One last night in Auckland before setting off on the ‘organized’ part of the trip. Still shaking off the effects of a four-hour time shift, I fell into bed with a thump around 9 pm and was wide awake at 3 am. Not wanting to roll around restlessly for the rest of the night, I slipped out onto my hotel room balcony and took some night photos. This one of Auckland’s 328-metre skyline-piercing Sky Tower turned out not too bad.
The Sky Tower is marketed as “one of New Zealand’s most exhilarating and spectacular tourist attractions”. This is about 99% hyperbolic nonsense, but I will admit that building anything that tall in an earthquake zone is an engineering feat. That said, I am reasonably confident that New Zealand’s most spectacular attractions are things like mountains and beaches, not a reasonably handsome spire of concrete, metal and glass.
A brisk 20 minute walk from where I was staying brought me to the hotel lobby where the Kauri tour was set to begin at 8:30 am. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tour, but I knew that the tour company likes to book up to 14 people from various backgrounds onto each of their trips. The first person I met was Betsy, a recent retiree from the American southwest. Next to amble in were Steve and Betty, recent retirees from the American midwest. I was starting to sense a trend. Then around the corner moseyed a fellow named Danny, a retired firefighter from the American southeast. And that was our group – four Americans and yours truly. Our tour guide Lina made some brief introductions, loaded our gear into the trailer behind our minibus, and with that we were off.
I was keen to finally visit the New Zealand countryside. By reputation, I was prepared to encounter plenty of sheep after we made it beyond the Auckland metropolitan limits. And we did see heaps of sheep (eventually), but what blew me way was the number of cattle. On the north island, it seemed at times like there were more dairy and beef cattle than sheep. Every field we passed was home to a herd of Holsteins or Jerseys or Herefords or Black Angus. I would later learn that milk and meat products have become a huge portion of NZ’s exports, especially since the price of wool has collapsed in the last decade or two.
Our destination on Day 1 of the Kauri tour was a tour of the fabled glow worm caves at Waitomo. After a picnic lunch, we dropped into the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. and got suited up in black neoprene wetsuits, very stylish white rubber boots, and miner’s helmets. They might as well have posted a sign on the change room door stating “Abandon All Personal Dignity Here”.
One of my goals on this trip was to push my limits, with the intent of breaking out of my carefully-constructed shell. I’m a little bit claustrophobic, and I’m REALLY hydrophobic. Putting on a wetsuit, stuffing my ass into a precision-engineered ‘raft’ (known to some by its more common name – ‘random automotive inner tube’), and jumping backwards over 2-metre waterfalls into cool, dark pools of water is pretty much my definition of hell. But somehow, I dredged way down into my soul to find the courage to carry on. Our friendly spelunking tour guides did their best to bring some semblance of order to the chaos.
The cave we visited was called the Black Labyrinth, and it takes around ninety minutes to navigate the passage from start to finish. The cave varies from tight passageways to huge chambers. In some places, you can float along the river in your inner tube, merrily splashing away with your hands for propulsion. In other spots, you have to get out and walk with your tube, stepping across the uneven floor in anything from ankle-deep to chest-deep water. Two underground waterfalls make things even more interesting. There was even one section where the dozen or so people on the tour linked our ‘rafts’ together single file and cruised through a narrow portal in the dark, like an eel.
Whenever we switched off the lamps in our helmets, you could look up at the stalactites and see glow worms. Thousands upon thousands of glow worms (Arachnocampa luminosa larvae, to be precise) emitting an eerie pale green light, enticing insects to fly up towards the ‘heavens’ and into their mucous traps. With a little imagination, you could convince yourself that you were staring up into a starry sky despite being 60 metres underground. More than once, I wished I’d been able to bring my headphones with me to provide a soundtrack to the trip. Radiohead’s claustrophobic, otherworldly music would have been pretty much perfect.
While the glow worms were very cool to see, I was still ecstatic when we finally reached the cave exit. A short bush walk, a short bus ride and a long warm shower later, we were back at the reception area comparing notes over bagels and bowls of tomato soup. I think a few of us had been a little terrified by our experience, but we all managed to put on a brave face and walked away content that we had risen to the challenge.
Song of the Day: “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead