After our night in the rainforest (or so we dubbed our Raglan hostel), we boarded the bus and drove towards Waitomo for a day at the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves. While most of the bus opted for the scenic boat ride through the caves, a few of us decided to do something a little more adventurous…
Cave Tubing with the BlackWater Rafting Company!
Donning some very sexy water resistant suits, rubber boots and head lamp helmets, my group of English, Swedish and Irish friends took off across sheep farms towards the cave entrance. It was a surprisingly long but nice trek literally on top of the caves and through the hilly fields which was quite awkward in a skin-tight suit. But I enjoyed getting nice and warm before descending into the chilly 50 degree water of the caves below. Also, did I mention it was lambing season, so there were baby lambs EVERYWHERE and they were of course adorable to watch.
Once we got to the entrance to the caves I was actually shaking with fear. I don’t like being cold and wet, which is exactly what we were going to be for about 2 hours. What if I got claustrophobic and wanted to get out? Thankfully we didn’t have much time to consider our predicament before we were climbing down a slick ladder between the rocks and into the darkness. Peace out!
At the bottom of the ladder, we stepped foot into the shallow water of the cave, our footsteps echoing around us and guiding us towards an endless dark pathway. It reminded me of that scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when they are walking through the cave passageway towards the chamber (thankfully we didn’t encounter a massive snake!). Immediately we followed our guide forward, careful not to touch the sides of the cave and disturb any limestone formations. Over the next two hours we stomped along the slick belly of the cave, encountering narrow pathways and rushing rivers that flooded our boots with icy water.
Meanwhile our two guides explained the science of the caves and the glowworms that famously inhabit them. We saw enormous stalactites and stalagmites and were forced to squeeze into and crawl military style on our hands and knees through the narrowest parts of the cave. Then we turned off our headlights in suspended silence and watched the glowworms come to life above us. It was beautiful, like a living and breathing starry sky.
At one point we came upon a calm body of water and were instructed to grab a tube and launch ourselves into the water. I was terrified, but did it and was immediately submerged in the frigid water. BRRRR! We then linked our ankles together and floated in silence down the slowly moving corridor of water beneath the glowworms like some Disney ride. It was my favorite part of the entire tour.
After almost two hours of a very physical tour including a nice break for a hot beverage and chocolate, I was tired and my toes were completely frozen. Caving is fun but COLD. I couldn’t wait to get out and bask in the sun with the lambs. Although this tour was challenging and a little scary, IT WAS SO MUCH FUN. I really enjoy challenging myself when I travel (remember biking in Cambodia?) because I think you learn a lot about yourself and have a memorable experience to go along with the place you are visiting. I won’t just remember the Waitomo Glowworms Caves, I’ll remember freezing my toes off, scrambling along the rocks and laughing hysterically with my friends in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. And that is just so much better!
When the tour with Blackwater Rafting Company (check them out here!) was over, we emerged into the sunlight (thank god!) and walked back to their outpost on the farm. There we struggled to peel ourselves out of our wetsuits and I took the most marvelous hot shower of my life despite the pins-and-needles feeling in my toes. I was exhausted but so content by the time we met up with the rest of our bus who were dry and energized in comparison!
We then drove to Mourea where we would be exposed to Maori culture for the first time. We met our guide for a short bush-walk in Okere Falls Scenic Reserve. We learned about the significance of the area to the indigenous Ngati Hinerangi people and saw the Tutea and Okere waterfalls (they looked scary!).
We then drove to our destination for the night, a traditional Maori Lodge of the Ngati Pikiao. On edge of Lake Rotorua and Rotoiti, the lodge is a peaceful place where we would be exposed to Maori culture for the first time. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the family into the wharenui (Maori meeting house). The building is a sacred place that represents the ancestors of their tribe and the women enter first after removing their shoes out of respect. Our hosts then performed the traditional welcoming ceremony which included a welcome speech and song in the native tongue and a hongi or pressing of the noses together. I was so nervous to go up to everyone in such an intimate gesture, but Maori consider hongi the acknowledgement of the spirit through shared breath. I could do that, awkwardness be damned.
We then joined the family for a traditional and AMAZING meal of roast meat and vegetables before participating in Kapa Haka or traditional Maori song and dance. I really enjoyed the singing the dancing, especially the exaggerated facial expressions, intended to frighten opposing tribes or enemies. And then we were asked to do it ourselves, girls vs. boys!
The girls performed the poi, a surprisingly complicated dance with a ball on a string, complete with a song which I DOMINATED by the way. Linda was our fearless leader, leading the girls in our Maori song and swaying of our hips seductively while swinging a ball around. It was hard but we did so well! I have video evidence but will spare you for you now! The boys performed the Haka or traditional war dance made famous by the All Blacks rugby team. Honestly the Haka is so much easier, you just slap yourself and yell while making ridiculous faces. The boys won our little competition which meant the girls had to do the dishes for the evening. BOO. But wow that was so much fun!
Our fun group! I love these people.
That evening we spent the night in the meeting house on mattress pads and sleeping bags on the floor. Linda had NEVER SLEPT IN A SLEEPING BAG BEFORE which had the both of us laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of our sleeping arrangements. We were cracking ourselves up getting ready for bed under a very “exposed” ancestor carving and with 60 other backpackers in the same room. We stayed up late drinking tea and chatting with our friends before taking a shower in the amazing bathroom facilities and going to sleep in our communal lodgings. It was a ridiculous but fun experience that felt a lot like summer camp. I definitely enjoyed the entire evening and it is definitely something neither of us will ever forget!
We slept fitfully and dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags for another full day, this time at the magical village of Hobbiton! Let the journey begin!