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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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!

Cute Animals and Hay Fever

Ducklings

“That’s how we know it’s spring,” Tim said as I tried not to sneeze on a duckling. “Cute animals and hay fever.”

I backed away, drawing out one of my carefully rationed tissues. Pollen filled the air like fairy dust, glistening as it swirled around the trees at the Taitua Arboretum. To be fair it wasn’t just hay fever – I was (and still am) fighting off a bad cold.

We were at the arboretum because my parents were visiting. We’d been before, but until now we’d never seen it bathed in sunlight. It was a little bit magical.

arboretum

Fluffy, yellow chicks flurried about in the undergrowth. (We couldn’t believe how many chickens there were, actually!) Fantails flitted coquettishly along the branches. Tui serenaded us from above, ducklings begged us for food, and geese drifted towards us. (Tim has a history with geese; perhaps they sensed this as they drifted away again quite quickly.)

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I felt like a mucus-laden Disney princess. We even found fairy doors on a couple of tree trunks.

doorintrunk

The most magical sight, however, was this.

sunonwater

The photograph doesn’t really capture it, of course: the golden beams of sunlight filtering through the branches; the branches bowing to kiss the surface of the pond; floating leaves forming an illuminated path to the far bank, upon which sits a bench in a sheltered clearing… All rather inviting.

stonecircle

The Taitua Arboretum is a lovely, peaceful place to go for a walk that I imagine would be great for kids. I look forward to visiting it next season. Hopefully I’ll be able to breathe properly then!

Another Reason to Visit Hamilton

Sumatran Tiger Hamilton Zoo New Zealand
Brown Capuchin Monkey Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Brown Capuchin Monkeys

Hamilton Zoo is a lot more than it first appears. It may not be as grand as Auckland Zoo, but it is certainly as good. Many say better. I went with my parents and boyfriend last weekend, and we found it more pleasant to walk around than Auckland Zoo. More intimate; more trees shading the paths.

Chimpanzee Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Chimpanzee

Auckland Zoo has more animals than Hamilton Zoo, but Hamilton Zoo is almost twice as large as Auckland Zoo in terms of land area. In fact it feels deceptively large. Entry into Hamilton Zoo costs $22, which is an absolute bargain, and it’s wonderful to see the animals in such massive enclosures.

Sumatran Tigers Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Sumatran Tigers – aww!

The Sumatran tiger exhibit was especially impressive. When we arrived, three of the tigers were sleeping all snuggled up together. It was a mother and two cubs, although the cubs were a year old and didn’t look like babies anymore! I spent a long time ‘awwing’ at them, but was soon reminded that tigers aren’t always so cute.

Ostrich Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Ostrich

One of the other tigers looked like it was actually trying to stalk the keepers that had come to feed them! The keepers were safe on the other side of the fence, of course, but it was only a few months ago that one of the Hamilton Zoo keepers was mauled to death by one of the tigers.

Cheetah Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Cheetah

Thankfully, the tiger in question wasn’t euthanized. It was just being a tiger.

Hamilton Zoo doesn’t have any lions, but it does have some rather majestic cheetahs.

Giraffes Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Giraffes

It also has giraffes, rhinos, monkeys, meerkats, red pandas, chimpanzees and an array of other creatures, including native New Zealand birds and reptiles.

Hamilton Zoo has the largest free flight aviary in New Zealand, complete with pond and waterfall.

The meerkats were adorable. One of them seemed intent on digging a tunnel to Spain, (Spain being the antipode of New Zealand,) and was already well on its way.

Meerkat Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Meerkat

The giraffes were spectacular, but their limelight was stolen by the rutting blackbucks that shared their enclosure, almost beneath their notice.

Rutting Blackbucks Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Blackbucks

The kea were amusing – as if one could expect anything else. They are, after all, New Zealand’s funniest birds. One of them was playing dead right next to the fence. Very convincing. It even had a wing cocked at an odd angle!

Kea Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Kea

And no, it wasn’t actually dead. It realised we were onto it and shook its head in annoyance. Apparently, it pretends to be dead a lot. Maybe it’s part of an elaborate escape plan.

All in all, we were walking around the zoo for three hours. We needed all day, really. We only just got round everything before the place closed, and we could have spent so much longer with many of the animals. I definitely want to go again at some point.

The gift shop and the café are nothing special, but there’s a playground and some okay picnic areas. The main focus is on the animals, which is as it should be.

Sleeping Peacock Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Peacock

The Problem with Possums

Welcome to New Zealand, where killing small, furry animals is a sign of patriotism! Especially possums. Possums are evil, habitat-destroying, bird-eating, Australian bastards. If you see a possum on the road, you run the little f***er over. If you see one in the bush, you get your gun and you turn it into nipple warmers.

Possum fur nipple warmers are a big thing in New Zealand. They’re in all the souvenir shops, along with possum fur scarves and gloves and the like. My little sister bought a cuddly possum made with real possum fur. (Not just a stuffed possum – that would be creepy, even for her.) She used to love stroking it.

Possum fur is unbelievably soft. I had a friend who’d go out hunting possums with his dad, and they used to get quite a bit of money from the fur. The trick, he told me, was to pull it all off whilst the body was still warm. They’d get bags of it. He asked me if I wanted to come along once. I declined. Not that I’m against hunting possums. If there’s such a thing as ethical fur, it’s possum fur.

possum-246778_640Possums really are a menace to New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Some European idiots brought them over from Australia in 1837, to establish a fur trade, and they quickly multiplied at the expense of the existing creatures. Not only do they eat the leaves, buds, fruit and bark of trees, decimating canopies and depriving endangered birds of food, they eat the eggs and chicks of those birds too.

New Zealand’s native birds evolved in an environment devoid of mammals. (The only native New Zealand land mammals are bats.) The introduction of possums and other mammals such as rats, stoats, dogs and cats was something they simply weren’t equipped to deal with. Possums have been seen actually flushing kiwi birds out of their burrows in order to feast on the contents of their nests.

It’s no wonder they’re so hated. In New Zealand, small, furry animals are bad; small, feathery animals are good. Still, the national enthusiasm for running possums over is one of the things that shocked me when I first arrived here, aged ten. I remember shaking my head, incredulous at the sheer number of flattened possums on the road into our town. People actually swerve to hit them.

possum

The flattened possum with a tyre track across it is one of the many symbols of New Zealand. I have met one Kiwi, though, who couldn’t understand the possum-hate. (I’m talking about the human inhabitants of New Zealand now, not the iconic birds.) She was an old cat lady, only one of her cats… wasn’t a cat.

Now she was a lovely lady, and I fully walked into the conversation about all the cats she’d ever owned, having fully accepted the fact that I am, myself, a crazy cat lady and destined to die surrounded by them. I don’t think I’ll ever cover my entire lounge in pictures of them, however. I don’t think I’ll ever have cat cushions and cat throws and cat tea trays. It was like a cat cyclone!

The walls and mantelpiece were covered in pictures of long-dead cats and, as I sat stroking a live one, I noticed that one of the pictures was different. I had to ask her if it was real. Oh yes, she said, it was real. It had even appeared in the local paper back in – I think – the 1970’s. I asked if I could take a photo of the photo. She was happy to let me and this is that photo:

Pet Possum

Just in case you don’t believe your eyes, that is a possum sitting in a highchair with a bib around its neck, eating its food from a bowl with a spoon like a human. She trained it to do that. It would sit on the couch like a human, too, when it wasn’t curled up on her lap like a cat. They make fantastic pets, she told me. She simply couldn’t see why people wanted to kill them.

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the details of the story, (I know – I should have written it down at the time!) but there’s one detail I’ll remember ’til I die: she castrated the possum herself. She sat him down on her lap, lulled him into a false sense of security and snap went the rubber band. At first he was too shocked to do anything, but then he began to shake and whimper.

I laughed in sympathy as the old woman did her impression of the traumatised possum. I wish I could do it for you now. Apparently, he didn’t run away; just sat there shaking and whimpering for a very long time. Imagine the awful, confused sense of betrayal he must have felt! He was completely fine afterwards, though.

I googled “pet possum New Zealand” earlier, but couldn’t find any trace of this woman’s story – it must be too old. Most of the results seemed to be along the lines of using possums as pet food. I did find this cute story, though: http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/its-possible-to-love-a-possum-2015052518#axzz3mLKGmyXD… and this, uh, not so cute one:

I don’t know – is getting a load of children to dress up a series of dead possums really that bad? Is it any worse than turning them into pet food, nipple warmers and cuddly toy versions of themselves? Possums have been demonised in New Zealand, but for good reason. They’re not just pests; they threaten the very survival of what makes New Zealand environmentally unique.

Yet it’s not their fault.

Read: Fantastic New Zealand Beasts and Where to Find Them

Another British Immigrant’s View of New Zealand – A Guest Post by Kathryn Hodgson

My first experience of Kiwi-isms was when I was listening to our sat nav during a cold English winter journey in the pouring rain and we set it to a New Zealand male voice. The sat nav voice piped up enthusiastically with:

‘Grab your jandles!’

‘Turn around and let’s head for a mean steak and cheese pie!’

Both of which had us falling about in fits of laughter as we drove along the M5 motorway and wondered what on earth jandles were and why ur Sat Nav companion was so obsessed with cheese and steak pies –did they eat that in New Zealand and did they wear jandles at the same time? Those questions alone were reason enough to spend six months touring New Zealand to find out the answers. We intended to travel both islands for six months as part of a 12 month world charitable speaking tour, which is ongoing as I type and is in aid of our shark conservation cause Friends for Sharks. The mystery of jandles was what really sold us on this incredible destination though. Honest.

KathrynHodgsonPicton

No sooner had we arrived in Christchurch to a dry and crisp autumn (which is of course hotter than an English summer) than we leapt upon the first Kiwi we could find and asked them about jandles and pies. Both of which are apparently a firm part of Kiwi culture. Many a day has passed since when we have been on the road and spotted a steak and cheese pie sign but we’ve still yet to give it a try. I remain unconvinced that cheese belongs in a pie when it can be layered upon tasty crackers. Talking of cheese, one of our main excitements when we visited our first supermarket in Christchurch had to be that in New Zealand the blocks of standard cheese are HUGE, affordable and much tastier than Tesco’s value cheese blocks – the English equivalent. I say that as someone from England who has a major love affair with cheese and lived in Shropshire….the home of Shropshire Blue. Admittedly I miss Stilton and a good Wensleydale but the Kiwis make mighty fine blocks of cheese that freeze well in a campervan and are very good at propping doors open. The people of New Zealand do dairy and boy do they do it well.

KathrynHodgsonCampervan1

The variety of fresh fruit and vegetable is also staggering and our time in sunny Nelson and Motueka was spent gorging on pears, apples, grapefruit that tasted of sunshine and a local fruit named feijoas. Feijoas are a small green fruit that are highly perfumed and taste like a cross between rose Turkish delight and parma violet sweets. They are absolutely beautiful and vital for a campervan that smells of fruit and perfume rather than two people that have lived in said campervan for months on end.  We adore touring in our Wendekreisen Travel Ltd campervan, it is incredibly well-stocked and designed and provides a cosy and reliable base for our adventures. The storage space is ideal for our giant blocks of cheese, feijoas, the occasional bottle of sulphur-free wine from Marlborough and, of course, our jandles.

KathrynHodgsonCampervan2

It still makes me smile that we have come to the other side of the world, immersed ourselves in the local way of life and yet the things that have struck a chord with me are the dairy products and amusing language differences. We have seen the most mind-blowingly spectacular scenery at every bend in the road, shouted ‘view!’ more times than I can remember and it is still the small moments of Kiwi life that have stayed with us on our journey. I have travelled the globe and lived in various countries, including South Africa and Egypt, and yet the people of New Zealand are by far the most open-hearted and friendly people I have ever encountered. We have been invited into numerous homes for dinner and the chance to sleep in a ‘real bed’ for a night after our public speaking events and it is the norm here to put up travellers as they pass through. We have been given gifts of local Southland cheese, Maori artwork, donations for our cause, exquisite teas, local real ales and abundant friendship. We have discovered the laid back nature of New Zealanders throughout both islands and there is a solid sense of community that I have yet to experience anywhere else.

KathrynHodgsonUsAtTheTop

As for the sense of space, it is truly endless. We have already driven 80% of the roads of the South Island and are making our way through the North Island for the next two months. In all of our travelling, we have barely seen another soul on the roads and have enjoyed the companionship of rolling hills, rainforests, beaches, mountains, gushing rivers and more. The scenery changes constantly. It was quite the shock to the system when we arrived in Wellington and were greeted with three lanes of traffic. Even that was quiet in comparison to England and other countries though. New Zealand has space, wildlife and peace in abundance and the locals are proud of their heritage – quite rightly so. It is magnificent.

KathrynHodgsonPukaki

With all of that in mind it didn’t take us long to apply for residency and we hope to make this country our permanent home in 2016. Fingers crossed, as I don’t think I want to give up the giant blocks of cheese.

 

Kathryn HodgsonKathrynHodgson (1979) was born in England and spent her childhood exploring the rugged beauty of Cornwall. Kathryn pursued her love of nature as an adult and created a successful career within environmental enforcement in England and then as a scuba diving instructor in Egypt and Great White Shark wildlife guide in South Africa. She is co-founder of the marine conservation cause Friends for Sharks, author of the inspiring memoir No Damage (December 2014) and lover of life, laughter and adventures. She can currently be found touring the world in aid of shark conservation and raising money for The Shark Trust and Project AWARE.

KathrynHodgsonNoDamage

Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.

AratakiVisitorCentre01

The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)

AratakiVisitorCentre05

Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.

AratakiVisitorCentre03

The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.

AratakiVisitorCentre02

I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.

AratakiVisitorCentre07

As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.

AratakiVisitorCentre12

The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.

AratakiVisitorCentre09

If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.

AratakiVisitorCentre13

In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?

AratakiVisitorCentre08

The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.