The View From Below Ground

Trip Start Mar 06, 2013
Trip End Apr 04, 2013

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Where I stayed
AirBnB, Otorohanga New Zealand

Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

We achieved our last goal today: Touring New Zealand from below ground level. Having seen pretty much the entire place from the air, this seemed like the obvious way to finish up.

Yesterday we had another long driving day, starting in Wellington and finishing just north of Waitomo to stage for a 9 am. cave tour. We made an early departure from Wellington, had coffee in Paraparaumu and then stopped by the house of one of our Safari companions in Palmerston North. One of the Air Force boys who flew the part of the Safari in the NZ red checkers trainer CT4 invited us to swing by so we could watch some video. Previously we had known him only as 'Muscles' his Air Force call sign. His wife calls him Gareth.

Gareth had some cool video of his flying. It was interesting to learn that he had started as a mechanic on the last fighter jets that NZ had. By the time he finished pilot training, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawks were gone and he became a Huey helicopter pilot. He is now an instructor pilot. When new instructors finish their training they end with a low level aerobatic routine which he just happened to have on video. Some very nice flying and then they all get to end their flight with an engine out precision landing between a set of cones. He nailed it.

He also had a clip that showed him landing the helicopter on top of Mt. Cook. Nice that these things aren't done alone and that he got video from the other helicopter. In a dramatic 'create your own whiteout' sequence he sets the Huey down on top of a thick snow cap perched on top of the rock pinnacle. I don't think a full landing is ever made since the chunk of snow looked like it was ready to fall off the mountain at any moment. Very impressive.

From there we drove like mad up highway 1 towards Taupo. It was the end of a holiday weekend so the road heading south was clogged with cars and camper vans. Curiously, 10% of the cars were classic cars. There must have been a car meet somewhere but it was a little like driving by a car museum on parade. There was also a very strong police presence--something we had heard about on the radio. To our amusement we were stopped at one point by a police officer who was checking to make sure we were 'all right, not tired or anything'. We must have passed inspection because we were waived on after the briefest of assessments.

After a bite to eat in Taupo we headed for Otorohanga, where we had another Airbnb lodging for the night. We departed the main road and started winding through the countryside, nicely lit by the setting sun. Just like our drive out to Castlepoint, we passed very few cars on this road. It was like we were the only people there to enjoy the lovely scene and setting sun.

We arrived at the bnb just as it got dark. We knew that this Airbnb was a more authentic NZ experience: Otorohanga is not a tourist town. We had a very clean room with two twin beds that worked fine for us for another quick turn. The owner was worried about the trains that pass very close to the house but indeed they do just that, pass by. Unlike our house where the trains come, blaring their horns every block for 15 seconds, then stop, reverse to back up cars onto a siding, crossing more streets with more horns. If we're lucky then leave within 15 minutes. So, despite 2 trains, we were more amused by the fact that we could hear sheep bleating outside the bedroom window overnight.

Today dawned with thick fog, the perfect morning for caves. A 12 minute drive got us back to Waitomo where we admired the valleys draped with layers of fog. The caving operation was bright and cheerful with a number of people milling around or having breakfast at the cafe. We were collected at 9 am to get our gear: heavy, smelly wet suits, neoprene booties, boots, and the expected caving helmet with a light. To keep the water free from pests and invasive algae, no personal gear or cameras were allowed. It also helps to sell the pictures that the guide takes.

We were loaded into a bus and driven to our practice site. At this location we picked out flotation devices, inner tubes, and got to practice wedging our buts into the tubes and then plopping backwards off a little pier into the water. Fabulous. Once we were all wet and somewhat disgraced we were loaded back on the bus with the inner tubes and driven 2 blocks to the parking lot for the entrance of the cave. 

The entrance to the cave was unremarkable. Without the trail, man-made steps, etc., you could hike there all day and never notice it. Everyone wedged themselves and their inner tube into the mouth of the cave and sat down to meet the local wetas. (cave crickets) We then started trudging through the cave in our sloshing boots in search of water deep enough to float us all. Shortly we met the local eel, Cecil. He was not very pleased by us and disappeared into the gloom. Just as well as we had been lectured on the unpleasantness of eel teeth while at the nature preserve in Masterton. 

The highlight of cave touring here are the glow worms. These are not rare. As soon as it is dark enough to see them, you can tell that they are not in short supply. We had an amusing lecture on the life cycle of the glow worm, summarized as small, carnivorous, cannibalistic maggots that have glow-in-the-dark poop and that shag themselves to death. But they have excellent marketing for humans that like to see the stars while floating on an inner tube in a cave. 

When we reached the first waterfall we got to demo our backwards-plopping maneuver that we had practiced in daylight. The water was very low due to drought so some skill had to be exercised to not have an unfortunate interaction with limestone. We spent a wet hour slogging, floating and being towed through caves while enjoying the light show of the glow worms. At the end we floated into light where we scrambled up to a trail which was conveniently only a couple hundred yards from where the bus could be found. Essentially, this tour couldn't be better designed if Disney had done it. Since we were all decked out in an extra 20 pounds of smelly wet gear and ill fitting boots, I was happy to see that there was no hike back to civilization.

Civilization indeed as we were treated to hot showers and warm food upon arrival back at the headquarters. Success! NZ is a good below ground as it is from above.

Showered and fed, we jumped in the car to drive to Auckland.

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