Vern: This was my favourite day in New Zealand. It started slowly with a side of the road breakfast and a drive into the 'Kiwiana capital', Otorohanga. In order to get travellers to stop here, they've tried to make the town's main road a celebration of all things Kiwi, so cut-outs of pavlovas, jandles (flip-flops), and Kiwi birds hang off the street lights and blow around in the wind. The jacked up I-site tourist centre then cleverly sells T-shirts decorated with these Kiwi icons, and also a shirt we liked which shouted out some of the world's great cities: "New York, London, Sydney, Otorohanga". We of course didn't need any of this shtick to pull over, we're sufficiently impressed with the good ol' public library and its glorious free Internet!
Ah yes! Finally it was time for our Black Water Tubing adventure. In the next town up, Waitomo, over 300 different caves have been discovered and we'd chosen a company who'd let us explore the underground network known as the Footwhistle Caves on inner-tubes.
We met at the tour company's kit-room and wriggled into already wet wetsuits, slipped into Wellingon Boots and strapped on helmets and headlamps (so as you can imagine, we were dressed to kill). Then, in a group with eight French people, we took our places on benches in the rear of a camouflage four-wheel drive and were driven a few minutes away to the side gate of a non-descript farm. In our heavy boots we plodded over a series of green mounds, like Telly Tubby land, which then dropped into a steep jungle gorge down to where the dark mouth of the cave awaited us. We collected our tubes and descended a rickety staircase down the rocky throat, dodging stalagtites hanging a metre and a half down from the top. These grow only a centimetre every century so we needed to be careful not to bash into them with our helmets. The ground levelled out into cavern, a beautiful and random cathedral. The guide told the story of how this cave was found by a European explorer and his Maori guide several hundred years ago and pointed out a malagtite (like a tumour grown out of the cave wall) which I'd say looked like a large squid. The explorer however thought it looked like a human foot coming out the bottom of a steam-train whistle and so named the cave system, 'Footwhistle caves'.
We were instructed to turn off our lights, to listen carefully to water trickling down the cave walls and to look up. It was beautiful, the caverns dome and walls were covered in glowworms which lit up green like the glow-in-the-dark stars we put on the ceiling as kids. We were mesmerised and then BANG! We were terrified. An eardrum-busting explosion tore through the chamber. The guide chuckled and said calmly, "Now look up." The little lights had burst into a hundred thousand splendid suns twinkling magically.
The vibration of the explosion had caused the rock to vibrate tricking the glowworms into thinking there was food nearby. Hoping to attract their next meal they notched the lightbulbs in their butts up to Max and unwittingly put on this spectacle for us.
The glowworms are the larvae of the unromantically named fungus gnat and have luminescent organs which glow green. They cling on to overhangs and weave sticky threads which hang down and catch insects which are are attracted to their light. They're in this larva state for up to nine months after which they transform into the mouthless mosquito-like gnat and then have three days to breed before dying of starvation.
We were then lead to the beginning of an underwater creek. I was up front and everyone else lined up behind me left hand on the shoulder of the person in front, and right hand left to run across the cave wall to keep one's bearings. Headlamps off again and we waded in the darkness through a narrow passage. Each step took our little train deeper into the bitterly cold water which seeped up into the wetsuits inch by inch. The Frenchies yelled out rugby anthems to keep the gloworms burning bright. Chin deep and on tippy-toes I'd become somewhat worried that I'd led everyone astray in this fairy-lit wonderland but suddenly the guide's voice boomed, "Headlamps back on."
A ladder led up to a platform and 6-feet down on the other side of the platform the cave river continued into the abyss. I climbed up to the platform. "Face me, put your tube round your bum like you're sitting on a doughnut. And FALL!"
KERPLUNK! SPLASH! I ended the six foot backwards trust-fall arms and feet flailing in an eruption of water. I wiped the water from my face and drifted out of the danger zone. Andrea was next and was mid sentence, "So I just fall? Backwards? This is a bit sca..," and SPLOOSH! she dropped back and disappeared into the black water then bobbed up as the waves settled, giggling and checking her contacts were still in place. One by one, like lemmings, the rest of the group leaped and squealed and splashed until we were all floating on our tubes in the deep water. Lights out again and we drifted under the flickering green orbs as if on a lazy river ride through a planetarium. The guide set off another heart-stopping explosive device and the glowworms burned bright in dazzling constellations.
After tubing for sometime (it could never be long enough!) we bumped up against a second platform. Here we surrendered our tubes and in a second trust exercise hurled ourselves down a water-slide into the pitch black beyond. The Beyond turned out to be a surprisingly shallow puddle and that was the end of the waterway. Wellies still full of ice-water we scrambled up through a passage way and then ascended a long staircase which led back into the world above via a mossy gorge. We were whisked back to town where hot showers and a hot drink awaited.
Exhilarated, we made ourselves some soup and bread for lunch and talked through every aspect of that awesome excursion. Then, noticing other campervanners making use of the Waitomo Rugby Club's clubhouse, we gave our dishes a good wash (we may have been cutting corners while water was scarce) and treated ourselves to a cup of tea.
Following some advice from the I-site in Otorohanga, we then headed out on the scenic route to Kawhia and the next three stops exemplify touring New Zealand. Three (free) short well-maintained trails a stones throw from each other led natural wonders:
(1) The impossibly picturesque Mangapohue Natural Bridge - a giant limestone arch over a leafy canyon which is all that is left behind after the rest of a cave roof had collapsed. A loop walk took us over the bridge and through a farm where fossilised oysters were clearly visible in the rocky outcrops protruding out of the farm land.
(2) The Piripiri cave - a creaking staircase leads down into a small platform hovering between the stalactites and stalacmites inside a huge cavern.
(3) Marakopa Falls - A large curtain of rushing water falls loudly over an erratic system of terraces and trees. Rainbows appear and disappear in it's spray which drifted over to us on the little viewing deck 50m away.
And of course the sky was awash with swaths of pink and purple as the sun set on our little green camper tilting round the bends of the Kawhia Harbour road. We pulled over at a rest stop for the night and enjoyed a remarkably complex pack of Ramen two-minute noodles which included five sachets (soy, chilli, oil, onion, seasoning) which were to be blended together to create an Oriental Fusion feast. If that wasn't Fusion enough we served ourselves beet(root) and carrot salad on the side. In case you are wondering: Yes, we're now expecting a ludicrously generous advance for our series of cookbooks on cullinary delights for under $1.