What’s that we can see in the gloom?

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We had an earlier start today because we were booked for a cave tour at 10:00 am a bit more than an hour away. We had planned to leave around 8:30 am to allow a bit of buffer time but managed to be in the car and moving around 8:15 am.

As we entered Whatawhata the navigation indicated a left turn to join the main road south. Majella missed that turn and it rerouted. I expected that would bring us back to the main road in a few kilometres but instead it took us along a series of secondary roads through more green rolling hills sprinkled with sheep and cattle. It was scenic and we had time to spare so we were not bothered that we did not rejoin the main road until we reached Otorohanga after about 40 minutes.

Majella and I had been to Waitomo Caves to see the glowworms when we travelled with friends in 2010. When I was organising for our 2021 trip I booked our tour there but later cancelled when COVID prevented travel. As I was setting up for this trip I discovered there were alternative cave tours and selected Spellbound based on their website description, reviews, and reports that David Attenborough had selected it for one of his shows that included glowworms. 

Because we were staying some distance away and would need to be on time for a booked tour I checked the location. At that time the location in the Apple and Google maps apps was showing as next door to the Waitomo Caves and did not match the Boddies Road address nearer to Te Kuiti. The problem appeared to be Tripadvisor from where both apps got their information about Spellbound. Google Streetview showed a rough shack at the Boddies Road address with a chained gate. I emailed Spellbound and was advised that there had been some work done since Google did its rounds. I booked and hoped.

As expected from my Google Streetview reconnaissance, the road became gravel a couple of kilometres short of Spellbound. As we arrived around 9:30 am, things did not look too different from the Google images but there was evidence of recent work and there was already a car parked with a couple waiting. Soon enough Pete, our guide, arrived and welcomed us. Another couple of cars arrived and around 10:00 am all 9 passengers climbed into a van and Pete drove us up and across the road and down a narrow winding gravel farm track. Pete had made an effort to get names of all his guests, even suggesting that for the duration of our tour he be Pete and I be Peter. However, it was not long before he started addressing Majella as Magdelena, causing us a little private amusement.

The ground dropped steeply on either side of the track and Pete pointed out features of the limestone geography including holes that had been plumbed as deep as 40 metres from the valley floor and the pancake layering caused by mud originally deposited between layers of shells. Some way in he stopped the van and we got out to enjoy the view across the deep valleys and hills with pancaked limestone outcrops. He invited those of us able to walk to follow a foot trail to the bottom of the hill while he drove the van down so we would not need to walk back up.

Majella and I were at least twice the age of any of the others who were all able bodied. Nobody shirked and we enjoyed the gentle walk to the entrance to the cave where Pete met us. He issued us hard hats with lights and led us into the cave into which the stream that ran down the valley disappeared. Evidently most of the construction effort to date has gone into building substantial platformed path into the cave so that we were able to walk on a smooth level surface above the stream that ran below. At one point we were able to see a high water mark from floods earlier in the year. That was well above our heads.

Not far into the cave we saw our first glowworms. Pete stopped and spend some time to explain how glowworms are pupae of an insect which eat insects that their light attracts to be caught in fine silk tendrils they extrude from their mouths. Each glowworm has several tendrils hanging and once an insect is trapped they haul it up to be sucked dry.

At that point we were able to get photos of the glowworm tendrils that Pete had lit up and of glowworms on the roof of the cave beyond. Pete used his well developed technique to light up faces with his phone while using a participant’s phone to take a photo with glowworms visible behind.

From there we moved further into the cave where a weir had been constructed to make a pool on which a rubber boat could be floated. We climbed into the boat, doused all lights and phones, and Pete then used an overhead cable to pull the boat along toward the weir. The roar of water over the weir became louder as we approached it, wondering if we might go over. 

We didn’t and as our eyes became accustomed to the dark we could see more of the fainter glowworms and the people around us in the boat illuminated by the eery glow. Pete turned the boat at the weir, pulled upstream, turned and went down to the weir again, and finally went back up, turned and docked. By that time our eyes had adjusted and we could see much better than before the outline of the cave roof and the reflections of the glowworms in the water. We needed little or no extra light on our walk out of the cave.

Morning tea was a simple affair. Pete produced some biscuits along with milk, teabags, instant coffee and chocolate powder. That was just enough to fill a short break before we walked along a track to the second cave we were to visit. Again Pete drove the van near to the cave entrance so we would not need to walk back.

The second cave was drier but had a lighted walkway past some interesting formations and a large chamber. Partway in there was a hole in the roof through which we could see the trees above. There was another hole in the roof at the end of the path, about 250 metres in. On the return walk we looked at some remnant bones of a moa, the large flightless bird, similar to an emu, that the Maori hunted to extinction about 600 years ago. We also walked in complete darkness for a bit, holding the rail, so as to see a few glowworms high on the roof.

Once out of the cave we got back in the van and Pete drove us up the hill and out to our starting point. We were soon in the car and heading for Te Kuiti and lunch.

On the way into Te Kuiti Majella spotted a cafe and pulled in. We ate lunch with coffee or, in Harry’s case, ginger beer. then we drove a little further into town to see the Big Shearer, a feature of Te Kuiti which is at the centre of a wool producing district.

My plan for the afternoon had been to visit Marokopa Falls. We drove back toward Otorohanga and took the turn toward Waitomo Caves. A short way past that point I checked the website to see how far we might have to walk and found that the observation platform was unserviceable. We didn’t see much point in driving on for a 15 minute walk with the possibility of not seeing what we came for.

Majella suggested we go to Hamilton Gardens, found a place to turn around, and we were off. As we approached Otorohanga we came to the Big Azz ice cream store which we had seen and noted on the way down this morning. We stopped for ice creams – hokey poky, the NZ classic, for Harry, fresh mixed berries for Majella, and caramel fudge for me. They were big, too big for Majella so I had to help her finish hers.

We were going to stop at the big kiwi statue in Otorohanga but Harry had been asking about kiwis so we decided to go to the Otorohanga Kiwi House. They have kiwis in time-shifted spaces so the nocturnal birds are active during the day. We have been to such places before but even knowing the kiwi is in the enclosure does not make it easy to spot one in the dark. We were lucky and managed to catch glimpses of a kiwi as it dashed out of cover and quickly back while foraging. They also have a variety of other NZ animals and birds. We managed to see geckos and a Tuatara, Tui, Kaka, Kea, and several types of duck among others. On the way out of Otorohanga we stopped for a photo by the Big Kiwi. 

Our route to the Hamilton Gardens went around the southern outskirts and got us there around 4:00 pm. We had time to walk through several of the themed gardens – Italian, Indian, Chinese, English, Japanese, Tudor, Maori, and more. We left as the gardens were closing just after 5:00 pm. 

As we were heading out from one of the inner gardens a man came running from behind us concerned that the gardens might be closing because he had encountered a locked gate. Majella assured him that there was plenty of daylight remaining and the gardens should not be closing soon. He went back to see more. It was not until we walked out the gate past the security guard that we realised that advice was wrong. The inside of the outer gate had a number to call in case of problems. We hoped he had his phone if he did not find his way out soon.

As we arrived back at our accommodation we drove a little further on to the arboretum at the end of the road, mostly to see how far that might be. It was only a few hundred metres. At the entrance was a sign asking people not to dump domestic roosters to add to the flock of fowls that has the run of the arboretum. After we had time for a rest at our accommodation Harry expressed interest in seeing the chooks so he and I walked to the arboretum for a look. The signs advertised what looked like an interesting 90 minute circuit walk but whether we consider that tomorrow will depend on the weather.

As we left the arboretum, Harry tried his hand at ‘chicken whispering’, hoping to pat one. It probably expected to be fed and looked more likely to bite the hand trying to feed it than submit to his caress.

There was enough pasta left from last night for dinner so we reheated that in the oven. Followed by ice cream and fruit it was more than enough. Since I hadn’t needed to cook, Majella waited with her anagrams game until after dinner and then beat both Harry and me before returning to see what NZ television might offer.