Waitomo and the glow worms – February 3

“So, was it type 1 or type 2 fun?” she asked me, as she unhooked me from the rope, with the help of the light from her headlamp.

“Huh?” I said.  “What do you mean?”

“Well, type 1 fun is fun in the moment.  Type 2 is fun, later, when you think back on it.  Or maybe it was a bit of both?” she asked, with a smile in her voice.

I couldn’t see her face. We were 35 meters underground, in a cave, and I’d just finished abseiling my way down.  We were standing on a small metal platform.  I considered her question.  On the way down, I’d struggled a bit with the rope, which was wet and much heavier than the practice one we’d used aboveground.  I’d never felt unsafe, just frustrated at my inability to make a smooth descent.  I’d kept stopping when I meant to just slow down, and had struggled to maneuver through a particularly narrow part. The guide and the two women who’d descended before me had turned off their lights while I made my way down, so I couldn’t tell how far I had to go, and the tour name, “Black Abyss,” made sense.

“A bit of both, I guess.”

The rest of the 5-hour tour was mostly type-2 fun for me, with a handful of type-1 moments.

After I was unhooked, I climbed down some stairs, and joined the others who were sitting on nearby rocks, and we all turned off our headlamps so the next person could descend into the darkness.  Sitting there in the dark, I was able to see the glowworms above, and with nothing but the sounds of running water coming from somewhere nearby, it was peaceful.

Once everyone made it down, our group of 6 (plus 2 guides) made our way through several more adventures.  We zip-lined in the dark, through a glowworm cave, and then laid down at the base area, so the next person wouldn’t kick us at the end of the line.  We sipped hot chocolate from colorful plastic cups while our feet hung over the edge of a cliff, with rushing water below and glowworms above.  We jumped (or, in my case, ever-so-gracefully climbed down a rope) into the water to float on inner tubes through the cave.  At one point, our guide had us link up into a chain (feet under armpits), we turned off our headlamps again, and she pulled all of us through the cave in the dark, so we could see the constellations of glowworms.  We tossed our tubes back up to the other guide, and then waded through the water with just our wetsuits.  I was freezing in spite of mine (a key reason it was Type 2 fun).  We slid face-first down a “natural man-made slide,” waded some more, and belly-crawled through a tiny “rebirth canal.”

We climbed up wet rocks and through more small caves and tunnels while avoiding falling into deep cracks and holes.  We took photos with a Gandalf-shaped stalagmite and then used the cocoa cups over our headlamps, underwater, along with long exposure camera tricks, to create some cool photo effects.  We visited with a resident eel who “bit someone last week.”  We reused the cups to drink hot tang and then took more long-exposure photos while we spelled things out as a group.

And then came the crazy part.

To get out, we climbed up 2 waterfalls.  And I don’t mean just water flowing over some rock-steps.  One of them was a near-vertical climb with a firehose of water coming down.  The guides were great, though, and showed us each exactly where to hold and step for what turned out to be a remarkably easy climb.  Still, when I got up and met the others who were sitting in the pool at the top, I said “I can’t believe I just did that!”

Note: photo above is not from our group’s photos, but is of the waterfall we climbed.

As I started to sit back and relax a bit, one of the others said “don’t get too close to the walls.  Spiders.”  Of course there are.

Just one more waterfall to climb (this one, easy) and we were finally back up above ground.

A short, sloshy, hike back to the van, ride back to the base, and I was finally warm.  Hot showers, tomato soup, and bagels didn’t hurt, either.

I spent my afternoon doing much less adventurous things – eating yummy mushrooms and bacon on toast, and visiting some local birds at the Kiwi House.

I caught the 3:30pm Kiwi feeding, and eventually my eyes adjusted to the darkness enough that I could actually see.  The woman who’d fed the Brown Kiwi came into the viewing area and talked to us for awhile, telling us all about the lives and times of kiwis.  She said that kiwis typically mate for life, but that due to the breeding programs they have going on, they sometimes get split up (to introduce more new bloodlines).  She said that after they lose a mate (in the wild or in captivity), they often “re-pair.”  I thought that was an interesting use of the word.

My last night in New Zealand, I spent taking a fun and twisty drive up to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge.

I walked back into town for another nice dinner at Stoked Eatery.  To mix things up, I opted to try the lamb “salad” (quotes mine).  Who needs greens? I’m on vacation!


Taupo to Waitomo – February 2

When I’d checked into my hotel in Taupo, I looked through the wall of brochures for ideas of things to do in the area.  “How about rafting?” the clerk had asked me.  Apparently he’d done it a couple of months back, and had really enjoyed it.  Besides, if you’re going to get wet anyway, it’s not a bad thing to do when it’s raining.  But… meh.  I’ve been rafting, before, and it just wasn’t calling to me.  The brochure that caught my eye was the one for parasailing.  But for that you really need decent weather.

After having called a couple of times (in the evening and then again in the morning), and being told they were watching the weather and playing it by ear, I had an amazing breakfast and then made my way down to the harbor on the off chance that the timing and weather would work out.

Nobody was at the parasailing boat area, and as I was considering whether to order a flat white and wait a bit, they called me back.  Meet there in 20 minutes.  Awesome!  Just enough time for a coffee, too!

I was the only passenger on the boat, and it didn’t take long for us to get out, get me hooked up, and get me up in the air.  And a good thing, too, because while I was up there, the weather started coming in.  I think they cut my ride short a bit because the wind was making things choppy, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  My feet were cold, so I didn’t mind that they didn’t wind up dipping my toes in the lake.  No sooner had I gotten unhooked and back into a seated position, than the rain came in and cooled things off even more.  By the time we got back to shore, they and their next passenger decided to wait a bit before going back out.

Since it was raining, I figured it was a good time for me to hit the road, and I headed down to see the other side of the lake, stopping in at the “Turangi Tongariro” i-Site to ask which short hike I should do to get some nice views.  They suggested I stop at a scenic overlook with good views of the lake before heading over to Whakapapa and hiking the Taranaki Falls loop.  So, I did.  There was a bit of excitement near the scenic overlook, where some folks (tourists on the wrong side of the road, perhaps?) had smashed in the front of their car.  A police officer was there, and was taking statements.  A good reminder not to get too comfortable, though, even when there’s very little traffic.

The Taranaki Falls loop was a nice hike, but unfortunately clouds obscured the peak. Along the trail, I chatted briefly with a couple of guys from Santiago who were on their way to do the Tongariro crossing “backwards.”  They wanted to know if I thought the water in the stream was safe to drink.  I had no idea, and wasn’t sure if “beaver fever” would translate, so I just said that even in places like Alaska where things are generally clean and not polluted, you don’t necessarily want to drink the water “because of animals.”  Hopefully they were more prepared than they seemed to be, and made it to their destination, safely.  They were certainly in a hurry to cross a pretty significant distance before dark, and were getting a late start.

A beautiful drive to Waitomo (well, to Te Kuiti actually), and my hotel welcomed me with a kitten in the reception area, and a giant cat napping in my parking space.  My kind of place!  I followed the receptionist’s suggestion for dinner and walked into town, where I ate at a pretty nice restaurant in the old railroad station.  Excellent lamb shank.

Taupo in the rain – February 1

The forecast was for rain all day, and every time I checked the weather, it said it was going to start in 10-15 minutes. So, I spent the morning drinking coffee in a few different cafes (and catching up on blog posts!)

In the afternoon, since the rain really didn’t seem to be amounting to much, I decided to go ahead and do a short hike between the Spa Thermal Park and Huka Falls (and back). Of course, it did start raining while I was out, but it wasn’t too bad. The falls were nice, but the hot river back at the thermal park was super crowded, and I didn’t feel like negotiating a spot so I just headed back into town.

Put on my “fancy” dress and treated myself to a delicious dinner at the nice restaurant across the street from the hotel. I had forgotten my phone in my room, though, so have no pictures of the well-plated coconut curry prawns or slow cooked pulled lamb. Instead, here’s the menu from their website.

Tauranga to Taupo – January 31

We’d been talking about what I should do for the next couple of days (after leaving Kiwi’s mum’s house), and whether Kiwi could come along. Ultimately we split the difference, and I spent an extra day near Tauranga. We went to a nearby cafe and stocked up on tasty & portable food, then her brother came over and drove the 3 of us to nearby McLaren Falls. She had hurt her knee a few days earlier, so she found a comfortable spot on the rocks while he and I scrambled upstream a bit, hopping from rock to rock. They were perfectly spaced and not slippery, and it was a lot of fun. I kept looking for eels in the river, but didn’t see any.

Back near the road, we put our feet in the water and watched kids jump off the bridge into the pool below the falls. Apparently kids make good eel bait, but I wasn’t going to jump in after them to find out!

We drove a little further up the road to a nice picnic area, enjoyed our tasty lunch (and Anzac biscuits), and relaxed for a bit before heading back to the house.

The rest of the afternoon we spent looking at old photos and telling stories about our time in Denmark. Then, a selfie photo shoot around the backyard until we shook off the pesky paparazzi arms. A tearful goodbye (and promises to see each other again), and I headed off to Taupo.

The 3rd gas station I stopped at accepted my pesky US chip-and-sign credit card. Someday maybe we’ll get PINs like the rest of the world…

My motel in Taupo was very clean and well-stocked, but came with strict instructions not to cook seafood or curry. Fortunately, Kiwi had provided me with plenty of other New Zealand food for my journey. Who needs “real dinner” when there are chips and Jaffas?

Rotorua – January 30

Up early and on the road by 8ish, we got to Wai-o-tapu in time to get tickets and make our way over to see the Lady Knox geyser presentation (and actual geyser) at 10:15. If left alone, it would go off on its own every day or two, but by pouring something soap-like in, they break the surface tension and the geyser erupts on a visitor-friendly schedule. The story goes that some nearby prisoners discovered this effect by accident when attempting to wash their clothes in what they apparently thought was just a normal hot spring.

We planned to stick around to see how long the geyser would last, but when it was still going about 40 minutes later, we decided to mosey on. We wandered around the rest of the park and saw, smelled, and heard lots of evidence of geothermal activity.

We drove over to Kerosene Creek (a hot river!) where we sat on the banks and enjoyed a free hot foot bath for awhile.

Then, into the town of Rotorua, where we stopped at the “i-Site” to book tickets for an evening Maori cultural event, and had a late lunch at a nearby cafe. Kiwi’s fish sandwich was nearly as tall as she was!

It was hot in the cafe, so after we left, we spent the rest of the afternoon seeking shade and cool breezes, and just relaxing in town. We had wanted to find a spot near the lake, but there were a lot of geese and not enough shade, there, so we wound up near the government building, where we found a good spot to lie on the grass and stare up at the sky for awhile.

The evening show was entertaining, and it was great to hear Kiwi’s reactions (“we learned these songs in school!” / “this is really quite typical…” etc). Dinner was a buffet that included “hangi” style roast meat, as well as a huge variety of other dishes. The smoked eel and shrimp salad were my favorites. We were serenaded while we ate, and they sang songs from several visitors’ countries.

After dinner, we went down to another geothermal area (the geyser here did not perform for us on schedule, but we did get hot chocolate and heated seats).

Then, a twisty and dark drive back to Tauranga. I kept up with the car in front of us, so I could use their lights to see around the corners a bit.

Back at Kiwi’s mum’s place, I ate the New Zealand trifecta dessert: trifle, pavlova, and hokey pokey ice cream. Diabetes never tasted so good.

Auckland to Tauranga – January 29

Up reasonably early, packed up, found the Skybus stop (around the corner), and headed back to the airport. While enroute, I prepared for driving in New Zealand by taking some online tests.

I stopped in at an airport cafe for a flat white and while waiting in line, overheard two girls behind me speaking Danish. I had to say “hej” and told them the story – that I’d been an exchange student in Denmark forever ago (1993-94), and was here in New Zealand to visit a girl who had been a really good friend while we were both there, but who I hadn’t seen since. I took their presence as a good omen, and got on with the show, catching the bus to the rental car place.

The drive was green and uneventful, and with very few sheep (mostly cows!?) until I got close to Tauranga.

It was so good to get to visit with “Kiwi” after all these years. We had lots to catch up on, and talked nonstop for about 3 days! The first day included stops at a local (and very popular!) fish & chips spot (we had to wait for around an hour – they need more fryers!), lunch by the water, a drive out to Mount Maunganui, an afternoon at Mount Hot Pools, sunset on the beach where we met up with a family friend of hers (who had with him a disco ball bedazzled portable stereo system, so we had an EDM soundtrack for the evening). Then dinner of fantastic Penang curry fish.

Auckland – January 28th

Landed around 9am, breezed through immigration (fancy electronic passport scanning meant I didn’t get a stamp, though!), and through customs (my declared snacks and hiking boots were fortunately acceptable). A quick stop at an ATM, then to Vodafone to pick up a local SIM card, and over to catch the (prebooked) Skybus into town. My hotel was conveniently just across the street from a stop, but of course my room wasn’t ready at 10:20am! No problem, just a quick re-organization of bags and I’d be off. What time is check-in? 2pm, okay. Oh, and how late can I check in? Reception is only open until 4pm? Argh…well that puts some constraints on my day! Ah, well, off to get some coffee while I consider an appropriate order of operations.

Swung back by the hotel afterwards and although my room still wasn’t ready, another one was. Glad I asked! Lovely shower and fresh clothes and an entire day ahead of me.

Since it was a beautiful day, I decided to take a ferry out to Waiheke island, where I then got a day pass for the public buses rather than the 4x-priced hop on/hop off bus.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to see, so I enjoyed the views from the bus for awhile, and then realized I’d really need to get more water before venturing far on foot, as it was getting quite hot. Used my phone to figure out where there was a grocery store, got off there, and picked up an enormous bottle of water. Asked around about food options, and called a couple of wineries before deciding to go to Stonyridge Vineyard.

After waiting a while, a bus finally came by and I made it to the vineyard, only to find out that the “snack menu” that had been described to me on the phone was really designed to be shared and that they couldn’t make any smaller portions. A meat and cheese plate to accompany some wine sounded fantastic, but $65 NZ just seemed absurd. I was quite “hangry” by this point, but managed to keep the temper tantrum inside my head, and “settled” for some fancy toast with pancetta and goat cheese. The waitress helped me find a great place to sit, on a big cushion under a shade tree, looking out at the vineyards.

Refreshed and in better spirits, I walked back to the road. I had been trying to decide whether to start heading back toward the ferry, or continue on to the other side of the island. A bus pulled up right as I was getting close to the road, and since there were a lot of people waiting to get on, I was able to make it, in time. So, back towards the ferry I went.

As we passed through town, I saw a mass of people lined up at an ice cream shop, so when the bus stopped just a block past it, I hopped off. They had some great flavors, including mandarin chocolate coconut, and roast strawberry nougatine with pomegranate jelly. A good stop! Then, another long wait for a bus back the rest of the way to the ferry.

Back in the city, I walked over to the Sky Tower, and found out that if I went to The Sugar Club (one of the bar/restaurants at the top), I didn’t need to pay the $29 fee to ride up — I just had to spend at least that much, up there. So, I ordered my “free” fancy cocktail and appetizer while enjoying the view in a comfy seat. As sunset was approaching, I rode to the observation deck and on up to the topmost viewing area.

I didn’t do even half of the things on my list of ideas, but I enjoyed my leisurely day in a nice city.