Subterranean Subterfuge and a Vanishing Volcano


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Oceania » New Zealand » North Island » Waitomo Caves
January 23rd 2017
Published: January 29th 2017
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Light at the end of the tunnelLight at the end of the tunnelLight at the end of the tunnel

Our first glimpse of the outside world after three hours underground on our Waitomo caving tour
Week three of our New Zealand road-trip started with a 'cross-country' drive from Napier on the East Coast to Whanganui on the West Coast, which even with a lunch break spent near one end of Manawatu Gorge only took about three hours! Along the way we enjoyed some unexpected views of what could only have been Mount Ruapehu (the tallest mountain on the North Island at 2797m) sporting an impressive amount of snow cover. From Whanganui we then headed a further half-hour up the coast, lured by yet another hot tip from Rankers about a campground that sounded almost too good to be true...

But as with every other campsite we've found on Rankers, this one turned out to be everything we'd hoped for and more! Situated right behind the rugged surf and black sands of Waverley Beach (complete with small caves hollowed out of the coastal cliffs) lay a council-run campground consisting of a fully-equipped kitchen building, bathrooms with unlimited hot water, and a spacious covering of lush green grass surrounded by trees; and which cost just $10 per night for two people! But the most amazing thing of all was that somehow, apart from just one other family
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Linda on top of Paritutu
group, we had the entire place to ourselves!

Not long after we left Waverley the following morning (Tuesday 17th January) we were greeted by our first glimpse of the snow-capped volcanic cone of Taranaki - formerly known rather boringly as Mount Egmont - which we then proceeded to virtually circumnavigate as we followed the misleadingly-named Surf Highway 45 (Farm Highway 45 would be more accurate) all the way to New Plymouth. Unfortunately though by the time we had checked into our holiday park above the harbour – the outstanding Belt Road Seaside Holiday Park – and had some lunch, the clouds had transpired to hide the famous mountain from view.

Nevertheless we set off to tackle the short but extremely steep trail to the top of Paritutu (a 150-metre-high volcanic plug on the edge of town, that along with the two Sugarloaf Islands just offshore reminded us of the Glasshouse Mountains on the Sunshine Coast). But despite enjoying a scenic view over the town and coastline of New Plymouth – especially the surf beaches to the south-west – we could see only the lower slopes of Taranaki beneath the blanket of clouds.

Naturally though (this being New
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Len Lye art installation on New Plymouth's waterfront
Zealand after all) by the time we had made it back to the holiday park the sky had cleared completely over the coast - though Taranaki remained hidden from view - so we were soon setting off along the Coastal Walkway into the centre of New Plymouth; while I continued on for a further five kilometres to the impressive Rewa Rewa footbridge across the Waiwhakaito River. Later on in the evening once the sun had finally set, Linda and I headed back into town to check out the Festival of Lights in Pukekura Park, which featured all sorts of light installations scattered around the lake-studded park, and provided us with a pretty awesome end to the day.

Wednesday brought a visit to Puke Ariki – for myself at least, since Linda had already visited the day before – which in addition to a library, visitor centre and cafe features an outstanding museum covering the history of the Taranaki region. With different displays covering the natural history, maori culture, European settlement and geological (ie volcanic) history of the area, ninety minutes was scarcely enough time to do the museum justice; but I certainly felt enlightened as I left to find
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Trail through the forest on the lower slopes of Taranaki
Linda and embark on another multi-day grocery stock-up.

Having read so much about the significance of Taranaki's namesake mountain, it was only natural that we would end up wanting to take a closer look – even if the trek to the summit (a 12km round-trip involving over 1500 metres of ascent!) that I had hoped to tackle was most certainly out of the question due to the adverse weather. Heading back around to the south side of the volcano – which has lain dormant for around 250 years – we followed the steep, winding road up through lush rainforest to the visitor centre near Dawson Falls, on the lower slopes of the mountain at almost 1000m above sea level.

Following a trail through some aptly-named 'goblin forest' we soon came to a series of cascades culminating in a swimming hole known as Wilkie's Pool, before passing a spring where pure fresh water came gushing out of a small hole in the ground right beside the track! From there we continued on down past the visitor centre to check out the 18-metre-high Dawson Falls, which leapt out of the forest into a small plunge pool below.

It was
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Linda in front of Dawson Falls
around this time that the weather really started to close in, so we headed back to the car park to stake out as sheltered a parking space as possible (conveniently situated right next to the toilet block) in which to spend the night, and in no time at all Linda had a nice hot meal cooking in her campervan kitchen – which was just as well since no sooner had we finished our dinner and retired to our 'bedroom' than the heavens finally opened and the rain started pouring down in waves!

But this was only a sign of things to come, for as the night went on the bad weather only intensified, until we woke the next morning to the sound of rain pelting down on our roof as the van shook from side-to-side in the ferocious (and incessant) wind gusts! And though we slept soundly in the relative comfort of our campervan, we could only look on with sympathy at another car (one of only four other vehicles sharing the car park that night) whose occupants had to endure a night that I bet they'll never forget in a horribly exposed pop-up tent on top of their
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Linda in front of Dawson Falls the next morning
Wicked rental car!

If the cloud had a silver lining however, it was that after the rain eventually stopped the next morning and we had enjoyed a rejuvenating breakfast, we were able to take the short walk back to Dawson Falls - which were by now thundering down out of the forest courtesy of the copious rainfall! And then after we had finally made our way back down the winding access road to the base of the mountain and set our sights on points further north, we were able to enjoy the unexpected (but most welcome) spectacle of Taranaki slowly freeing itself of it's cloudy cape - thus revealing the mountain's almost perfectly-symmetrical cone for the first time since we had arrived!

Having abandoned our plan to tackle the evocatively-named Forgotten World Highway due to the awful weather, we instead followed the main highway north to the tiny settlement that has sprung up to serve the never-ending flow of tourist traffic at the famous Waitomo Caves. Reminding me somewhat of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockes - where likewise noone really seems to actually live permanently - the 'village' offered little in the way of charm, though thankfully
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Our first glimpse of Taranaki's summit in two days
we had already decided to stay in a non-powered site at the Juno Hall backpackers lodge which itself is located a couple of kilometres outside the village, beside a farm whose various friendly animals were an attraction in their own right!

With a pair of large pigs who had just produced a litter of eight tiny little piglets, another smaller pig named 'Biscuit' who stole Linda's heart, a goat named 'Rasputin', an inquisitive calf named 'Dufus' and even a deer on the property, Linda was in animal-patting heaven! But it was the caves that we had come to see, so with the Blackwater Rafting Company's headquarters located just across the road from the backpacker hostel we headed over there straight after lunch to buy a combined ticket for all three of the main 'show caves' – Glowworm Cave, Aranui Cave and Ruakuri Cave – as well as a 'Black Abyss' caving tour for the following day.

Unfortunately (or so we thought at the time) we had forgotten to transfer enough money into our regular bank account to pay for everything, and since the wi-fi dropped out on my phone just as I was about to transfer more money,
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Juno Hall Backpackers in Waitomo
we ended up only being able to pay for the three cave entrance fees at the time – but were told that we could pay for the caving tour when we turned up for it the following day. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise...

Starting our cave exploration with a two-hour guided tour of Ruakuri Cave (all of the caves in the area being accessible only by guided tours) we were somewhat dismayed to find that the experience resembled an extended advertising pitch for the so-called 'blackwater rafting tours' which happen to be run by the same company – and with whom we had already booked just such a tour – as not only were there numerous comments about these tours from our tour guide (who also mentioned on several occassions that this was the fourth tour of the cave that he had conducted that day), but we even had to stand and wait for five minutes in a glowworm-filled chamber of the cave so that we could watch one of these blackwater rafting tours pass by underneath us on their inflated tyre tubes!

In any case, after a brief interlude between tours we
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Our campsite at Juno Hall
arrived at the fancy atrium at the entrance to the Waitomo Glowworm Cave for our second tour, and despite the fact that our group was doubled in size by the arrival of a constantly chattering Indian family we were immediately impressed with our tour guide – a young maori lady who was a fifth generation descendant of the man who had originally discovered the cave over a century ago. She even managed to keep a straight face when, after much loud deliberation, two of the older members of the Indian family turned around and left the tour after only five minutes when they discovered that they would have to climb up and down about a hundred or so steps during the course of the tour... what the hell do you expect from a bloody cave tour?!?

After this brief interruption the tour proceeded through a series of chambers whose roofs were littered with glowworms (each of which emits a shiny blue/green light from their rear end and dangles twenty or so threads below them in which to capture potential insect prey) before we reached the climax of the tour: a silent boat ride – accomplished by way of a
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Outside Aranui Cave after our 'private tour'
series of ropes suspended from the ceiling of the cave, along which the guide pulls the boat - on an underground river that flows through the cave, to view a colony of glowworms shining in all their glory as though a galaxy of stars were spread out above us! We may have been disappointed by our tour of Ruakuri Cave, but the same certainly couldn't be said for our Glowworm Cave tour.

Nevertheless, we couldn't help feeling as though the Blackwater Rafting Company was a little too slick and money-hungry for our liking – which is not to say they're necessarily any different to any other company (ie trying to maximise their profits at any cost), but we just felt as though having booked everything through them we were nothing more than a pair of walking dollar signs about to be sucked in and then spat out by a machine whose soul purpose is to funnel as many tourists as possible through the same handful of sights. Of course it didn't help that every second van we passed on the road had a Blackwater Rafting Company logo on it...

So when we got back to the hostel that
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Or at least the Waitomo Headwaters cave network
night and the receptionist mentioned that we could do a similar trip to the 'Black Abyss' with a different company for considerably less money if we booked it through the 'BookMe' website – which offers all sorts of discounted deals from various tour companies – we decided to research our options a little more thoroughly, and ultimately ended up ditching our Black Abyss trip in favour of the Haggas Honking Holes tour run by Waitomo Adventures instead... and all thanks to the fact that we'd had insufficient funds in our account to pay for the tour that we had originally booked!

But before our caving tour came around we still had one more 'show cave' to see, so Linda and I set off early on Friday morning for our guided tour of Aranui Cave – which unlike our tours of the previous day turned out to be a private tour, since we were the only people booked on! Thus we got to enjoy the serenity of Aranui Cave (which unlike the other two is a dry cave and therefore lacks glowworms – though this was made up for by both the intricate formations and the curious cave wetas we
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Linda during our first waterfall abseil
found just inside the entrance) with a softly-spoken and thoughtful tour guide who seemed the very antithesis of the company he works for. Oh well, two out of three isn't bad I guess!

After a quick trip back down the main road to the town of Te Kuiti (about 15kms from Waitomo) to stock up on groceries – since the 'general store' in Waitomo sells nothing more exotic than instant soup and two-minute noodles – we were signing our consent forms at the Waitomo Adventures office and being driven out to a nearby farm, underneath which lies a 6km network of inter-connected caves known as the Waitomo Headwaters.

After being kitted out with the requisite wetsuit, fleece jumper, gumboots, helmet and harness, and going through a crash course in abseiling technique – most of which Linda and I remembered from our West Coast road-trip a couple of years ago – we were soon descending into the underworld guided by nothing more than the lights on our helmets and the instructions from our two guides, Chris and Kenny. Having done a somewhat similar tour amongst the sheer-sided gorges of Karijini National Park in Western Australia, I was already familiar
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Eighty metres below the ground in Waitomo
with most of the techniques we had to employ; but it was the one critical (and blindingly obvious) difference between that tour and this one that made me nervous: the confined spaces! Of course this wouldn't really have been a problem if I wasn't almost two metres tall and suffer from claustrophobia...!

Thankfully I didn't really have too much time to think about it, and once we'd made it to the bottom of our initial descent into the cave system (a twenty metre abseil down a waterfall) there wasn't really anything I could do about it but keep going until we made it to the other end, but suffice it to say crawling through passageways barely wider than my own waist - and often with little more than my head above water - proved to be just as challenging for me mentally as it was physically! (The fact that Linda was clearly loving every minute of it probably didn't make me feel any better either!)

Regardless of my discomfort though, I had to admit it was a pretty exciting way to explore the underground wonders for which Waitomo is famous; and even when we weren't abseiling down waterfalls,
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Mangapohue Natural Bridge
squeezing through narrow tunnels or leaping blindly into pools of water in absolute darkness – all of which successfully kept the rush of adrenaline going throughout the tour - the startling limestone formations and occassional glowworm-filled chambers provided ample distraction from the inescapable knowledge that I was, in fact, eighty metres below the surface of the earth in an extremely confined space through which a torrent of water was constantly flowing!

But sure enough, nearly three hours after we entered the cave system we re-emerged into the light of day, and I was able to finally lie back and relax and admit that it had actually been pretty fun – though that didn't stop me from countering Linda's excited exclamation of “that was great fun – can we do it again?!?” upon her exit from the cave with an emphatic “f__k that!” If there was one thing I learned on this trip – apart from the fact that caving looks like great fun as long as you're not unusually tall and claustrophobic – it was that I prefer my caving adventures to be above ground rather than below!

Having gotten the most we possibly could out of our two days in Waitomo, we bid an extended farewell to the friendly farm animals at Juno Hall and set out on the scenic route north towards Raglan, stopping off first at the impressive Mangapohue Natural Bridge and then shortly after at the even more impressive, 30-metre-high Marakopa Falls – a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall that is almost as wide as it is high – before stopping for lunch just across the road from Kawhia Harbour. Taking an even more 'scenic' route (read: rough winding, gravel road) after lunch, we eventually came to the magnificent Bridal Veil Falls (known as Weirenga – meaning 'Leaping Water' - in Maori) which unlike Marakopa Falls features a single plume of water dropping 55 metres into a tree-lined plunge pool, and would quite simply have to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen!

From there it was only a short hop to the small coastal community of Raglan (New Zealand's equivalent of Byron Bay, only without quite so many hippies) which is most famous for the surf beaches that lie just outside the town. Unfortunately the weather (which despite being overcast had remained remarkably calm all afternoon) suddenly took a turn
Leaping WaterLeaping WaterLeaping Water

Weirenga / Bridal Veil Falls from above
for the worse not long after we checked into the over-priced Raglan Kopua Holiday Park - on a narrow spit of land connected by footbridge to the rest of the town - as the strong gusty winds that had been conspicuous by their absence all day suddenly returned with a vengeance to wreak havoc with our outdoor kitchen/dining set-up! Regardless, the vegetable stir-fry we enjoyed in the back of the van was to die for – further proof (as if any were needed) of Linda's ability to cook up the most delicious meals in even the most challenging of circumstances!

Leaving the coast behind on Sunday, we headed inland to Hamilton (which is not only New Zealand's 4th largest city, but also sits astride it's longest river – the Waikato). Strolling around the various themed enclosures of the Hamilton Gardens just outside the city proved to be an enjoyable (and free) way to pass a couple of hours; after which we filled another hour or so with a visit to the Waikato Museum in the centre of town. It was also while we were in Hamilton that I dropped into the local Spark Mobile store to buy a 3GB
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Footbridge across Raglan Harbour, with Mount Karioi in the background
top-up for my WiFi modem, which resulted in a series of events that turned out to be so damn ridiculous it was actually funny!

After being told by the salesman that I first had to 'add $50 credit' to my account before I could actually go ahead and purchase the 3GB of data, I did as he requested and paid my $50. When I then followed his instructions on how to use this credit to buy my 3GB of data, I received a response from the Spark website saying that I had insufficient funds for my request to be processed. When I quizzed the salesman as to what was going on, he replied “oh yeah, that's just the way our system works – you add $50 to your account, but then as soon as you try to puchase credit with it the very first megabyte you use drops your balance below $50, so you no longer have sufficient credit to buy the data. I'll have to e-mail the customer service team for you and have them credit the 3GB of data to your account.” Way to stride boldly into the 21st century, New Zealand...!


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Our campsite in New Plymouth
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View of Ne Plymouth from Belt Road Seaside Holiday Park
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New Plymouth Coastal Walkway - take one
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New Plymouth Coastal Walkway - take two


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