The Cave at the Edge of Reality

Waitomo Glowworms

It wasn’t raining, but it had been. The air was as grey as the carpark behind us. Before us, the path disappeared into the moist, black trees. Everyone we’d met in Waitomo had told us to do this, so here we were. At dusk. In winter. Entering the bush at such a time went against everything we’d been taught about staying safe.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, turning my head torch on. “It’s a popular walk in a thickly touristed area. It’s bound to be well signposted.”

Waitomo CavesI must admit, I felt a shiver of excitement as we started down the path. We weren’t doing anything forbidden, but the hairs on the back of my neck strained against the darkness. I jumped at the shadow of a man that turned out to be a wooden post; again at the shadow of a snake that turned out to be a branch.

New Zealand doesn’t even have any snakes. I knew that. It must have been one of those deeply ingrained ancestral instincts…

“Tim?” I asked, just checking he was still near.

He was.

It was probably different in summer. In summer, the path was probably teeming with tourists and their torches. But in winter, the only sound was the river, amplified by the night.

The river was barely visible, even when I shone my torch directly onto its frothing water. It was like the silvery, gossamer ghost of a river.

Waitomo CavesSo far, we hadn’t seen any glowworms. Seeing glowworms was the whole point of this walk. It was why everyone had told us to do it at dusk. I used my torch as sparingly as possible, trying to get my eyes to adjust.

Through the black branches above us, the grey sky seemed like pieces of a shattered mirror. Gradually, they lost their lustre. Electric blue pinpricks began to appear in the fabric of the night. Then the path turned and rose. It was bordered on one side by a towering wall of earth that had, apparently, been festooned with blue fairy lights. They could have been leading the way up to a Christmas grotto.

As we climbed the slope, I leaned in to look at them. They were indeed worms, so tiny that Tim couldn’t make them out, but I saw one or two moving. They pulsated grossly, sliding amongst their silken hammocks. Many droplet-adorned threads dangled like beaded curtains, as though each glowworm was a fortune teller in a gaudy tent, crouched over a blue crystal ball.

I tried to get a decent photo. Tried.

Waitomo Caves Glowworms

We passed a few small caves before the path turned into a tunnel. A tunnel which was barely wide or high enough to walk through. A tunnel which, I slowly realised, was crawling with F**KING ENORMOUS TUNNELWEB SPIDERS. They were everywhere, either side of me and above my head! I hunched my shoulders and pressed my arms into my body, trying desperately not to scrape the walls, or touch a web with my face or hair.

“One question,” said Tim, turning to look at me in the tunnel. “Where’s Shelob?”

I laughed, but a certain piece of music started playing ominously in my head.

Lucky I’m not a true arachnophobe, I thought. When I write about this walk, I’ll include a warning.

We emerged from the tunnel with no arachnid-based incidents to report, onto a boardwalk. I think there was water below, but it was too dark to tell. I turned off my head torch and suddenly we were floating in space, surrounded by blue stars.

Waitomo CavesI hated to turn the torch back on, but it would have been dangerous not to. The stars disappeared, replaced by rocks and earth and ragged foliage. We made our way down some slimy, wooden steps and were soon at the mouth of a large cave. More steps wound down into it, into the stalagmites and stalactites and shimmering curtains of stone. Some of the stalagmites looked like big, dribbling candles, except they were growing up from the ground, rather than melting. Others looked like dildoes.

The steps ended on a platform overlooking an immense cavern. This was the end of the walk.

“Abby,” said Tim. “Turn your torch off.”

I did. Blue stars materialised on the roof, densely packed as though forming a celestial pathway. I wanted nothing more than to follow the pathway as it curved around a corner into the unknown, but, you know, I would’ve fallen to my death. I felt like I was standing at the very edge of reality. My heart was filled with the universe…

Waitomo CavesThen Tim kissed me.

In life, very few moments are as perfect as they are in stories. This moment was.

So, cheesiness aside, the Ruakuri Walk is well worth doing when you’re in Waitomo Caves – and make sure you do it in the dark. (And take torches.) It only takes an hour and it’s free. If you’re scared of spiders, however, be warned: it will take you a great deal of mental fortitude to make it all the way!

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The Ghost of the Waitomo Caves Hotel

Waitomo Caves Hotel

I was twelve the first time we visited Waitomo. We stayed at the historic Waitomo Caves Hotel. Part of it was almost a hundred years old! The part our room was in, I think. The Victorian Wing. There was also an Art Deco Wing, built later. I was amused at what passed for historic in New Zealand.

As is the law with historic hotels, Waitomo Caves was said to be haunted. I don’t know why; it just was. It was certainly very creaky, but I didn’t see any ghosts. Unless you counted the hotel itself: the ghost of its former grandeur.

Waitomo Caves HotelThere was something about it, though. Something that made me want to ride a tricycle though its corridors croaking, “Redrum!” – even though I hadn’t see The Shining at that age. My little sister and I were told off for running down the corridors.

I suppose it was beautiful, but not very. The perfect example of faded grandeur. The restaurant was nice, though. It was first time I ate chicken in a creamy, lemony, white wine sauce with tarragon. And kumara chips.

In fact, it was because of the restaurant that I was looking forward to returning. Not to stay the night: it’s not really worth doing that. Just to have a look. You see, I’m twenty-six now. My partner and I recently travelled through Waitomo on a campervan trip. We had dinner at the hotel.

Waitomo Caves HotelThe restaurant’s changed hands since I stayed there. It’s now a rather touristy seafood place. Waitomo isn’t exactly famous for being near a large body of water, but there you go. The food looked good, anyway.

It’s still very posh. When my partner and I arrived, we felt a bit awkward asking for a table, as though we shouldn’t really have been there. Much too grand for us. Thankfully, it wasn’t expensive. Despite the ostentatious surroundings, the food was the same price as in most restaurants.

I liked the fact that the food was Polynesian-themed, mostly kaimoana – seafood. I immediately ordered the Ika Mata, a raw fish salad I’d fallen in love with in Rarotonga. The food was lovely, but it – and the restaurant’s cartoon fish logo – was at odds with the setting.

Waitomo Caves Hotel

I feel like if you go to the Waitomo Caves Hotel expecting a classy, old-fashioned establishment in which you can live out your grandiose fantasies, you’ll be disappointed. If you go expecting to find ghosts, you’ll be disappointed. But there is one ghost.

The ghost of the Waitomo Caves Hotel is the Waitomo Caves Hotel.

Lost World Cave Waitomo

To read about my actual caving experiences in Waitomo Caves, see Into a Lost World on this blog and Waitomo Caves on MyNewZealandCampervanTrip.com

Into a Lost World

Lost World Cave Waitomo

We’d both visited Waitomo before, but this time it was different. This time, we were visiting as adults – without our parents!

It was oddly exciting. Here we were in this natural playground, this magical landscape of caves and glowworms, and we could do whatever we wanted.

Lost World Cave WaitomoThere was no one to tell me I couldn’t go black water rafting because my little sister was too young, and it wouldn’t be fair if I got to go black water rafting and she didn’t, would it? There was also no one to pay for me to go black water rafting. (Oh, the dilemma of adulthood!) Besides, it was winter. We weren’t too keen on riding a rubber ring down a subterranean river in winter.

Instead, we decided to do something even more expensive: a dry caving tour involving rock climbing and an underground flying fox. Because an underground flying fox sounded awesome.

Lost World Cave WaitomoThe tour was called ‘Lost World through the Window’ and, as soon as we descended into the cave, it was easy to see why. It was like passing through a faerie portal, entering a whole other world beneath the forest floor. A great hush came upon us; slowly our ears filled with the echoes of rushing water.

The cavern was so large that the bottom, far below us, was lost in mist. Looking back towards the silhouetted entrance, it seemed a giant maw with ragged stalactites for teeth. Shards of sunlight fell into it like rain, quickly swallowed. I could have inhaled the sight all day.

Climbing just feels right.

The flying fox came next. It was fun, but it would probably have been more fun if I had been scared. As a rock climber, I’m rather blasé about dangling from ropes. I hadn’t been climbing in ages, though, and this tour reminded me how much I love it. I mean there was no serious climbing involved – more scrambling, arse-sliding and balancing along ledges with only a couple of ‘cowtail’ ropes preventing a fall into the darkness – but it was enough.

Pretty sure Tim’s only pretending to be freaked out here…

I imagine some people would have freaked out at the thought of the abyss below them. I nearly slipped into it once, but, of course, that’s what the ropes are for.

At one point, we passed a large, dead spider. And then another large, not-so-dead spider. Tunnelweb spiders – not to be confused with the deadly funnel-web spiders of Australia – apparently take a ‘dead man’s shoes’ approach to real estate.

(One feels New Zealand’s first home buyers could stand to learn from this example.)

Waitomo Caves“They don’t like building their own webs,” our guide told us. “They prefer to wait around until some other spider’s finished building their web – and then kill them. There’re lots in this part of the cave.”

The tour finished with an ascent up a series of long, metal ladders, which were freezing on the fingers. I wished the journey could have lasted longer – I was just getting into it!

I burst into the daylight feeling utterly alive. I’m glad we were able to do something adventurous and out of the ordinary this winter.

Vikings, Trolls and a Magical Gateway

Streets in Norsewood

There’s something strange going on in Norsewood. A small, sad town on the way up to Napier, its main tourist attraction is a shop selling woollen socks. Most people don’t bother looking further than that, but I’m glad I did. Like I wasn’t going to explore a town whose street names include Odin, Thor, Hengist and Horsa!

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

My partner Tim and I were on a New Zealand campervan hire tour of the central North Island. (That’s why I didn’t post anything last week.) After a couple of days around Tongariro National Park, we were driving towards Napier and decided to spend the night at Dannevirke Holiday Park, because it had received excellent reviews on the Rankers Camping NZ app.

Dannevirke Playground Viking Longship

The first thing you notice upon entering Dannevirke is a giant Viking. That’s because Dannevirke, like the nearby town of Norsewood, was settled by Scandinavians. Dannevirke literally means Danes’ work. The roadside barriers in the town centre are decorated with shields, there’s a miniature windmill in the town square, and the children’s playground features a Viking longship!

Fantasy Cave, Dannevirke

Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much for us to do there, and the Fantasy Cave, which looks delightful, albeit tacky, was closed. We decided to continue on to Norsewood. It was a little eerie when we arrived. No one was about, although, to be fair, it was raining. We popped into the information centre: a tiny room devoid of human life.

At least there were people in the café, which was actually quite nice. Outside, three ugly trolls were waiting for us. They led us into the Pioneer Cottage Museum. I’ve explored many such cottages throughout New Zealand and this was definitely one of the best, although the cardboard cut-outs of the early settlers were very creepy – especially when the lights suddenly went off!

Norsewood Trolls

You turn on the lights yourself when you go in, and they only stay on for a few minutes at a time, you see. I was in the barn at the back of the cottage when it went dark, surrounded by scary farming implements and sour-faced settlers, including an old woman who looked like a cross between Peter Cushing and blue vein cheese. It was like I’d suddenly entered a horror movie. I was half-convinced the figures would come to life and converge on me!

Stavkirke in New Zealand

Across the street from the Pioneer Village is a place called Johanna’s World. It’s advertised as having a traditional Norwegian log cabin, a troll cave and the southern hemisphere’s only stavkirke, or stave church. (If you don’t know what they are, google it – they look really cool!) When we stood at the wooden gate, looking in, there was no one there. It kind of seemed like someone’s garden, but there was no sign telling us not to go in, so we opened the gate.

CatImmediately, a cat came running up to us. It was super friendly, but still managed to be regal and authoritative, demanding much attention. When we started to explore the attractions, it followed us.

“Are you our tour guide?” I asked it.

It meowed affirmatively.

The cat accompanied us around the log cabin and the stavkirke. There was still no sign of human life. I began to suspect that our feline tour guide was Johanna’s World’s actual tour guide, turned into a cat by some malign magic.

“It must be the trolls’ doing,” Tim agreed.

Norsewood Troll CaveThe troll cave was actually quite disappointing. It’s not a real cave, but a children’s playroom inside a storehouse. Of course, there were no children there.

“Are we even allowed to be here?” Tim asked.

I had no idea, but the cat was delighted with our presence, and that was good enough for me. I was sorry to leave it.

We had a last look around the village before heading off, checking out an old, wooden gaol and meeting a pair of affectionate horses that stared mournfully after us as we walked away. Had all the humans in Norsewood been turned into animals? No, of course not – what about the people in the café? It was then that we discovered the Gateway.

Gateway Garden, Norsewood

We almost missed it: a tiny garden tucked away in a corner. At the back, partially obscured by foliage, was a gateway – but a gateway to what? Feeling rather like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, I stepped through the gate and found… nothing. Just the back of the garden, a narrow strip of earth and a high fence.

“Maybe the portal only appears if you believe hard enough,” said Tim.

So I took a deep breath, pictured Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects our world to Asgard, and jumped through the Gateway.

Norsewood Crest

I landed on the earth in front of the fence.

I must not have believed hard enough.

Norsewood PostSo that was Dannevirke and Norsewood. If you’re into history, fantasy or Norse mythology, I recommend having a look around both, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Napier. Otherwise don’t bother. The one person we did meet seemed thoroughly confused as to why we’d want to be there. It was an old, scruffy-bearded guy in a battered pickup truck.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“No, we’re just looking around,” Tim replied.

He gave a sceptical shrug and drove off, leaving us to wonder whether we’d just escaped the local serial killer. Either way, it was time for us to be moving on.

Norwegian Log Cabin

Photos from Our South Island Campervan Trip

A Road in the South Island of New Zealand

The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. My mum, dad, nana, sister and I travelled around much of it in a campervan; it was the best family holiday we ever had. (And yes, I am including our fortnight in Florida, visiting all the theme parks.)

The Christchurch Tram

The Christchurch tram

We picked up our rental campervan in Christchurch, having flown there from Auckland. I’ve already written an article about the trip – if you haven’t read it, you can do so here – so I won’t repeat myself. I just wanted to show you these awesome photos my dad took.

(If you read last week’s article, you’ll know that I’ve been going through my dad’s old pictures!) Enjoy.

Punting on the Avon River, Christchurch

Punting on the Avon, Christchurch

Castle Hill, New Zealand

Castle Hill

Kea

A cheeky kea, the world’s only alpine parrot

Weka Pass Railway

The Weka Pass Vintage Railway

Bungy Jumping, New Zealand

Watching a bungy jumper

Dunedin Railway Station

The grand, old Dunedin Railway Station

Taiaroa Head

Observing albatrosses at Taiaroa Head

A South Island Road

Just a regular South Island road

Old Cromwell, South Island, New Zealand

Old Cromwell

Old Cardrona Hotel, South Island

The old Cardrona Hotel

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary

Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary

And finally, a helicopter ride over the Southern Alps…

Helicopter

The Southern Alps

The Southern Alps

The Southern Alps

The Southern Alps

The Southern Alps

Our South Island Campervan Trip

To see more awesome photos of New Zealand, check out my New Zealand trip planner. And if you’re looking to book your own New Zealand campervan holiday, I recommend going with these guys.

Our First Year in New Zealand

I’ve been going through Dad’s old photographs, watching my sister and I grow up. The photos from 2001, our first year in New Zealand, brought back so many memories: places I’d forgotten we’d visited. I thought I’d share them with you now.

I was ten years old when we moved to New Zealand; my sister was seven. Dad emigrated six months before us, so when we finally arrived with Mum, he was bursting to show us the places he’d discovered. He couldn’t even wait for us to get over our jetlag!

It was the middle of winter, but the weather was still nice. Dad immediately took us to buy wetsuits and surfboards. I’d never been surfing before, as we’d lived nowhere near a beach in England, but I took to it at once. It was like riding a rollercoaster!

My sister enjoyed it too, at least until we realised her lips had gone blue! Maybe surfing in winter hadn’t been such a good idea after all. My sister had already thrown up in the local newsagent’s after OD’ing on kiwifruit, the first time we walked into town. She can’t stand kiwifruit to this day.

Despite the rocky start, and the frankly comical number of accidental injuries she gave herself that first year, my sister thrived in New Zealand. She’s a true nature-lover, so New Zealand is the perfect place for her. She’s currently down in the South Island studying wildlife conservation.

I, on the other hand, didn’t thrive. I missed England too much. I still managed to have fun, though, whether playing at Kariotahi Beach,

Kariotahi Beach

crawling through lava caves on the island volcano of Rangitoto,

Rangitoto

or pretending to be Merlin at the Waikato Museum.

Waikato Museum

We visited Auckland Zoo a lot,

Feeding Giraffe at Auckland Zoo

saw many of New Zealand’s North Island waterfalls,

Hunua Falls

had a ride on the Glenbrook Vintage Railway,

Glenbrook Vintage Railway

and found this old plane that someone had converted into a garage somewhere out in the wop-wops.

We went to Cathedral Cove,

Cathedral Cove

the Auckland Domain,

Auckland Domain

the Hamilton Gardens,

Hamilton Gardens

and so many other places – I’m not going to list them all. But I will mention Muriwai Beach so I can show you this picture Dad took.

Muriwai Gannet

It sure was an action-packed first year in New Zealand!

Finally, here’s a picture I found of our first Christmas in New Zealand.

It’s me and my sister jumping on our new trampoline. You couldn’t do that on Christmas Day in England!

Kiwis Keep Dialling 911 Instead of 111 and Here’s Why

You know something? I’ve lived in New Zealand for sixteen years and I still think the emergency number is 999.

“I mean I know it’s 911…” I said to my partner the other day, to which he replied:

“No, Abby, it’s 111. 911 is America.”

Oh. I mean I knew it was 111, but… come on! I’ve lived in New Zealand since I was ten years old – how can I still be making this mistake?!

Well, maybe it’s because 999 was the number I had drilled into me as a child. As for 911, well, we get a lot of American TV shows in New Zealand.

So, I’m screwed, right? If I’m ever in an emergency where I have to dial 999 – I mean 911 – I mean 111 – oh, f**k it! See what I mean?

Or am I screwed? You know what? I’m going to google what happens when you dial 999 in New Zealand.

*A short time later…*

Well, I googled what happens when you dial 999 in New Zealand. Apparently, it goes straight to a recorded message telling you to dial 111. There must be a lot of British immigrants in New Zealand who are just as useless as I am!

According to this article from 2013, however, if you dial 911 in New Zealand, it goes straight through to the 111 emergency line. But, wait, I thought there were significantly more British immigrants than American immigrants in New Zealand? To Google!

*Another short time later…*

Yes, I was right. (Although US immigration enquiries increased significantly after the 2016 presidential election. LOL.) So, the question is why does the US emergency number work in New Zealand? Why doesn’t it just go to the same recorded message as when you dial 999?

The answer seems to be simply the influence of the US media on New Zealanders. Too many Kiwis have been corrupted by American movies and TV shows. We hear 911 quoted way more than we hear 111 and, well, in an emergency our brains go to custard. Oops.

Of course, I’m including myself as a Kiwi in this, given what I said to my partner the other day.

So, folks, remember that the New Zealand emergency number is 999 – oh, f**king hell! I swear that was accidental and not a feeble attempt at making this article funny. 111. F**king 111. The New Zealand emergency number is 111.

Healthcare in New Zealand