Welcome To New Zealand
From the time we landed in Auckland, we were told to hurry up and leave the North Island. The guy at passport control -- a proud Aucklander -- started the trend. Though he clearly loved New Zealand's most populated city and seemed to delight in the disdain that the rest of the country has for his home town. (Giggling, he shared with us some of the less flattering names created to describe Auckland residents.) Even he "reckoned" we should head straight to the South Island, which is widely considered to contain most of New Zealand's highlights, but a small fraction of its population. He asked how much research we had done on N.Z. (pronounced "en zed"). We quickly responded that we had watched the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy twice. His smiling response was, "Fair enough."
We chatted and laughed together for what seemed like ages about subjects that had very little to do with the purpose of our visit or the length of our stay, while the queue of long-suffering international airline passengers stretched out behind us, growing longer by the minute. Though we certainly empathized with our fellow bedraggled travelers, the memory of standing in that seemingly interminable line still fresh, we couldn't help remarking as we walked towards baggage claim that that was the most pleasant entry into a country we'd yet experienced.
Despite our new friend's advice, however, we weren't yet prepared to leave the North Island. We had finally found a camper van with an automatic transmission, but it wouldn't be free for another six days. (If there's one lesson we've learned repeatedly this year, it that we should learn to drive manual before traveling overseas again.) So while waiting for our new home on wheels, we spent a day brushing up on New Zealand history at the Auckland Museum and then we rented a car to explore further afield.
While we normally have trouble making decisions, in this case our first stop outside of the city was easily determined. As soon as we read about the tiny, slimy bio-luminescent worms that dot cave ceilings like stars in the night sky, we knew which way to point the car.
Waitomo is terribly small, too small for a real grocery store, dashing our self-catering hopes. But the YHA makes a mean pizza and more importantly, this tiny hamlet offers a great variety of tours and tour operators, which inevitably brought out our indecisive qualities. Undeterred by the silliness of its title, we eventually settled on the more affordable Rap, Raft 'n' Rock tour, because (as the name indicates) if you go with them, you get three activities in one: rock climbing, tubing, and caving. (Most companies offer similar but pricier adventure combos.)
The first step was getting geared up in a pre-dampened wet suit (note: this is not pleasant) with some well-torn sweat pants on top, a homemade headlamp helmet with battery pack and some gum boots with drainage holes drilled into the bottoms. Our guide helped us into our climbing harnesses, which we required for the abseil down to the cave entrance as well as the climb out. After a quick abseiling tutorial, we were soon dropping one by one to cave level and the icy stream water was flooding our boots. We grabbed some tire-like inner tubes and splashed to the entrance. Even before our headlamps were extinguished you could seem the worms. Once the lights were all switched off and we were reclining comfortably on our tubes, all talking stopped and all discomfort from the cold faded. I've never seen anything like it. In a way, it was better than a starry night because they were so many of them. Our guide rattled off facts about this tiny insect larvae, the most memorable being that the light they produce actually comes from the burning of waste (if you are uncouth, you could think of it as phosphorescent poo), but I refuse to stoop to your level.
It's truly an ingenious trick of nature. The glowworms make the cave's ceiling appear to be the open night sky so that the mayflies that hatch in the cave's stream are fooled into flying up into their sticky beaded strings that act like a spider's web trapping prey. These string traps hang in rows from the mucus hammocks in which the glowworms live. We turned the torches back on to take a closer look at this strange and wondrous insect, careful not to breath on them, causing the strings to stick together and preventing them from eating. While very interesting to look at in the light, they are undoubtedly more beautiful in the dark.
When the torches were turned off again, we made a chain of tubes (feet under the armpits of the person in front of you) and floated downstream. This was the best way to experience the glowworms' magic: gazing up at the changing view, gently bobbing in water and listening to the trickling which slowly shapes the cave system and creates the right conditions for underground constellations.
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