Commune Culture

Trip Start Jan 15, 2011
Trip End Mar 19, 2011

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Where I stayed
Rongo Backpackers

Flag of New Zealand  ,
Saturday, February 12, 2011

Since we liked Global Village so much we ended up staying for a few extra hours after check-out the next morning. We sat in their lounge writing and reading and relaxing while world music played softly over the sound system. We were sad to leave, but there was a long drive ahead of us.

Our first stop heading north were the Pancake Rocks. Eaten away by wind and water, these mysterious formations still stand in a constant bath of ocean waves. According to the signage, scientists can't explain why these rocks have such a fragmented look. Their layered texture is, of course, why they’ve been given their particular name. You almost want to douse them with maple syrup and take a bite.

Along the walkway we were serenaded by an overwhelming cacophony. Cicadas were hiding all around us, snapping their wings and thumping their abdomens. I’m not a fan of those nasty little buggers. Later on we enjoyed a weka sighting at the rest area. These flightless birds are like the wild chickens of New Zealand. They were almost driven to extinction because they’re so easy to catch. I could’ve easily nabbed one myself. At least they’re protected now, as their instincts don’t instill much of a flight instinct. I hope they eat cicadas.

Our northward travels eventually led us to a very long and curvy road. Back and forth, we wound our way through the mountains. It was no use trying to increase the speed, it was going to take a while. In time, the road finally dropped down and flattened out. That’s when we arrived in Karamea. This place is off the beaten path and the only real town in the area to speak of. In order to leave you have to go back the way you came in: that very long and windy road I just spoke of. You may be wondering why did we come here? It’s because of the Oparara Basin. It houses a rain forest with stone arches and cave systems. Because of its location, this untouched area doesn’t attract many visitors. We figured we’d take a couple days to abandon the hustle and bustle of the south island (it’s been hell!) and venture out to a more remote spot.

Before cave exploration, however, we needed to find our hostel, eat some grub, and get a good night’s sleep. A rainbow greeted us when we drove up to our chosen place of refuge: Rongo Backpackers. To say this place was laid back would be an understatement. It was a hippy’s paradise. Living there on a semi-permanent basis were resident artists and WWOOFers, not to mention the owner of the place who must’ve been wandering around somewhere. Then there was us: The paying guests. There may have been others, it was hard to say. Figuring out who was who was a complete guessing game.

Our room turned out to be very nice. Spacious with lots of sunlight and fresh air. The shared bathrooms…not so nice. But they functioned, so I can’t complain much there. My heart skipped a  beat when I heard there was a large vegetable and herb garden, free for anyone to use! After settling in we dashed out and pulled some kale and basil for our pasta that night. There’s nothing like fresh vegetables from the garden.

When staying at Rongo one is constantly surrounded by music. Less due to people playing instruments or singing (though this wouldn’t be unheard of and did sometimes occur), but more because Rongo had its own radio station that runs 24/7. Whomever wanted to try their hand at DJ’ing could give it a go. Guests were encouraged to hook up their MP3 players or choose from a wide array of LPs to create their own play list. I was seriously tempted, but I am rather shy, as you all know. Not to mention my constant stint of blogging that needed tending to… No, I already had plenty on my plate. So we just laid low that first night, eager to get an early start in the morning.

The next day Scottie battled through a rigorous 14km drive on a gravel road in order to reach the Oparara Basin. The way was treacherous, as there was only enough room for one car at a time. Every time we saw dust-a-flyin’ behind or in front we pulled over and let the other car pass. We’re polite like that…and don’t want to be hit by a car…

The parking lot was wide open. Only a few cars were scattered about and we saw even fewer people out on the trail. Once walking, I noticed that this rain forest felt more tropical than previous ones. The forest was also less dense. Ferns grew in abundance and they grew big. Some were as tall as trees! They shot straight up and fanned out above our heads. While on the trail, a bird came hopping up to us. It got very close to landing on my finger but refused to commit. I have yet to tempt any of these wild birds with food, but the Disney princess in me is getting desperate. (Yes, she exists. She’s microscopic and only wants a bird to land on her finger, but she’s there and she’s getting impatient.)

The first place we set our sights on was Moria Arch, and even though it wasn’t the "Mines of Moria," the only way to see it was to crawl into a cave. How appropriate! Katie scrambled down and disappeared into the blackness. Soon after I think I heard the word "precious" whispered in the dark, and it’s possible I saw a shadowy figure crouched low in the dim light, but I can’t be certain.

Once I passed through the tight portal, the cave immediately expanded. It was not a cave at all, but the underside to the Moria Arch itself. A stream meandered underneath and open forest flourished on either side. Stalagtites stretched down from the ceiling towards us while we explored the earthen structure. It was an extremely cool place to be. We hung out there for a while taking pictures and relaxing. No one came or went that entire time, that’s how few people were around. It was nice to have it all to ourselves.

When I was ready to go I looked up and found Katie had wandered away. Again I heard that curious whispering and glanced back through the archway. There, sitting next to the stream, I saw Katie hunched over examining something in her hands. When I called out to her she just stood up and walked away. I meant to ask her what she was looking at but I forgot. Oh well…

The next natural wonder we saw was the Oparara Arch. On our way there we walked along a low river that, in a surprising contrast to the clear water we’ve seen thus far on the trip, ran a rusty red. Evidently, this discoloration is due to the high amount of decomposing vegetation in the forest. The red water flowed right below the Oparara Arch, which is over 200 meters long (around 700 feet) and is the largest natural arch in New Zealand. Here we did happen upon other hikers, but only a few. It did nothing to dampen the peaceful ambience of the terrain.

A few kilometers down the road took us to Box Cave and Crazy Paving Cave. These caverns are open for public exploration, no guide needed. Just grab a flashlight and off you go! The first one we entered was Crazy Paving Cave, and I’m not kidding about that flashlight. You couldn’t see beyond ten feet past the opening! There were no lights for safety or otherwise. We flipped our torch on and shuffled in. Katie pressed tightly against my back holding onto my daypack like a life preserver. She was frightened. What I didn’t tell you about these cave systems is that they’re home to the largest spider in New Zealand. It’s not poisonous, but it has a leg span of up to 6 inches. We’d read about them before coming here, and we saw signs outside the cave about not touching the spiders or touching their egg sacks. But seriously, what were the odds of us actually seeing one? We had nothing to worry about…

We immediately saw one. It was clinging to the cave straight above us, resting next to one of its many egg sacks dangling from the ceiling. This spider wasn’t small and those egg sacks were, oh, about the size of golf balls. Once our initial jolt of fear faded into a tremble we managed to take a picture. Katie stayed strong and calm throughout. I was proud of her. She even managed to keep the camera from shaking.

The walls around us were barren. No growth of any kind. Nothing. Just the lifeless walls of a tunnel. And it was a tunnel – small, slightly curved, growing narrower and narrower with each passing step. It soon demanded we drop to our hands and knees in order to continue. We begged to differ. A dark cave was doable. A large spider with an egg sack we could handle. But crawling through a dark cave with large spiders and egg sacks? That wasn’t going to happen. It was right around this time, while standing in that cramped space, that we heard some kind of “noise.” We turned tail and ran. Later on we theorized that the noise was probably a drop of water hitting the ground or something. It sounded like a click. We took it as our cue to leave.

Next up: Box Cave. It was much more roomy, which instantly gave us a calmer demeanor. If there were spiders, or any other kind of troglobytes crawling about, we couldn’t see them and were much happier for it. Box Cave was tall, wide, and deep. We walked along, flashlight in hand, taking pleasure in the various rock formations and the radiant glow that emanated from the droplets of water on the walls. Then we discovered that if we turned off the light we could see glow worms hanging from the ceiling. Light extinguished, the pitch black granted us the sight of worms glowing faintly over our heads like pale stars. With the textured cavern walls around us and those dim lights above, the whole experience had a manufactured feel to it. Not in a bad way. It was obviously all natural and real, but we honestly felt like we were on a Disneyland ride or something. Or maybe we were just enjoying ourselves that much.

During our bumpy ride back down the dirt road we listened to the soundtrack to Amelie. It passed the time by nicely. I only mention this because on the previous day someone played some Amelie music on the Rongo radio station. Then, when we arrived back at the hostel that day, someone was playing it on the piano. And, bizarrely enough, over a week from now we run into some street performers playing this music. It seems to be our New Zealand soundtrack.

By the second night we learned that Rongo, with all its eccentricity and “anything goes” attitude, had an annoying side to it. Our annoyance stemmed from the fact that the WWOOFers and resident artists significantly outnumbered the guests and took up a lot of space – mainly in the kitchen. You could hardly move in there. This was a minor issue, of course. I could look past it easily enough. But what I couldn’t look past was the radio station playing Janis Joplin’s greatest hits five times in a row! I like Janis Joplin, I really do, but playing her on repeat can grate on the nerves. Then, to top things off, the music finally changed only to become techno pounding, which played loudly outside our window until well after midnight.

So, in the end, I give Rongo major props for having a great garden, art-covered walls, music in the hallways, and for being an organic outlet for artistic expression. What I don’t give them props for is having their paying guests fighting for stove-top space and being forced to listen to thumpa-thumpa music into the dead of night.

So long, hippies.

UPDATE! Alice and Katie are now embarking on a Round the World trip!
Visit to follow along on their continuing

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mike on

good stuff, alice. those hippies and their vegetable sculptures and their all night techno... hey katie at least that spider wouldn't have fit in your ear!! and: so, you can be gollum if i can be bilbo - i have the hobbit feet you know. keep having fun; your adventures are inspiring me! xoxom

kl on

Just spent a peaceful evening catching up on the journey. wow. beautiful. amazing. thank you so much for all the detail and storytelling. I look forward to the updates of the last to you both....

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