The Magic of Waitomo Caves

Growing up in Britain, I visited some pretty magical places – the Lake District, Tintagel, Lindisfarne – but there’s one place in New Zealand that out-magics them all: Waitomo Caves.

Waitomo’s in the Waikato Region, south of Auckland. It didn’t look too exciting when we were driving up to it in our NZ campervan hire – just a lot of moist, green farmland, not dissimilar to views you get driving elsewhere in the North Island – and Waitomo Village isn’t that interesting either, being so small. There is, however, an old hotel on a hill.

As is the rule with old hotels on hills, Waitomo Caves Hotel is said to be haunted. Funny thing is, my house in England was far older – in New Zealand, ‘some parts of it are nearly a hundred years old’ is considered impressive. No. What’s impressive about Waitomo is the geology.

One of Waitomo's wonderful surface rock formations

One of Waitomo’s wonderful surface rock formations

I suppose the Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is worth a mention. There’s an i-SITE in practically every town in New Zealand, but this one is quite good. It has a nice shop, and there’s a sort of museum dedicated to the caves. In this museum, if I remember correctly, there’s a pretend rock tunnel you can crawl through and, let me tell you, it freaked me out no end.

I used the word ‘crawl’ incorrectly. You have to pull your way through on your belly, just like those extreme cavers, and, even though this model cave was quite short, about halfway through I got scared I was stuck. My head started to spin and my heart was suddenly taking up so much room in my chest I couldn’t breathe properly. Plus, someone had stuck some chewing gum to the wall, which wasn’t nice.

Anyway, I got out eventually, but let’s just say that cave crawling isn’t for me. And the caves where you have to do that but underwater, not knowing when you’ll next be able to breathe – that’s the stuff of nightmares.

Waitomo 7

Inside the mouth of a cave

Luckily, most of the guided tours through various sections of the Waitomo cave system don’t require any crawling. The only safety equipment you need is a hardhat, a head torch and covered shoes (and a jumper, unless you’re from somewhere like Newcastle.)

You can do the extreme stuff as well. There’s even an adventure attraction where you can go rafting on a rubber ring down an underground river.

Waitomo 5The caves are beautiful – not quite ‘magical,’ I haven’t got to that part yet, but they have a certain otherworldliness to them. There’s something in the cool, damp air. Your breath is hushed. You can hear a powerful waterfall somewhere behind the rock, but the echoing makes it impossible to tell exactly where. The torchlight gives eerie illumination to the stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites, over thousands of years, have formed fascinating structures that ripple like cloaks. They sparkle with minerals and moisture.You want to touch them – to stroke them – but it’s forbidden. You just have too look on in awe. And pay attention so you don’t bang your head.

In one of the caves, you can see the skeleton of a moa that fell through a hole in the forest floor to its death centuries ago, complete with the gizzard stones it had swallowed.

Waitomo 4

I remember wondering if it broke its neck in the fall, or if it wandered around in the darkness, unable to find a way out, and starved to death.

The opportunity to see the bones of an extinct animal – not in a museum, but in the place where the creature fell – is fairly awesome, but what makes Waitomo magical is the glowworms.

Something you absolutely have to do if you come for a holiday in New Zealand is go on a Waitomo glowworm tour by boat. It. Is. AMAZING.

You’re taken into a cave, down into a tunnel that has a gentle river flowing through it, and helped onto a boat. You are told to be very, very quiet and to take no flash photos. Then the lights go out.

The boat floats away from the side and into the blackness. For a while, all that accompanies you is the breathing of the tourists in the boat, and the soft sloshing of the water. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Above you, and reflected perfectly in the water below you, are thousands of blue stars. You feel as though you are drifting in space, but you suddenly realise that you can’t be: you are merely in an enclosed passageway that feels as big as the universe. It’s unreal – dreamlike.

Each one of those blue lights is a glowworm. You have to be quiet not just to add to the atmosphere, but so you don’t scare them. If they feel threatened, their lights go out.

Seriously, that place was like Lothlorien. I felt my heart swell just being there. It was so inspiring, and I know I have to go there again before I die.

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Waitomo Caves are consistently rated among the top tourist attractions in New Zealand and I completely agree. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the world!

Walking in Waitomo

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Going Bush

When I was a kid, back in Britain, we used to visit Sherwood Forest.

Yes, Sherwood Forest – the remnants of Robin Hood’s mystical domain – a symbol of romantic, English woodland.

Except it wasn’t that great.

There are nicer examples of English woodland, though patches of green seem few and far between in England, especially now: now I know New Zealand and its native bush.

It’s often said that New Zealand is green. This, of course, refers to its environmentally friendly image, but it may as well mean its landscape. There is a LOT of green. New Zealand simply has more unspoilt countryside, more patches of green to choose from than England.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the English woodland. I get nostalgic for those grand, druid-worthy oak trees, cushioned by carpets of bluebells and snowdrops. But the New Zealand bush is something else.

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A view of the bush from inside a cave, Waitomo

The first thing you notice is the tree ferns. In Britain, ferns tend to be low-lying and rather unimpressive. In New Zealand, ferns grow tall everywhere, lining the roads and forest paths, delicate fronds lolling above people’s heads, filtering the sunlight. Some of the fronds are huge – my first few months in New Zealand, I kept expecting to see dinosaurs emerging from the foliage!

If you’re lucky, while you’re walking in the bush you’ll spot a fuzzy, brown coil protruding from the trees, a frond on the verge of unfurling. This is a koru, a Maori symbol of new life. When I arrived in New Zealand, having just stumbled exhausted and terrified off the plane, my dad gave me a koru necklace. I can’t say it made me feel any better at the time, but it was a nice thought.

Tree ferns are so abundant in New Zealand that the ‘silver fern’ is recognisable the world over as the emblem of the All Blacks rugby team. The Maori name for the silver fern tree is ponga, and the undersides of the fronds are, indeed, silver. So striking are they that these fronds can be placed belly up on the murky forest floor to create a gleaming arrow, a beacon to guide the way.

When I returned to New Zealand after going back to England for a few weeks, the sight of tree ferns at the side of the motorway when my dad picked me up from the airport evoked a strong ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling within me – I was definitely back in New Zealand.

Ferns may be the most conspicuous of New Zealand’s native trees, but they aren’t the prettiest. That distinction, I think, has to go to the Pohutukawa tree.

Pohutukawa in bloom

Pohutukawa in bloom

They’re known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree, not only because they bloom around Christmastime – they bloom in a festive explosion of deep, beautiful red. The vision of bejewelled Pohutukawas gathered upon the edge of the golden sand, facing the gleaming waves, is the epitome of the New Zealand summer.

When you ‘go bush’ in New Zealand, you encounter many strange trees, and many more familiar ones, but what truly sets it apart from the English woodland is the atmosphere. It’s temperate rainforest. The air is hushed and humid. Well, hushed when there aren’t any cicadas around. When there are cicadas, it’s a never-ending cacophony of shrill, grating chirps. If crickets are violinists, cicadas are thrash metal guitarists.

A tui

A tui

Thankfully, cicadas aren’t the only creatures that serenade the trees. The tui, for example, is a native New Zealand bird that has to have one of the loveliest songs in the avian world. The males are a treat to look at too, with black feathers that shine with metallic purples and greens, their throats adorned with brilliant, white baubles.

There are endless places you can go bush walking in New Zealand, and most have campgrounds attached to them. Camping is an excellent way to experience the New Zealand bush, as you can base yourself somewhere and relax surrounded by nature, rather than driving ages to get there, walking for a few hours, then driving back. I think campervans beat tents in this situation, because you can have a shower when you finish your walk!

There are strict rules surrounding camping in New Zealand. This isn’t a bad thing, seeing as we don’t want these peaceful, picturesque sites to be ruined, but it does mean that you have to make sure you’re doing things right. There’s plenty of information about New Zealand camping out there and it’s well worth a read.

My absolute favourite place to go bush walking is Karangahake Gorge. Not only is it a breathtaking piece of nature, with its dramatic rock walls, carved by a large, winding river, it is a fascinating piece of history. The paths cross abandoned railway tracks, and tunnels delve into the rock, dark and frightening – seriously, I got scared going too far into one. It’s exciting to come out of a tunnel into daylight and suddenly find yourself looking down at the river far below. You can walk along the side of the river as well and even swim in it in places. There’s a pool with a waterfall and a cave you can climb into – an awesome place to have your lunch.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Another great place to bush walk is Waitomo, which is where most of the photos in this post come from. However, bush walking is probably the least amazing thing you can do in Waitomo – I’ll post about that another time!

And finally, as the location of my first ever bush walk in New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges get an honourable mention as a brilliant bush walking destination, but, as I don’t have any photos of it, (I was only ten and didn’t have my own camera yet,) here’s another picture of Waitomo:

I always imagine fairies here.

I always imagine fairies here.

So is the New Zealand bush better than the English woodland? Well there’s more of it, and it doesn’t rain every time you go for a walk in it. And there’s exotic birds and weird trees. But the English woodland can be just as beautiful as the New Zealand bush; just as magical. For me – and, of course, I’m terribly biased – the bush simply isn’t as romantic the woodland. It is, however, wonderfully exciting.

I suppose you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

My Top 10 North Island Day Walks

Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!

Maori Proverb

Korubrighter

A koru I found while walking in the bush

One of the most important, fundamental differences between England and New Zealand is one that is often overlooked when juxtaposed with the landscape, wildlife and weather: it is the people.

The people of New Zealand are called kiwis. This can cause a certain amount of confusion among tourists, as there are two other distinct entities in New Zealand that also bear the name kiwi:

1)      The endangered, native bird that is a symbol of New Zealand, the equivalent of Australia’s kangaroo.

2)      The fuzzy, green fruit also known as the Chinese gooseberry, the growing of which is an important industry in New Zealand.

Despite this, kiwis (the people) are in no way confused about their identity. They are a proud nation of do-it-yourselfers, tough and laidback at the same time. They embody the spirit of adventure – a relic, I suspect, from the colonial days of old, when you had to both help and accept help from your neighbours to survive. Above all, it is their attitude – their niceness – that sets them apart from their distant cousins in Mother England.

To illustrate just how different New Zealanders are from the English, I’d like to tell you a story, something of my personal journey since immigrating to New Zealand at the age of ten. You see, I was first awakened to how different kiwis are on my first day of school here. As usually happens when a new kid shows up in class, the teacher introduced me by getting me to stand up in front of everyone.

“This is Abigail. She’s from England. Abigail, why don’t you tell us a bit about what England’s like?”

So, shaking under the scrutiny of thirty pairs of eyes, I tried desperately to think – what was England like? For me, it was just normal, a more overcast version of New Zealand. It was August at the time this was happening; I’d just taken a plane ride from the middle of summer to the middle of winter, but the weather hadn’t changed. It was hot in New Zealand. Well, not hot for New Zealand, but hot to me. I was sweating, yet somehow frozen. My throat was stuck.

“I know,” the teacher said, gently. “How about the class asks you questions – would that be easier? Does anyone have a question about England?”

Of course, I don’t remember everything they asked me, but how could I forget these four questions:

 “Is there grass in England?”

 “Do you speak English in England?”

 “Do you have a butler?”

 “Have you met the Queen?”

I had come to a country of morons.

I suppose they were only ten, and New Zealand is rather cut off from the rest of the world. Some of them must have only seen England on the news, or in American cartoons. They must have thought my home country consisted of the brown and grey streets of London stretching from coast to coast, populated purely by toffs… Not that they were familiar with the word toff. I’d grown up physically and culturally so far away from the world they thought I’d come from! They all thought I was posh, not realising how ridiculous the idea was, or quite how much it offended my Northern, working-class roots.

Me

A younger me looking not quite at home in the New Zealand bush

I soon found that what kiwis lack in general knowledge, they make up for in moxy.

The first break time of the day, or, as kiwis call it, morning tea, arrived. When I’d entered the classroom, I’d seen that most of the other kids had bare feet, which I’d thought was strange, but maybe it was the custom to remove shoes inside wherever you were, so I’d taken my sandals off, leaving my socks on. Now I hurriedly put my shoes back on, realising as I did that no one else was. They were actually going outside in bare feet!

You see, kiwi feet are like hobbit feet – though in most cases less hairy – with thick, rubbery soles. My classmates were not just walking across grass and smooth concrete, but across gravel and bark chippings! One of them had a bit of broken glass stuck in the ball of their foot and, when I asked if they were all right, they responded, “Yeah, it’s been in there a while.”

After a few days, some of my classmates coaxed me into taking my shoes and socks off outside. They ended up having to carry me, as my soles were as delicate as a baby’s bottom. They haven’t improved much in the last eleven years.

Another thing I discovered during those first few days of school is how confusing the kiwi accent is. My classmates decided to play a game of hide-and-seek, but, as I wasn’t yet familiar with the layout of the school, one girl offered to team up and hide with me.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go and get on the dick.”

I blinked. “On the what?”

“The dick.”

I looked around, bewildered.

“That dick over there.”

She was pointing, but I still couldn’t see what she meant.

“The big dick! The big, brown dick!”

My mind reeled.

“All that wood! It’s right in front of us, by the school hall.”

And before the unintended puns could get any worse, I clicked. “Oh, you mean the deck.”

Skimming Stones

Two friends, one a kiwi and one a British immigrant like me, skimming stones on the shore

I got used to the accent fairly quickly, and could soon tell it apart from the Australian accent, something you need to learn fast if you want to survive in New Zealand. Kiwis are very touchy when it comes to Australians, like us Brits with the French, I suppose. Except Brits are nothing like the French, whereas Australians and New Zealanders are practically the same people. ***Ducks a volley of ANZAC biscuits*** (ANZAC biscuits are what the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were given as rations in the First World War, and it was said they were so hard it was better to lob them at the enemy than eat them.)

My nana, who now lives in New Zealand with us, once met a kiwi on the London Underground. By this point, she’d visited us enough times to recognise the person’s accent, and the person was so grateful that Nana hadn’t assumed they were Australian!

Speaking of the London Underground, let me fast forward my story a few years. I was now seventeen years old, in my final year of high school, (or college, as kiwis call it,) and my drama class was going on a very expensive field trip to England, to perform a show at a performing arts school in Devon, to watch a few musicals at the West End, and to take in the sights. I hadn’t been back to England since leaving it seven years previously, and I’d got used to how safe New Zealand is – you don’t have to be paranoid about locking things or walking through parks on your own at night. Well, in most places, anyway.

After travelling around the southwest of England and encountering mysterious, new wonders like squirrels and stinging nettles, my kiwi classmates and I made it to London. We were on a tube train, packed in like sardines in the middle of this sweltering, July rush-hour, when the train stopped and a dry announcement came on:

“We apologise for the delay, as a body is being removed from the line.”

Immediately, the kiwis began to freak out. The Londoners, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eyelid; they remained engrossed in their newspapers, or the Underground map opposite them. There were so many pairs of eyes around, but none of them would move in case – horror of horrors – they ended up crossing paths with another pair. I had been living in New Zealand long enough to find this unsettling.

Then, when the train got going again, the motion sent me stumbling into a middle-aged woman.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.

“WATCH IT!” she growled, turning her back on me.

That moment shocked me. A kiwi would never do that. They’d smile at you and say, “That’s all right.”

I needed reassurance. I needed some kindness. I tried to catch someone’s eye and smile. They weren’t having it. I realised I’d changed. In this aspect, at least, I’d become a New Zealander.

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

I used to be like those Brits on the tube. Cold, isolated, mistrusting of every stranger I met. I remember when I was a child – quite a young child, like four or five – my family and I were walking over a hill in the Lake District. Whenever we walked past fellow hikers coming in the opposite direction, my dad would greet them, and they’d politely say something back. I didn’t understand.

“Why did you talk to them, Dad? You don’t know them!”

Dad explained that there was an unspoken truce amongst mountaineers. Everyone on the mountain was your friend. I found it very strange and quite uncomfortable. Then we moved to New Zealand and it turned out that kiwis are like that with everyone they pass on the street. It’s just nice. If you drop your shopping, you know that someone will stop to help you pick it up, and they won’t nick it. If you’re waiting for a bus, people will ask you how your day’s been. I’ve noticed it is changing in the busy centre of Auckland city, which is unfortunate, but in general it’s far nicer to step out of your front door in New Zealand than it is in England.

Maybe kiwis are so nice because there are so few of them. They aren’t elbowing each other out of the way to get to where they need to be. The population only exceeded the four million mark a few years ago, and the landmass of the country is larger than the whole of Great Britain, which has a population of sixty-something million. When my family was travelling around the South Island in a campervan, we kept bumping into people we knew from the North Island, on holiday just like us.

Kiwis are generally outdoorsy-types: they like hiring campervans and sleeping in tents. They like doing silly, adventurous things. They are responsible, for example, for the invention of commercial bungee jumping, jet-boating and zorbing. Of these, I’ve only done jet-boating, but I’ve done it a few times in various locations because it’s so incredibly fun. My favourite jet-boating experience was when we were on our Great New Zealand Campervan Holiday, on the Shotover River, which was one of the locations Peter Jackson used for the River Anduin in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not only was this the fastest jet-boat ride I’ve ever been on, I kept expecting to see the Argonath looming up on either side of us!

So anyway, that’s kiwis for you. Not fruit or birds, but a genuinely nice ilk of people. Completely mad, of course, but wonderfully mad. Caring and relaxed, yet hardy and adventurous; fiercely independent, yet always happy to help. Perhaps the difference in attitude between Brits and kiwis can be summed up like this:

Something bad happens. The Brit thinks, ‘At least it’s something I can complain about later.’ The kiwi thinks, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

A New Zealand sunset

A New Zealand sunset