A March 2003 trip
to Waitomo by wanderluster
Quote: Feeling adventurous? Try abseiling 300 feet into the eerie Lost World cave, then swimming, jumping and rock climbing your way back out. Not your thing? Go for spectacular walks inside and outside Anarui Cave, ride a boat under a zillion twinkling glowworms or try blackwater rafting. Choices abound!
Our favorite all-day tour in New Zealand was the Lost World Epic abseiling and caving adventure here in Waitomo. Absolutely thrilling to descend through a mist 300 feet into a magical cave, then swim, jump, climb and squeeze your way out the dark deep interior. A must do!
Another hit was the scenic Waitomo Walkway that led from pastures to a forest studded with limestone formations. We also rode horses over Hobbit-like land, visited stalagmites and stalactites up close on a dry tour of the fairyland Aranui Cave, and learned about pioneer history at Billy Black's wacky one-man Kiwi Cultural show.
The staff at the Visitor Information Center located in the middle of the village, in the same building as the Cave Museum, is fantastic at arranging activities or lodging in the area. They were extremely helpful and efficient in tracking down our bus when we got left behind, and setting up additional activities and transportation for the following day.
Check out www.tourism.waitomo.govt.nz and www.waitomo.co.nz. sites to view numerous options and note their departure times. Some activities leave at 7am, important to know in advance as transportation to Waitomo is quite limited. Or wait till you arrive and watch the Cave Museum's audio-visual show to get a glimpse of what it's like to abseil, raft, climb or swim in the underworld.
An excellent option is taking the train from Auckland to Otorohanga, where you will then need to take a shuttle to Waitomo. You have two choices. The NZ TranzRail Overlander train departs Auckland at 8:30am and arrives Otorohanga at 11:23am (costs ), whereas the Northerner night train departs Auckland at 8:40pm and arrives Otorohanga at 11:30pm (costs ). The night train does not operate Saturdays.
The Waiomo Shuttle Bus picks you up anywhere in Otorohanga, departing at 9, 11:30, 3:45 and 6pm. Cost is (3.50 US) per person. The friendly Kiwi driver will also transport you at any given time for per van. He picked us up off the night train, and we arrived in Waitomo at midnight.
There are no taxis or car rentals near Waitomo. But stay in the village and you can walk everywhere!
For starters, staff at Kiwipaka were attentive and helpful months before I even met them. Quick to reply to my emails, they provided me with information and answers and went beyond the call of duty. They arranged a private shuttle at midnight for us from the train station at Otohanga to Kiwipaka, and waited up for us to check in. With smiles on their faces.
We got off the train tired from a long day of travel (started out in Golden Bay that morning) and sure enough a talkative Kiwi grabbed our luggage and shuffled us into his van providing a non-stop commentary about the area until we reached the front door of Kiwipaka. A beautiful Maori gal greeted us with a genuine smile on her face, gave us our keys and led us to our ensuite room.
The room was spotlessly clean. There was a double and twin bed under a large window, and an attached large modern bathroom with it's own shower. (Side note: this was one of only two bathrooms in all of the hostels we stayed that actually had an outlet for a hairdryer..a big plus!) All for $60NZ a night ($32US).
It was a quiet place to stay even though there are dorm rooms of 4 people per room in the same hallway. Our 3rd night we ended up staying in a double with shared bathroom facilities and were impressed by the sufficient number of spotless shower and toilet stalls–never had to wait in line. On the second floor is a TV/game room with a deck and a separate reading room with Internet access.
In the reception building you can store your luggage for free (locked) and eat at the Morepork Pizzeria, which is a wonderful little restaurant that specializes in gourmet pizzas, and excellent mammoth salads topped with grilled salmon or chicken. Since it's a YHA Hostel, no alcohol is served on the premises, but you can walk a few yards down to the Tavern and bring a bottle of wine or beer back to the restaurant. We ate several meals here. Always fantastic service by smiling Maori staff, great food in an artful atmosphere.
A block away is the Information Center, Cave Museum, Waitomo Adventure Company, and the beginning of the Waitomo Walkway. Two blocks away is the Glowworm Cave. All other tours and activities can be arranged from Kiwipaka who'll provide transport too. They'll even take your credit card payment for a tour that only accepts cash (there are no banks in tiny Waitomo) or provide torches and gumboots for late night exploring. Awesome place.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 23, 2003
In the heart of Waitomo Village
Waitomo, New Zealand
Waitomo Adventure Company is the company to go with! Guides are fantastic, and everything is included from gear (wetsuits, helmets, headlamps, gumboots) to food (lunch, tea, even a barbecue dinner after hot showers). And groups are small (max eight). "All you need is your swimsuit and ATTITUDE!" is their slogan, because it is not for the faint of heart.
We met our two guides and drove to a private farm where we changed into wetsuits and harnesses. Then practiced using carabineers – clipping on and off the ropes – in the woods before walking through pastures to reach the gigantic sinkhole.
Here we descended a ladder to reach a metal platform 100 meters above the cave floor. Beyond the platform, five heavy ropes dangled down into infinity. I couldn't see the bottom – we were unnervingly high. The coal miner in our group was starting to sweat. And it wasn't the heat.
Four of us went down at a time tied on to a guide. The scariest part was leaving the platform, sitting backwards on a metal bar that seemed to be suspended in air. I was worried that my butt wouldn't reach the bar. And I happened to be going first – would the others attached to me join my freefall? My arms flailed for just a nanosecond (without anything to hold onto) as I sank back into the air – 300 feet from the bottom mind you – to reach the bar, then grab the rope and hang there waiting for the others.
People on the cave floor looked like colored dots.
I had never rappeled, yet with the instruction and confidence instilled by the guides I wasn't afraid, despite dangling by a rope like a spider over a doorway.
The descent through fairyland took about 20 minutes. We pulled the rope near our thigh upward to descend, and wrapped our right leg around the rope when the tension in the rope loosened. David and I laughed most of the way down, trying our best to take pictures one-handed while spinning around.
Back on land, we ate sandwiches beside a gurgling river while the second group descended through the mist. Then we climbed over rocks toward the dark interior, reaching a large boulder termed "Jesus Rock," the postcard picture of the tour. It was a beautiful spot with the dramatic sun-lit misted cave entrance in the background, but I was out of film.
Time to chuck our cameras into dry bags - we were going caving! (See part two).
Abseiling into Lost World Cave (part 1)
Waitomo Caves Village
Waitomo, New Zealand
Attraction | "Wild Wet Adventures in Lost World Cave (part 2)"
"Where?" I asked incredulously, peering into vast black nothingness, straining to see water below. "No way," my inner voice shrieked.
With trepidation I watched David jump, following the light of his headlamp as he plunged into the belly of the cave, eventually splashing into the river below. He surfaced laughing, exhilarated, whooping with delight. "Come on, it's great!"
I glanced at my white gum boots perched on the edge of slippery limestone willing them to move.
"Just jump straight down," the guide said. I closed my eyes, plugged my nose, and jumped. The air was deathly quiet as I fell down, down, down, down. The point of impact came as a surprise, as did the icy cold water seeping under my wetsuit.
"Whoo-hoo! What a RUSH!" I shouted, my words echoing up to the other six people in our group. Their faint headlamps illuminated the distance I had just jumped. Zounds . . .
That was just one of many thrills and chills of our all-day "Lost World Epic" caving experience. Throughout the five hours underground, we climbed through cathedral-sized vaults over steep, jagged limestone, scrambled behind waterfalls, squeezed through tunnels, wriggled under boulders on our bellies, jumped off cliffs, straddled rocks over agitated caldrons, swam feet first under rock sumps, and laid under a twinkling starry cave-sky produced by a zillion bluegreen glowworms. About 80% of the time we were in water.
During one 15-minute section, our guides turned off our headlamps and instructed us to find our own way down the river, using the jagged limestone ledge to our right as a guide. It was pitch black. And sometimes impossible to get a handhold on the rocks. Twice the river swept me away.
The water was over my head and full of eels, but the isolating darkness was the freakiest. I knew David was ahead of me, but couldn't see or hear him--or anyone--over the sound of rushing waterfalls. Eerie. Yet wildly fun and adventurous. Of course the guides played that up, and scared us to death when they suddenly sprang out of the water yelling, splashing, and blinding us.
Another time we attempted to climb limestone rocks bordering a wicked 15-foot waterfall. David made it, but my legs simply couldn't straddle the space between the rocks as I ascended, and I fell. Nothing bruised, just my ego. Time for the alternate route–clipping onto the safety rope and climbing a metal ladder.
The last challenge was another blind swim toward the opening where we saw sunlight streaming through a mist, lighting up mosses and ferns along the river. We emerged into daylight blinking, already regretting it was over. The entire day had been a blast. And certainly the most adventurous tour any of us had ever taken.
Waitomo, New Zealand
Attraction | "A simple, dry walk through Aranui Cave"
Located a bit out of town you have several choices on transportation. You can walk here along the scenic Waitomo Walkway beginning at the Visitor Information Center which will take about an hour and a half, drive here from Waitomo Village in 15 minutes, or do like we did and ask for a ride when you make your booking at the Information Center. We purchased our tickets there and walked 10 minutes to the Glowworm Cave where our Maori guide picked us up in a van and drove another 10 minutes to Aranui.
The cave was discovered in 1910 by Ruruka Aranui, a young Maori man who was chasing a wild pig across pastures and into the forest. It has been owned and operated by Maori ever since.
Our guide led us inside the locked entrance into a wide chamber. Stalactites hung from the ceiling just inches away from our heads. A metal webbing protected them from further destruction from careless tourists eager to grab a piece as a souvenir. Our guide explained how each limestone feature took hundreds of years to form from dripping carbonate-rich water.
Huge cave crickets were the only living thing we saw on the walls. At least this was an appropriate place for them to be, unlike a cave cricket infested cabin I stayed at in Tennessee.
We entered the Cathedral Chamber 20 meters high where the stalactites hang 6 meters and the stalagmites are 3 meters tall. I especially liked the shawls, which were large convoluted formations that looked like angel wings. Different chambers had names such as Fairy Walk, Aladdin's Cave, Temple of Peace and Eastern Scene where miniature limestone buddas stood together.
Since the cave tour is relatively short, I would highly recommend one of NZ's most scenic walks accessed right from the carpark. Look for the sign pointing to the Ruakuri Natural Bridge and follow this trail. It's a 45 minute loop on fairly flat ground, although there are quite a few stairs on the paved loop. You'll be rewarded with beautiful forest views of interesting trees, flax, ferns, a gurgling stream and waterfalls surrounded by moss-covered rocks and a swing bridge.
Fifteen minutes into the forest you'll come to a paved loop where you will see lots of limestone formations including boulders, caves, tunnels and secret passageways. One such hole in the huge limestone rock has steps that lead to a waterfall and the Natural Bridge. And at night you can see glowworms hanging from the surface of limestone platforms and caves near the water.
Admission for the cave is $25NZ (14.50US) but the Ruakuri Natural Bridge walk is free. So, do both!
Waitomo Caves Road
Waitmo, New Zealand
Attraction | "Wandering along the scenic Waitomo Walkway"
The Waitomo Walkway winds through karst landscape--over rolling green hills scattered with limestone outcroppings and through a forest--leading to Ruakuri Natural Bridge, the scenic highlight of the hike, where waterfalls cascading over mossy rocks and limestone caves beg to be explored.
The trail starts across the Information Center and takes a minimum of three hours round trip. Just allow plenty of time, and bring torches. It gets very dark at night, scary for hiking back, but perfect for seeing hundreds of blue-green glowworms twinkling for free.
My husband, David, and I started out at 5:30pm on a sunny summer day in February. We followed the narrow dirt path up open grassy hills, crossing stiles when walking through pastures. At times it was difficult to tell if we were on the trail or one created by sheep. But orange poles periodically mark the way.
Once we lost the trail. Our apparent horse trail dead-ended at the road. Back on track, we climbed and descended another hill, crossed the road, and rambled into the forest. A sign read: "25 minutes to Ruakuri Natural Bridge." David had had enough. He was hot, thirsty, and tired of hiking. So he turned back, while I continued on.
The sunlight was quickly fading in the shaded canopy of trees, making me suddenly cognizant of time and the realization that I didn't have a torch to find my way back in the dark. So I decided to jog. The trail opened into pastures. Puzzled sheep stared at me as I whizzed by.
I crossed a swing bridge, and came face to face with a cow. The hilly trail seemed to go on and on. Tired from jogging, I slowed down to enter a magical canopy. Colorful finches fluttered beside me as I wandered through dramatic shoulder-high flax plants and fern trees.
I reached the Anuruni Cave carpark at 7pm. Empty. As desolate as the trail. (So much for hitching a ride.) A sign read: "Ruakuri Natural Bridge 45-minute loop ahead." And dusk was definitely darkening.
I hurried through the loop in twenty minutes, passing numerous limestone formations, a beautiful river, waterfalls, caves, hanging mosses and ferns, a swing bridge, and mysterious tunnels. But where was the Natural Bridge? I popped my head into a dark cave--SURPRISE! Two college-aged girls taking photographs of each other screamed when I entered, scaring me in return.
I spent the next hour with Sylvia and Charlotte exploring caves, finding the elusive Natural Bridge and taking their photo. They wanted to pose for photos every five steps . . . against ferns, inside every cave . . . but they were fun, and I enjoyed their companionship.
When we left, people were arriving with torches heading in to see the glowworms. I realized what they were up to but didn't tell the girls. It was late, and David would be downright mad.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo Caves Road
Waitmo, New Zealand
64 7 878 8227
Waitomo Caves Horse Treks is an operation run by Rob and Cathy from their farm about 25 minutes west of Waitomo. They'll come into town to pick you up for free with a minimum of two riders. We made and paid our booking at our hostel Kiwipaka, signing up for a two-hour ride.
At 9:30am, Cathy promptly picked us up at the hostel and drove us through the country. Her 18-month old was in the car entertaining us, reminding us of our own 22-month old at home. Cathy explained that she and her husband started this business recently and only plan to offer horse treks for another five years. Her reason? Because they're afraid that in five years their zealous passion for riding and leading people on horse treks will wane, and when their tours start to become routine it won't be fair to the riders. They want every rider to have an outstanding experience in their beautiful countryside.
When we arrived at the farm, Cathy led her toddler around on one of the horses while David and I selected helmets and horses with Rob. The horses were assorted breeds, but all looked sturdy, well-groomed, and well-mannered. I spotted a palomino, but he wasn't ready to ride yet.
We rode with Rob through the forest down a steep muddy trail, across a valley then up on a ridge where craggy limestone outcroppings, caves, and disappearing streams broke up the landscape. This was karst country. Remember the Shire in Lord of the Rings? Imagine the green rolling hills of the Hobbit's Shire--which, incidently, was filmed an hour away from here. That's what the scenery looked like. Beautiful.
I liked the high ridges best with panoramic views of the countryside. Hundreds of sheep dotted the hilly pastures, along with several mountain goats up in the high areas along the ridge.
My horse was a bit slow, but I think he held back on purpose so he could trot. David and Rob kept a pretty steady pace walking, lost in deep conversation. I was too far back to overhear anything, but enjoyed the solitude of the ride.
Every once in a while, my horse would break into a trot without warning striving to catch up with the others. The distance wasn't long enough to develop into anything other than a trot. But, toward the end, my horse must have recognized where we were. He broke into a trot, then a cantor passing Rob and David's horses and flew up a hill, over the hill, and across the pasture to the stable. Great fun!
Ride from 1 hour NZ$40(US$24), 2 hours NZ$50(US$28), to multi-day. Loving and dependable childcare is available.
Horseback riding over Hobbit-like land
20 minutes drive from Waitomo
Waitomo, New Zealand
Billy Black (being the sole employee at his Woodlyn Park) picked us up at the Information Center and drove us to his rather large building which houses a country-styled bar/reception room, and a stage to hold his pioneer show. We looked around the old photographs and farming equipment on the walls while he waited for other people to arrive. Slowly people wandered in.
He energetically moved across the stage, passionately sharing pioneer history in a humorous light. What a character! Robin Williams incarnate. Same sense of humor, voice, even appearance. Only a person like that could carry off a show like this.
In the Bush to Farmland segment of his show, we were introduced to the two pieces of equipment used by pioneers to clear the land: an axe and a double handled saw. He showed how men would fell trees, and plant grass by hand, wearing sacks and walking the hills. Fences were made by splitting logs with gunpowder. Each demonstration called for volunteers. The pranks were cheesy and made buffoons out of the volunteers.
One woman had to hold the gunpowder for the (fake) explosion. "You have heaps of time," he'd tell her as she attempted to scurry off the stage after she lit it. But the flame kept expiring, so she had to repeat the act until it suddenly exploded prematurely scaring her to death. Of course the audience loved it. David sank lower in his chair.
The next segment was Animals in the Bush. Here farm animals paraded across the stage. We were introduced to the possum "Kiwi bear," which was more similar to a squirrel with a bushy tail, than an opossum. There are no predators for this animal in NZ, thus their overpopulation and pest status.
A wild pig named Trevor came out next and performed tricks. He could sit, stand on his back feet, and even do the River Dance. The donkey "prayed for rain" and suddenly water from buckets in the ceiling poured down on stage. A dog chased a bunch of sheep out on stage, and audience volunteers tried to beat Bill in a shearing contest. We learned about shearing, and how New Zealanders have won every shearing contest in the world.
Billy stuck around for questions and conversation, while David and I and another couple he had picked up waited nervously in his truck for a ride back to town. We had 15 minutes to catch our bus! But you can't rush a Kiwi. They're a chatty bunch with no worries.
We did miss our bus.
But in all fairness it wasn't Billy's fault. Had he known, he surely would've volunteered to let us stay in his renovated caboose or plane overnight, after spending the afternoon driving our own U-Drive Jet Boat around his man-made lake.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 23, 2003
Pioneer History at the Kiwi Cultural Show
10 minute drive from Waitomo
Waitomo, New Zealand