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Published: March 28th 2016
We'd had an opportunity to see glow-worms in Kaikoura but didn't follow up on it because we'd always intended to go to Waitomo for that very reason. One of the big attractions was that the Waitomo Caves Hotel is located there (really, with a name like that where else would it be?!). It has quite a history to it and is, reputedly, haunted. Best go see, then.
Our journey to Waitomo was super. The sun shone and the scenery was just lovely, with many locations being used for the Lord of the Rings films, supposedly evoking Ye Olde England. We stopped at the site of the 'inauguration' of the first Maori king. It was somewhat dilapidated, with just a monumental stone and a plaque, which seemed a shame to me. We travelled through the Cambridge area, which is known for its breeding of racehorses and they were abundant, making a change from fields of cows and deer. We crossed a water dam with a one-way road (never done that before and I hoped the cement didn't choose that moment to fracture) and we arrived in Waitomo in the late afternoon. We drove straight down to the Caves Centre to check
if we needed to book our trip for the day after and we could see our hotel from the car park, where it was perched high on the hill. I couldn't wait to get in there.
The hotel was first built to accommodate tourists in the very early part of last century following the discovery of the caves. It used to take eight hours for these Edwardian tourists to get down to the river, the ladies in their long dresses, and only six people to a boat. Over the years the hotel has fallen into near ruin but it is now being gradually restored to its former glory. The driveway up to it was windy until we turned the final corner and saw the hotel facing us, head on. It was like a faded grande dame, with jaded beauty, remarkable resilience and history oozing from every brick. The stories it could tell. The foyer was resplendent with its chandeliers and old wood, sweeping staircases and huge portrait gallery. It also had a bar, restaurant, conference room and indoor pool and one of the wings has already been totally renovated, bringing it up to 21st century standards. Unfortunately, we were
in the 'old' wing (we were still trying to operate to that budget!) so we got a very small room with peeling wallpaper, the original plumbing and ants. If anything, that just added to the experience and was nothing a bug-killer spray from Reception couldn't deal with (they were coming through the window, which was almost falling out of its casement!). One of the bedside cabinet drawers yielded a sweet-smelling 'cigarette' of the waccy-baccy variety, which a previous occupant must have left behind - I'll bet they were cross about that! One room (12A just down our corridor - we were in Room 10) is reportedly haunted and it has been the subject of several of those haunted house programmes.
Remember my wish list? Well, one of the things on it was the Southern Cross constellation, mainly because of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song of the same name which I would have to put in my Top 10 records list. I understood it was easily visible in the southern hemisphere but I hadn't been able to locate it. I almost did one night in Hervey Bay when a lovely man called Nev almost got himself killed in the
middle of the road trying to find it in the night sky for me (all the smoke from the fireworks on that occasion made things somewhat blurred!). He at least pointed out where I was going wrong; I had been looking for a big thing and he said it was, in fact, quite a small constellation and that The Pointers would help me locate it on a clear night. Well, I stood on a rickety balcony of the Waitomo Hotel looking up to the skies and this was that clear night! Every star was visible so I only needed to know what I was looking at. Armed with the tablet, Google and a map of the hotel showing its orientation on the ground I was quickly able to see what direction to look in, find The Pointer(sister)s, follow their line and there it was - the Southern Cross! I was so excited I almost jumped! It had taken me years but finally ... Nev was right - it was much smaller than I had been expecting. I sat on the empty, delapidated balcony for ages, singing along to the CS&N song, getting goosebumps. I confess I felt as if the
ghost of the hotel was with me and I kept looking over my shoulder at every creak and groan but nothing was going to take this moment away from me! It was wonderful. 'When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way .... ' (S Stills).
The following morning I explored the hotel grounds. There was a family of small birds exploring with me, feasting on the cicadas and other insects which were abundant. Some of the gardens were so overgrown it was impossible to know what hidden treasures lay beneath but I found an old wishing well and some fantastic plants, seemingly thriving on neglect. The downpipes were the home of some amazing birds' nests which had obviously been used year after year.
We eventually checked out and set off for our glow-worm trip. The caves were just a short way from the hotel and we joined a small group of other visitors to move into the caves themselves, down a gentle slope. We initially entered the 'cathedral' of the caves, which is often used as a wedding venue for relatives of the Maori owner. There is no
echo in the cathedral and many people have sung there, including Katy Perry and Rod Stewart! Our group of glow-worm enthusiasts came from all corners of the globe including Japan. We eventually boarded our boat, in silence, as the glow-worms don't like noise or light apparently and 'go out'. The boat was silently pulled along on ropes and pulleys by a fit young woman and the glow-worms just sparkled up on the roof, everywhere we looked. The cynical amongst us might have said they looked just like LED lights stuck on the ceiling .... Nevertheless, it was a fascinating thing to see and we were finally allowed to take photos at the very exit of the cave, which would never do them justice. I wouldn't have missed it.
I asked myself if the extra miles had been worth it in the end. The answer was a resounding yes, yes, yes. A three times yes for 1) the hotel, 2) the glow-worms, and, for the star of the show, literally, 3) the Southern Cross. Just wonderful.
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