June 6 - I managed to sleep until 6AM – moving in the right direction! Seemingly everything in Hamilton was closed, but I finally managed to get some coffee at a café that turned out to be affiliated with the Casino (which appeared to be a serious operation!). I got on the road to the Waitomo Caves (about an hour’s drive), stopping at one point to get the photo of the rainbow you see above!
Being mildly afraid of caves, I obviously decided that the best option was to buy tickets to all three. This was enough of a tourist operation that I wasn’t too worried (it turned out the ‘bushwalk’ had much scarier caves than the caves!). My first tour was the Raukuri Cave. Raukuri means “two dogs” in Mauri, because the cave was originally discovered by a Mauri hunter who tracked a pack of dogs to the cave entrance (I think the dogs also may have attacked him, but I can’t remember exactly). This is also apparently the only handicap accessible cave in the southern hemisphere. They’ve built a rather elaborate ramp which descends 50 meters at the entrance – if you’ve ever played Goldeneye for N64, think of that part in the caverns multiplayer level, except a tighter spiral (probably 8-10 full loops around to get down the whole way).
In retrospect Raukuri was the least interesting of the three, though it was still a nice tour. After lunch I did a tour of Aranui, which had much more spectacular features. There were also these super creepy insects that live in the cave entrance – I can’t remember the name, but it translates to something like “spiny thing,” which pretty succinctly sums it up. Apparently the ones we saw were about 1/3 the size of the biggest ones, which makes me never want to go back!
Before heading over to Waitomo (which, in that amazingly succinct Mauri way, translates to ‘water hole’), I decided to do the 30 minute ‘bushwalk’ (i.e. hike) around Aranui Cave. This was very cool, it felt like walking through a jungle (maybe it is a temperate rainforest?). However, at several points it involved walking through mini “caves” which was not cool – one I practically had to crawl through, though thankfully I could see the other side and it was not very far. Eventually the trail takes you to the entrance where the Waikato River (I think) rushes into the cave, which is a really neat sight – you can really appreciate how the cave got dug out, that water is really moving!
OK, finally onto the main attraction, the Glowworm Cave! After having just seen two other caves, there was nothing really spectacular about the cave formations themselves – basically it’s just a giant empty room. They apparently have concerts in there sometimes – actually, there was a school group right ahead of us, and they sang a song to test out the acoustics. But, after the brief cave tour, they put you on a boat in the pitch dark to go see the glowworms. Might as well be honest, this was a little nerve racking. Let me remind you that it is quite dark by this “dock” – I think there was one tiny light. Suddenly these boats would appear out of nowhere, not anchored or anything, just held to the dock by the operator while people loaded. Then the boat would push off and completely disappear into the darkness within a few feet. How the boat was propelled, or where it went, I could not figure out until the very end (pretty cool actually, the operator stands on the front of the boat and grabs a series of overhead ropes to pull the boat along). Anyway, there were hundreds of glowworms on the cave ceiling, which was a pretty neat sight.
By this point it was about 4 or so, and time to get on the road to Taupo (about 2 hour’s drive). Mom, you may want to stop reading at this point. This was quite possibly the most harrowing drive of my life. The first hour was great – beautiful scenery, fun windy roads. However, at about 5PM, it 1) got really dark, because it’s the damn winter (almost) over here, and 2) started raining like I don’t think I have ever seen before. Keep in mind at this point I am absolutely in the middle of nowhere (I doubt I saw more than 20 cars between 4:30 and 6PM), driving on the left side of the road, and, as mentioned before, on windy roads (though not as much fun as before the dark and rain!). Anyway, since I had promised many of you before I left, I did not die, and eventually made it to the Great Lake (they call it Great Lake Taupo). Best part was, my hotel is about a mile from town, and I was hungry…so I had to get back in the car! I got some dinner, also got a bottle of wine from town (the guy said New Zealand is becoming known for it’s Pinot Noir and recommended a bottle…I don’t know anything about wine but I like it!), and then called it a night!