Kia ora! That’s hello in Maori, by the way. When I was in Auckland for three days I decided I wanted to see the glowworms at Waitomo Caves and the geysers and boiling mudpools at Te Whakarewarewa (go on, say it five times, quickly), but I was traveling alone, didn’t want to drive due to the long distances, and only had a day to spare before flying out of New Zealand.
So what did I do?
Reader, I booked myself on a daytrip tour.
It was almost $250, included lunch and all entrance fees, and they promised to have me back in the city before my flight departed. So I handed over my credit card details, internally wincing at my spendthrift, non-independent-travel ways.
We started early – 7am and I was at the pick up point, trying to figure out which behemoth bus I was supposed to be on. In the end, it was the empty one. That’s right – this daytrip was so expensive or unpopular that there was nobody on it but me and the two drivers/tour guides.
Not a good start, I thought.
We stopped at Waitomo Caves first, where I was taken on a tour through the underground formations – the caves are about 12 million years old, and beautifully formed stalactites and stalagmites adorn the ceilings and floors. The highlight of the tour was the boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto – the caves are dark, silent save the distant, susurrus of moving water, distilled through echoes and space. As our boat makes ripples across the Waitomo River, here flowing underground, my eyes adjust to the darkness and I notice the luminescence.
The ceiling of the cave sparkles like a starry night. The grotto is an entire “galaxy of living lights,” tiny pin pricks of white and gold illumination, each one the product of a tiny glowworm.
“Magical” doesn’t begin to cut it.
Back on board the bus, and I’m given a cold lunch – a sandwich, fruit, yoghurt and a slice of fruit cake. I look askance at the guide. He looks sheepish, shrugs his shoulders and then finally, because I have begged so desperately and there is no one else on the bus but me, we stop at Otorohanga for a hot, delicious, greasy meal of fush and chups. I proceed to eat it in the bus (we are on a schedule, ladies and gentlemen!), offering both of them some of my chips and cheering on the All Blacks against Canada (sorry, Canada) on the radio.
Outside my windows, emerald green, rolling hills, copses of pine trees, low mists hugging the tops of hills and there are occasional glimpses of water sparkling in the dull light.
Next stop: sheep! It’s the Agrodome, a “working farm” where there are sheep mustering, sheep shearing and sheep feeding. There are also llamas, ducks and some friendly cows – I never realised how big a cow was until one lumbered over to me; you tip over that feed bucket quick, let me tell you!
Queenie the sheepdog sat at my feet as we took the truck out to the fields, quivering with excitement. On command, she shot off to work. The guide, who is also actually a sheep farmer, says she’s not his best dog, but she loves to work, and his other herder is getting old – Rusty mostly sits indoors, though he will come out to herd some sheep if he must.
We leave the dogs, the sheep and the farmer and set off for the thermal reserve, near Rotorua. There is a beautiful historic bath house, now a museum, where genteel folk used to go to “take the cure.” The building used to be known as the Great South Seas Spa, and visitors would come to bathe in the rotten-egg-smelling thermal waters.
The Cultural Centre
At Te Whakarewarewa, I am given two hours to explore. I ask for three hours and promise to be back in the bus, seat belt fastened and ready to leave. Driver 1 shakes his head, but Driver 2, who seems more susceptible to my cajoling smiles, counters with “two and a half hours, and if you’re not here we leave without you.” Which seems fair. Hands are shaken, and watches are synchronised.
Te Whakarewarewa is a thermal reserve and cultural centre. There are traditional Maori crafts and skills on display such as carving and weaving. There is a gallery which traces the history of the Te Arawa people, who first settled in the area. There is a meeting house, or wharenui, accessible to visitors – usually these are sacred, and represent the body of an ancestor, or a Maori mythological figure. There is a Kiwi House, where I fail to spot any kiwis. There are boiling mud pools whose burbling and occasional gurgle sound like frogs. There is the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts every 30 minutes or so.
In short, there is far more here to see and experience than 2.5 hours can give me, so I settle for the traditional greeting and songs and dances at the Te Aronui a Rua meeting house, where I am treated to manaakitanga, or Maori hospitality – a display of haka, song, dance and skill, and most importantly, cultural pride.
And I made it back to the bus (and my flight!) on time.