Today is day 5 for me in New Zealand and my sister's first full day since arriving late on a flight from Brisbane the night before. We get up early, get Jamie her coffee fix, and hit the road towards our adventurous destination just a few hours south of Auckland: the caves at Waitomo. But first, we stopped at the Pasifika Festival on our way out of town. This annual event is the biggest celebration of Pacific Island culture in the world, drawing thousands of attendees. The performances were pretty interesting but it was mostly a bunch of vendors tents selling food and touristy souvenirs. Which, my sister happily bought into and immediately purchased plastic flower crowns and a coconut with a straw in it.
Not long after this photo was taken, we decided to continue on our way to the caves. Since the caves have become such a popular attraction, there's pretty good signage directing your to it so we didn't have to rely on the GPS too much. Let me tell you, the landscapes in New Zealand are incredible and ever changing. One minute you're rolling along with the lush, green hills dotted with white specks of sheep then you're admiring the natural rock formations that seem to jut up out of nowhere and then you're suddenly in the shadows of cloud-capped mountains and volcanoes. (I have some time lapse video of this that I really need to edit.)
Anyways, we arrived at the YHA Waitomo Juno Hall Hostel which is a lovely place situated on a farm with animals and everything. The caretaker was super friendly and welcoming, our single bunk-bedded room was clean and comfortable and we were able to catch up on some laundry. There was a pool and several hammocks outside, which we took advantage of. And the best part is its walking distance from the cave tour meeting place that we had previously booked. This was probably my favorite hostel of the whole trip.
Our underground adventures started bright and early the next morning as I had booked us the 4 hour Lost World tour at 8 AM followed by the Tumu Tumu Toobing tour at 1:30 that afternoon. Once everyone in our group of 6 participants and 2 guides were loaded into the van, we were driven to the actual cave site, which was several bumpy miles away. After dressing in blue coveralls, white helmets and white rubber boots so that we all resembled life-size smurfs, we went through the obligatory safety stuff and then got to rappel (or abseil, as the Kiwis say) 100 meters down into a giant cavern. Looking down, the cave is full of clouds and as you lower down through the mist, it really seems like you're descending into another world. Our guides led us along the pre-ordained path and to a little spot of the cave devoid of sunlight where we got our first glimpse of glow worms. Now, we weren't allowed to take anything with us into the caves, including cameras, but here's a particularly magical photo of what they look like:
I'm pretty sure you can't see them anywhere outside New Zealand and maybe Australia. Like little blue, bioluminescent constellations that are dripping from the ceilings. The actual story is far less romantic so if you're really interested, google New Zealand glow worms and don't say I didn't warn you.
Anyways, what goes down, must come back up and at the end of the tour, we each had to climb up this torturous ladder that disappeared upwards through a narrow opening and made your biceps feel on fire like you were climbing straight out of hell. But once you reach the top and can rely on your better developed leg muscles and climb the rest of the way out of the cave on foot, you feel all accomplished and whatnot.
We had just enough time to eat lunch at the cave tours headquarters (which was pretty tasty, I might add) see the photos our guides took of us on the tour, then change before our next adventure. This one started out the same way with a short ride but this time we had to wear wetsuits and received strict warnings not to pee, with threats of public shaming should anyone violate this simple mandate. There was no abseiling here, just a short descent down a ladder through a really narrow hole in the ground. I mean really narrow like there was one middle-aged guy with a big potbelly that it must have taken some kind of miracle for him to squeeze through that small space.
Anyways, this tour was far more interactive, as in, you are using all of your appendages to navigate both limestone and sandstone caves and trudging through near freezing water. Pro tip here: When your boots fill up with water, and they will, don't empty them because eventually your body heat will warm up the water and keep your feet a little farther away from frost bite. At certain points, the water was deep enough in the cave where we could float along on little inner tubes and admire the glowing, blue-green constellations dangling above us. When everything fell silent, it felt like we were on another planet and I refused to walk in the back of the group because the cavernous landscape reminded me of Pitch Black and I wasn't gonna be the one that gets snatched from behind by those creepy, cross-headed aliens.
A few hours later, we emerged back up to the surface and had a short hike back to the lodge where we de-suited and had the opportunity to take hot showers. That was the best hot shower I've ever earned. Our second adventure was definitely our favorite of the two that we did that day.
The memories made underground in these caves are some of my favorite from my trip but of course I don't recommend them if you are afraid of heights, the dark, swimming or have claustrophobia.
Jamie and I had a causal dinner at a local pub then spent one last night at the hostel. In the morning we packed up with full intentions to hike the volcano that they used as Mordor in LOTR, but the weather had other plans. It was raining and so cloudy that we couldn't even see half the mountain. So instead we made the rainy drive back to Auckland and stayed at the Jucy Hotel. I had to share the tasty magic that is Revive so we ate dinner there and then took a quick trip out to Piha Beach and back. The next morning was our last morning in New Zealand so I went to the Auckland Museum again so my sister could experience it for the first time and still saw a ton of stuff that I missed during my first trip. We indulged in some delicious Indian food before heading to the airport for our flight to Brisbane that afternoon.