Chapter 8: Glow-worms, and black water rafting.

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Where I stayed
Sunkist Lodge

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Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Saturday morning (8 November) I had a few hours to kill before leaving Auckland, so I strolled over to the Parnell section of town. It's centered around Parnell Street, which is a charming road lined with boutiques & flash eateries. I splurged on a delicious brunch (mmm... salmon benedict), browsed some bookshops, and relaxed a bit. At the Apple store I asked how much it would cost to buy a replacement remote/headphones kit for my i-Pod; the answer ($110 NZ) convinced me that my slightly frayed set was fine.

Around 1:30 I got on another Magic Bus with one other passenger and took off for the Coromandel Peninsula. From Christmas to Easter it's a prime beach & summer-home destination, but in the late Spring the whole region is just coming to life. The day was drizzly, but our driver (Craig) was chatty and made the 3-hour ride a lot of fun. We stayed at the quaint old Sunkist Lodge in Thames, which Craig runs with his mom. Supposedly it's haunted, but that only occurred to me at 3 in the morning when I got up to use the restroom in the pitch blackness.

Thames is the "Gateway to the Coromandel," and it was a big gold rush town over 100 years ago, so the architecture is very reminiscent of the gold rush towns in the western US. That also makes the whole place a little depressing, because it's clearly seen better days (it didn't help that we arrived late on a rainy Sunday afternoon).

We had a new driver on Sunday (Kevin) and a few more passengers, and we drove North up the west coast of the peninsula to the town of Coromandel after pausing to view yet another large Kauri tree. If Thames is half-awake in the Spring, then Coromandel is positively dead, although with a year-round population of only 1,500 or so I doubt it's ever very lively. We had lunch there; the local specialty is mussels, so decided to give them a go and ate 13 HUGE, green, nasty-looking (but inoffensive-tasting) mussels.

Next up was the famous "hot water beach" on the east coast of the peninsula. Geothermal activity heats up the rocks and underground water along the beach, so you can dig a hole several feet deep and sit in your own personal spa. Well, it would be your own personal spa, if not for the fact that there are hundreds of people all trying to cram into the same few square feet of beach where the phenomenon truly works. I stuck my finger in, but since squatting in a hot, crowded, dirty, salty puddle isn't my idea of fun, I climbed up on a warm rock and worked on my tan instead. At least it was finally sunny and warm in New Zealand! Anyway, the beach was fascinating despite all the people, so I'm glad we stopped.

That afternoon we ended up in Whitianga, which was a much more happening place than Thames or Coromandel (relatively speaking). On the Beach Backpackers was a marvelous hostel with brand new facilities and a jovial owner, and I enjoyed walking along the waterfront to the town. There were a lot of German (or at least German-speaking Swiss) travelers staying in the hostel, so it was great fun practicing my almost-forgotten German with them. It's surprising how fast a language comes back to you: I think I understood over 50% of the conversation, and I haven't spoken auf Deutsch in about 10 years!

Yesterday (Monday) morning we stopped for an hour-long hike at Cathedral Cove, which is a spectacular tucked-away beach featuring a cave/arch that vaguely looks cathedral-shaped when you walk through it to get from one end of the beach to the other. I looked up while walking through the cave and got splashed in the face by water dripping from the ceiling; supposedly that means I'm going to find true love, which is a pleasant thought, but I'd like a guarantee or something in writing. Also, some sort of indication of WHEN I can expect it would be nice. We got back to Thames & Sunkist in the mid-afternoon, and it was still sunny & warm out so I went to a park for a while, wandered around the town, and climbed up to a World War I memorial that looks out over the area.

Today I was the only passenger on the bus from Thames to Mercer, where I had to meet the Waitomo/Rotorua-bound bus. Once I swapped vehicles (the new bus was packed!) we set off for Waitomo. Most of the rides today took us through the area south of where the Hobbiton scenes from "Fellowship of the Ring" were filmed, so the scenery was similar if you'd like an idea of the view out the bus window. Waitomo is famous for its limestone caves and resident glow worms, so I decided to go on a "black water rafting" trip to make the most of the 3-hour stop.

"Black water rafting" is another name for "cave tubing," which is just what it sounds like: floating along an underground river in an inner-tube. 3 of us from the Magic Bus joined 3 other travelers (including Chip from LA, who I liked a lot), and we donned full wetsuits with thick boots (protection from big eels) and miner-helmets. After a 5 minute drive followed by a 5 minute walk, we made the steep descent into a tiny cave at the back of a farm. The whole caving part of the trip probably lasted 1-1.5 hours, and it was a great (though cold) experience. We drifted along for 1.5 km, sometimes in 100% darkness in claustrophobic tunnels, saw some cool underground formations and the awesome bio-luminescence of the glow worms, and tumbled over a waterfall and a slide. I'm definitely glad I made the extra effort for the float-through; most of the bus did a quick walking tour instead which they later described as "nice."

The bus got into Rotorua at 5pm, and I checked into Wall Backpackers, which is a new & snazzy hostel downtown. Rotorua is the unofficial Maori culture capital of New Zealand, and it's also VERY geothermally active. There are steam vents randomly all around the city, and the whole region reeks of sulfur. Tomorrow I'll stop at a Yellowstone-like park with geysers and boiling mud and wacky-coloured hot pools. The city itself is pretty nondescript, so I'm taking the opportunity tonight to organize my pack and update the journal! The internet cafe, by the way, is playing a techno cover of "Take Me Home, County Roads" at the moment, which I think is hilarious.

Tomorrow or Thursday I may jump out of a plane in Taupo, so hopefully the parachute will work and you'll hear from me again. In the meantime, e-mail me!!! I feel very out of touch with friends from home. My e-mail program has been acting a little odd: I've written back to several people who then sent e-mails a week later asking why I hadn't responded, so if that sounds like you then I apologize. I'm working on it. Hope all is well with you,

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