Cave Tubing! 17 March 2006

Thursday early morning we all headed out in a van hosted by Adventure Specialities, a NZ non-profit group whose mission is to work with at-risk kids and families. Our destination was Waitomo Caves, toward the central west of the North Island, about 4 hours’ drive. We made it about 1/4 mile and the engine overheated, so we spent a little over an hour waiting for a replacement van, on the grassy portion between freeway ramps!

But we finally made it off again, and for the next few hours we were traveling through Hobbiton, basically, and passing by old volcano cones and through towns with exotic names like Ngar’uawahia, Pir’ongia, and O’torohanga. The hills were rolling and green, with deep gullies and rocky outcrops – very lovely.

And I DID it!! I actually went down into a cave, for over an hour. I still can’t quite believe it did it, but it was really fun, once I got over my nervousness and the intial entry. We had to wear full wetsuits with booties and rubber boots, AND helmets with headlamps (Caryn and Max, you would have LOVED it!), and we used inner tubes and even had to practice getting over the waterfalls backwards in our tubes! There were two waterfalls, but they were only about 3 and 4 feet, respectively, but it IS rather unnerving to jump/be pushed backwards into the water in a blackout cave with your bum stuck into an inner tube! To get into the cave we had to climb down a pretty steep slope that reminded me of fetching water from the ravine in Langub, Philippines, and then climb down in to the cave, and hike along with the creek (which became fuller and fuller as we went along), then about 20 feet later we got into our tubes and had to lay back and push ourselves along backwards (or you could go forwards) using our hands on the roof of the cave, only about 2 feet above us. But that was the only tight spot really, and it lasted for only about 8 feet. For the rest of the time the roof of the cave was quite a long ways above us, and from time to time we stopped and were told to turn off our lights so we could see the glowworms – which are really glow-maggots (fly larvae), and in fact it is really glow-maggot-poo!!! But as the guides said, no one would come to see glow-maggot-poo so they call them glowworms instead – LOL! We sort of alternated between wading through on the **very** uneven stream bottom and floating along, sometimes we could push along on side rocks, and sometimes we had to paddle – very hard work! At one point we were instructed to link feet under elbows with the person in front of us, and for about 15 minutes one of the guides pulled us along in the dark, while we gazed overhead at the glowworms, which were so many they looked light green stars. On one stop, we could look up and see what looked like a spotlight, but was it actually the sunlight about 160 feet above us! The toward the end, we were told to turn out our lights and just paddle along and find our way out – there was one spot where a bunch took a wrong turn (remember we cannot see anything, only hear and feel each other) and ended up in a short dead end and had to work their way back, howling with laughter, and another really narrow spot where everyone kept getting stuck in their inner tubes and laughing … it was so much fun. I heard later that the water was actually 28 feet deep in some spots!!!

Every guide here in NZ that I have had so far is hilarious – either they all have fantastic script writers or they are all standup comics by night. Actually, I think it is in the culture – brash, fun-loving, jokers who love the outdoors. I wish I could begin to share some of the jokes, but of course I remember so few, and they are not so funny in the retelling.

So, anyway, that was a blast. Then we headed for our motel – get this… our rooms were Hobbit homes, an old bomber airplane, and a train car! Very very cool, and I have a couple of photos. I got to stay in one of the two Hobbit rooms – round door and windows and everything, but it was tall enough for me to stand in. It was way out in the country away from city lights, so the stars were spectacular, and yes Jimbo – I now can find both the false Southern Cross, and the real one, ane the star the real one points to (but I can’t remember its name).

Today (Friday) we took off yet again at 8 am (I haven’t slept in in over two weeks) and headed for Taupo – part of the volcanic area in the center of the North Island. We could see steam vents as we approached the city – I think I got a photo of one of them, but can’t tell until I get these disposable cameras developed. In Taupo (only about 2 hours’ drive) we headed for Huka Falls and took a HukaJet ride – a very cool 45″ ride in a jet boat that scares you by nearly running into things and then doing 360-degree turns and everybody in the boat gets wet! It was so much fun – and yet again, the guide was so funny – very dry sense of humor. We did lots of these turns and then he says, ‘okay, has everyone seen Huka Falls?’ We all said ‘no’, so he said ‘let’s go see them’! So we headed back almost to the dock, and then slowed down and started creeping up the very small canal about 6 feet wide toward one of the geothermal pools where the water spouts out of a pipe and he says “there you go… Huka Falls!” We all laughed at the joke and then he says ‘you might want to feel the water, but be careful because it might burn you’, then he takes a cup and scoops out some water and passes it around and we are all sticking our fingers in going ‘ooooooh!’ and he says ‘yes, it’s quite exciting…some folks have never felt hot water before!’ Then we did head for Huka Falls, which is the spillway for Lake Taupo, and the outflow would fill an olympic-sized pool every 3 seconds! We did several more spins close to the falls, *after* he told us that getting too close the jetboats don’t work because there is too much air in the water from churning. 🙂 At the end we of course had the opportunity to buy photos that showed us in one of the spins – very cool.

Then we had a picnic lunch at the park in town and got to do some shopping, then 4 of our team did a bungy jump, including Heather, who is terrified of heights – she did great – it was not terribly high – about 150 feet, but was a beautiful spot, and we cheered them all on. Kendra, the HS student on our team, even asked to be dunked, so she went in up to her waist!

THEN (whew – what a full day this has been!) we headed for Rotorua, about 1 hour away. Rotorua received the most beautiful city award, and really is lovely. We checked into our hotel and then headed for a Tamaki Maori Village. We learned when we arrived that there were 4 buses of people, and we had a fantastic bus driver, who is Maori and leads tours around Rotorua. He speaks 4 languages, but actually greeted us with the traditional Kia Ora, and the proceeded to tell us what that means (good health, hello, goodbye, thanks, have a nice day…) and THEN as we drove, he kept up a running explanation with the equivalent phrases using astoundingly accurate accents in about 50 other languages – it was amazing.

On the bus ride there (about 20 minutes) we had to choose a chief for our ‘people’ (our bus), and it turns out that according to his funny spiel, it had to be a male, tall, handsome, and a rugby player. Luckily, we did have one of those, so he was immediately elected our chief. So, when the buses arrived, each ‘chief’ was to exit first and we followed, then the Tamaki chief came out and made his scary dance/war moves to challenge us (Te Wero) – did we come in war or peace? He chose a representative to make a peace offering, which was accepted, and then when the Karanga was made, the welcome call made by a woman, we could enter the village. We were able to walk around for about 20 minutes to view traditional ways of weaving, dancing, working out, etc, then were called to the performance in the Waharenui (the meeting house). The dances and chants and singing were wonderful – I have a few photos I’ll need to get developed. Then we had a feast on the food from the Hangi (earth oven). It was a great evening – I especially enjoyed the costumes, the tattoos, the men’s Haka dance, and the women’s singing and dancing with a lightweight plastic ball on a string that was banged against the hands and shoulder in a very rhythmic pattern.

On the way back, at about 10:30 pm, the bus driver had us singing “here we go round the mulberry bush” while he went around and around the roundabout about 10 times!