to attract bugs which then get trapped in the sticky lines that the fly larvae hang near them. When prey is entrapped, like spiders they crawl out, or pull up their lines and eat. In daylight, they aren't nearly as prominent, but at night and in caves they stand out. They usually are found only where underground rivers bring in other insects for them to eat. The end of the cathedral had a spot at the end where we could see some glow worms hanging over a stream below us.
Then it was back through the cathedral, but instead of climbing up the way we entered, we descended to the river where we climbed into a small aluminum boat. The guide pulled us along by means of a barely visible rope near the ceiling of the cave. We drifted out into a still pool and around a corner to where we could see thousands of lights on the ceiling. Glow worms. Quite impressive really. Alas, that was pretty short lived though and after a few minutes we pulled out into the open air where we disembarked. The only place we were allowed to take photos was near the end where the sunlight was already streaming in. No photos of the actual glow worm cavern, though flash would have made them nearly invisible. A good camera with high speed film would be needed to truly get good photos of the glow worms in the caves.
We ate dinner at a bar a couple of kilometers down the road, where I learned that the ketchup in New Zealand tastes more like the tomato sauce that they call it. When possible, stick with tartar sauce.
Back on the road, we decided to head toward Taupo. We wanted to see Huka Falls, and figured we could make the drive to Wellington the next day without too much difficulty from that locality. We pulled into Taupo near 8 p.m., and after circling around a bit found a motel with a vacancy sign. We got the last room at the Prince Motor Lodge. Except this was also a one bedroom apartment and it was quite nice. Shower and separate spa tub, which Erin quickly decided to use. French press for our morning coffee. Two new things (in addition to this being the first motel we stayed at). In floor heating, and warming towel racks. Also, when you check into such motels, they desk clerk inevitably gives you a pint of milk for your morning coffee (New Zealanders use milk, not cream). Overall, probably my favorite lodging of the trip. I fell asleep shortly after finishing my first book of the trip, Rat City byt Curt Colbert.