The Craters of the Moon

The first time I saw the Craters of the Moon, I was crying. The hot, white, sulphurous fumes mingled with my tears, which made my face feel very strange indeed.

I was crying because I was tired, and because my family had just had an argument. I don’t remember what it was about. Perhaps my sister and I hadn’t wanted to visit any more tourist attractions. It was late and we were hungry, but here Dad was, dragging us around yet another site of supposed interest. I didn’t know or care what the place was. I was determined not to enjoy it.

The funny thing is, though, I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it so much I was eager to go back years later. I couldn’t even remember it properly, but I knew it was special.

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon are just outside Taupō, the last stop on the campervan trip I recently took with my partner. I simply had to see them again. If nothing else, I remembered the feel of walking amongst them. I’d stomped off alone, half-running along the boardwalk, and suddenly I was entranced by the mystical landscape around me. Such wonder made the anger I had for my parents seem insignificant. I was lost in the billowing fumes rising from the muddy craters.

The mud was an odd colour. In fact, the whole landscape was a bit off, as though someone had sat down to paint it, but hadn’t had the right pigments.

Craters of the Moon

My partner and I paid the entry fee – $8 each – and set off along the boardwalk. I could still feel the tears on my face: cool and fresh when the wind licked them; hot and tingly when the fumes did. Of course, I wasn’t crying this time. I was an adult and I had chosen to come. I just hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed; that I hadn’t built it up too much in my mind. (Or my partner’s.)

“It doesn’t look much like the moon,” he said.

He was right, of course. But it did, I thought, look like a Victorian artist’s rendering of the moon. Picture a cartoon featuring the adventures of an intrepid space missionary reaching out to the lunar inhabitants; perhaps planting a Union Flag atop one of the larger craters. Very steampunk.

Admittedly, it’s not one of the best geothermal attractions in New Zealand, but at $8, it’s worth checking out. You can spend an hour wandering around it – more if you allow yourself to become mesmerised by the craters. My partner and I didn’t have time, unfortunately, as we had to return our campervan. I could have gazed into a few of them for ages.

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Our Day in Taupō

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The majestic rock carving you see behind us is at the edge of Lake Taupō. It’s the face of Ngātoro-i-rangi, a semi-legendary priest who navigated a canoe to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the mythical Polynesian homeland.

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The romantic in you may fancy it ancient, but it was carved in the 1970s by one of the subject’s descendants. You can only see it from the water. The best way is to book yourself a kayak tour, but you can also catch a scenic cruise.

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

This is what we did. It was winter, okay? We went in a replica steamboat. They gave us complimentary wine and cocoa. It was the final full day of our North Island campervan trip. We’d camped for free on the shore of the lake, and so had woken up to this:

Lake Taupo

After wandering through a market that just happened to be on, we headed to the information centre to plan our day. The town of Taupō itself isn’t very impressive, but the range of activities you can do around it truly is.

Huka Falls Jet Boat

Though we ended up going for the more sedate options – the aforementioned cruise and, later, a twilight soak in a geothermal spring – we could have taken a jet boat ride to a volcanic wonderland, or gone white water rafting, bungy jumping or even skydiving!

Huka Falls

With little time left to us between the Māori Rock Carvings and the hot pools, we became Taupō tourist clichés and visited Huka Falls. We’d both been before. They’re so visited because they’re incredibly powerful, a god-like stampede of water forced between narrow banks.

Huka Falls

You can go right up to Huka Falls in a jet boat. Tim did it with his family when he was a kid. (My family did one of the other jet boat rides when I was a kid.) We watched a jet boat spinning around like one of those ground bloom flower fireworks before heading off.

Huka Falls Jet Boat

There was something else I was determined to do before we left Taupō, something I remembered doing as a kid. It was awesome, but I’ll have to leave it for my next post. In the meantime, here’s a cool picture you can share on Pinterest:

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The Mists of Tongariro National Park

Taranaki Falls

What rotten luck: we arrive at one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and it’s shrouded in mist! The dramatic vista of snow-capped volcanoes is simply non-existent, the landscape smothered by a heavy, white silence.

Tongariro National ParkWe should have expected it, I know, embarking upon a campervan trip in winter. On with the anoraks it is. Now we’re here, we can still walk to Taranaki Falls – the backdrop just won’t be quite as impressive. Fortunately, the backdrop turns out to be impressive in its own way. The mist makes me think of Celtic fairy tales. It’s moody in a good way. As we stroll through it, the clouds let through a single beam of late afternoon sunlight, which gilds it briefly. But still no volcanoes.

Tongariro National ParkThe Taranaki Falls Walk is a two-hour loop track starting and ending in Whakapapa Village. Follow the road that branches off from the main road, behind the Chateau Tongariro. It’s one of the best – and easiest – walks in Tongariro National Park, perfect if you’d rather not commit a full day to the Tongariro Crossing. There are steep bits, but the views are worth it. Or, at least, they usually are.

The first half (or second, depending on which way you walk the loop) follows a stream through a forest. After that there’s a bit of a climb up to the falls. Presumably, when it’s not raining, it would be a lovely place to stop for sandwiches. The path continues to climb to the top of the falls. The view’s as blank and white as the pages of a new notebook. At least my partner looks rather cool standing at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted against the mist.

As we walk back towards Whakapapa Village, I feel like I’m in a nineties computer game in which the landscape hasn’t loaded properly. There’s nothing beyond the path, which could go on forever for all I know. It’s only an hour back to the village, but it feels much longer. We just have to keep walking and hope for the best.

Tongariro National ParkHalfway back, the rain starts to bucket down. I have an umbrella in my pack, but my partner doesn’t (and the fact that he’s nearly a foot and a half taller than me prevents us effectively sharing.) The rain’s so dense it renders his glasses useless. Imagine that, being unable to see anything beyond path and even that’s a blur! I’ve never been so relieved to see a DOC sign as it materialises out of the mist. We’ve made it! The world is real!

The next morning, as we’re about to drive away from Tongariro National Park, the cloud lifts and the snow-capped volcanoes shine in all their glory. Bloody typical.

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

Join us next week as we move on to the Art Deco decadence of Napier!

High Tea at the Chateau Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is home to the most stunning scenery in New Zealand’s North Island. It contains three major volcanoes, Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, which, come winter, are adorned with snow. Nestled at the foot of Ruapehu is a gorgeous 1920s hotel, the Chateau Tongariro. From the outside, it looks almost like a cake with delicate layers of sponge, pastel blue, pink and yellow. On the inside, it’s all red velvet and golden chandeliers, far too opulent for the likes of us, peering sheepishly around in our damp anoraks and hiking boots.

Chateau Tongariro

Like many tourists before us, we gaze longingly at the menu of the Ruapehu Room before deciding it’s too expensive. Besides, they won’t let us pass beyond the ornate panes of glass with their gilded letters dressed as we are. We opt instead for High Tea overlooking Ngauruhoe, a friendly alternative for the riffraff, it seems. We book a table for the next day when, hopefully, the weather will be better. So far, the national park has been entirely shrouded in white, which, while pretty in its own way, rather defeats the purpose of coming here.

High Tea

The next day arrives and we are seated directly in front of the grand Ngauruhoe Window. And we can’t see a bloody thing. This is what Ngauruhoe is supposed to look like:

Ngauruhoe

This is what we see:

Despite the weather, I’m very happy with our High Tea. It is, in fact, the best High Tea I have ever had. Firstly, the tea selection is divine. I can barely decide what to have and when it arrives, it’s with a couple of absolutely beautiful cups. By coincidence, I’m wearing a top with a similar pattern to my cup! My partner can’t resist taking a photo:

High Tea Chateau Tongariro

The food component of the High Tea is presented wonderfully. Each one of the miniature sandwiches is a taste sensation – fresh salmon, chicken and truffle pâté, etc. – and the morsels of sweets look too good to eat. There’s even a couple of tiny cups containing green tea crème brûlée. I’m in my element. Even the consistency of the miniature scones is perfect.

High Tea

When I’ve finished eating, I have a snoop around every corner of the lounge. There’s a billiards table and piano; a cosy fireplace and a bookcase. I want nothing more than to curl up with my Alan Bennett book and an endless supply of that posh tea, but I can’t. We’ve got a walk to do. Not the famous Tongariro Crossing, as it’s a tad dangerous to do in winter and, besides, it’d be a waste to do it without the views. Instead, we’re heading out to Taranaki Falls.

Chateau Tongariro

Wish us luck.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge

A natural bridge… Sounds cool, right? We thought so, which is why we went to see the Mangapohue Natural Bridge before leaving Waitomo.

The weather was lovely. Considering the especially rainy winter we’d had, we counted ourselves lucky. You might well ask why we’d decided to take a trip at that time of year. Simply, campervans are lot cheaper to hire in winter. It also makes for an easier trip, as you don’t have to worry about booking anything in advance, and a more peaceful trip, as you get beauty spots and sometimes entire campsites to yourself.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge was one such beauty spot. We began the twenty-minute walk with little idea what to expect. The path was gentle, leading us over a manmade bridge into a modest gorge. It continued as a boardwalk overhanging a stream. I remember the light being particularly pleasant: sunbeams had draped themselves amongst the branches above us like gauzy scarves.

As we made our way along the stream, a strange feeling started tingling inside me. “I’ve been here before,” I said. “With my parents.”

Then, as soon as the natural bridge came into view, I knew it. I didn’t remember being there as such, but I recognised the view from one of my own photographs! (I’d even used the photograph before on this blog!) How I managed to forget the sight of it, I’ll never know, because it was magnificent.

Straddling the stream was an enormous limestone archway, complete with scraggly stalactites.

From a certain angle, part of it seemed shaped like an old-fashioned lock, which gave me serious Alice in Wonderland vibes. Sunlight peered into the archway, jostling with a group of cabbage trees for a view.

We ascended a flight of steps curving up to a wooden platform, where we stayed for some time. It was a location straight from a fantasy novel, one of the more subdued scenes where the heroes stop to rest and the young would-be lovers sneak away for a moment, only to be interrupted by another party member as it’s too early in the narrative for them to kiss. If there had been any trolls under this bridge, they would have been friendly ones.

The rest of the walk wasn’t quite as epic, but that hardly mattered after we’d seen. As something free to do in Waitomo, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge is something you should definitely experience, along with the magical Ruakuri Walk.

When we got back to our campervan, it was time to get going to Tongariro National Park. We stopped for lunch in Taumarunui, a mostly dull town with a few quirky touches, such as this ornamental shop front…

We also popped into an antiques shop – because I can’t walk past an antiques shop – that turned out to be owned by a fellow British immigrant. We got talking, and even though she wasn’t a northerner, my accent started mimicking hers, getting stronger and stronger until we left the shop. Any other immigrants notice their accents doing that?

By the time we reached Tongariro National Park, it was almost sunset. We checked into what turned out to be an excellent campground, Plateau Lodge, in National Park Village, before driving into Whakapapa Village and up the side of Mount Ruapehu, a snow-covered volcano that’s popular with skiers. We didn’t enter the ski resort: we just wanted to catch some sweet views before bed. Which we did.

If you’re interested in hiring a campervan like this, by the way, visit www.wendekreisen.co.nz – that model’s also for sale, newly built, at Campervan Sales.

Anyway, cheers for visiting and make sure you pop by next week. I’ll be posting an article about what we got up to in Tongariro National Park, more specifically, High Tea at the Chateau!

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!

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