3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Of Glowworms and Gorges

Waitomo Glowworms

I generally include ‘jumping backwards off a waterfall inside a dark cave’ on my list of Activities that may Cause Death or Dismemberment. And yet here I was in a wetsuit with an inner-tube held firmly over my bum backing up to a slippery ledge. I held my breath and leapt into the blackness beyond. Thwack! I splashed into the underground river and floated swiftly out of the landing zone as Dad crashed into the water.

We were deep within the Waitomo Caves with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. The elaborate network of limestone caves has been attracting tourists since the late 1800s, when Maori Chief Tane Tinorao and his wife began leading tours into the previously unexplored caverns. I imagine this Victorian Era experience would have been quite a bit more genteel than the adventure we’d embarked upon!

Courtesy of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Courtesy of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Courtesy of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co.

Courtesy of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co.

Our tour, the Black Labyrinth, was somewhat tamer than the company’s other offerings (which involve rappelling and something called a Flying Fox), however within minutes of descending into the caves through a small hole, we were clambering through narrow caverns, jumping off waterfalls, and floating (sometimes with my nose just inches below the cave roof!) down the Waitomo River.

You often see caves described as ‘black as the night,’ but not many have stars as well. Our guides asked us to turn our lights off. We were instantly immersed in black, but above were thousands of tiny blue lights cascading from the ceiling. Glowworms! Or, less glamorously, gnat larva!

The Waitomo Caves are one of two major habitats for the New Zealand glowworm, an insect that spends most of its life in the larval stage. These guys literally hang out for most of their year-long life, catching unsuspecting midges, moths, and sometime snails, in their glowing thread-like snares. The roof of the caves are painted with ever-changing constellations.

Glowworm snares, courtesy of teara.govt.nz

Glowworm snares, courtesy of teara.govt.nz

It was a most spectacular break from the trail! Te Araroa passes directly through the small village of Waitomo. We spent a couple of nights at the YHA Juno Hall where we met up with Jazmin Ellzey and Cody Cardwell, two Texans on the trail. Though they are Southbounders as well, they had a bit of beta regarding the Waitomo to Te Kuiti section: gorse. A gorse grove in fact.

Their intel didn’t disappoint, for the next day we were bushwhacking through a wall of painfully prickly shrubs. It was not the first (or I’m sure the last) time I’ve wished for a backpacking machete. It could be affixed to a trekking pole, OR maybe the trekking pole could act like a sheath for a sword… What’re you waiting for, Black Diamond?

Anyway, despite the gorse, this day was miraculously fortuitous. I don’t often believe in fate, but today a series of events and strokes of luck put us on an extraordinary path for the next week. When we exited onto a farm road, my phone beeped. I’d received a message from Monica Louis, whom I’d called yesterday about transportation around a long road connection. Though I hadn’t confirmed it, her husband, Maurice, was ready to pick us up in Te Kuiti. But that was still two hours away!

We jumped off the trail and bustled down to State Highway 30. Almost instantaneously, a car swerved out of a long line of traffic at our outstretched thumbs. The young man from the South Island deposited us in the town park. Before we had time to drop our bags, Maurice pulled up and loaded us into the car. After a short stop at the supermarket, we were on the way to Monica and Maurice’s Art Doc Gallery in Benneydale – a place I had had no intention of visiting, but after ten minutes, had no desire to leave!

Benneydale is on the brink of becoming a bustling artist community, but today it hovers in limbo between its past as an abandoned coal mining town and its hopeful future. It is also the closest town to the start of The Timber Trail, a new 85km cycleway through the Pureroa Forest. The Art Doc Gallery offers food and accommodation to cyclists on their way into the woods, as well, it would seem to seven TA thru-hikers that evening! Jaz and Cody, as well as two of the three Germans we encountered last week, were enjoying brownies and lemonade when we arrived.

Dad with Monica and Maurice at the Art Doc Gallery in Benneydale

Dad with Monica and Maurice at the Art Doc Gallery in Benneydale

Shelves stacked to the ceiling with vinyl. Rich wooden floorboards with just the right amount of creak. A good dog and jazz on the stereo. Art Doc is one of those somewhat magical and surreal places existing in the most unexpected of times and places. Monica and Maurice put together concerts, promote the Timber Trail, and are actively recruiting artists to relocate to Benneydale. We camped next to a small stream in their backyard and the next morning Maurice drove us to the trailhead.

Te Araroa follows the Timber Trail for several hours. Maurice’s description of it was practically poetry. Suspension bridges. Campsites. Even kilometer markers. A luxury trail. We decided to stay on it. The Timber Trail did not disappoint. Though it was some 20 kilometers longer than the TA, we flew.

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Mountain bikers raced by us for three days as we jogged across adrenaline-high bridges over deep gorges, through eerie moss covered forests, and along bleak open valleys. I’ve already marked this on my list of things to do when I come back with a bicycle!

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We arrived in Taumarunui in time for Christmas feeling slightly spoiled. We found a take-away joint and settled down for food. Several bites into a fried chicken sandwich my phone buzzed. It was Rory! My boyfriend had just arrived on the 2:00 with Christmas presents and kisses.

(The kisses were for me, not Dad. Just to clarify.)

Anyway, until next week…

7 Responses to “Of Glowworms and Gorges”

  1. Gaz

    Just want to say, thanks for documenting your trip. Im planning something similar as a gap year after I finish school, so having others share their experience is helpful. In previous posts you note how rough some of the tracks over here can be, Its what makes tramping over here so much fun! Have you encountered bush lawyer or ongaonga yet? I assume you already know all about gorse and blackberry.

    Best of luck with the rest of your trip!

    Reply
    • Margaret

      Thanks Gaz! I don’t believe we’ve encountered bush lawyer yet… I imagine well know it when we do :)

      Reply
  2. Tim Smith

    While very interesting, I would like to hear more about your hiking experience. Don’t really care much about the history of New Zealand!

    Reply
    • Margaret

      Thanks for the feedback, Tim. If you’re planning a trip, and want to read about the day to day experience, check out some of the other trail stories on the Te Araroa website, as that’s not really the focus of this project. I’ve been using some of those for beta along the way.

      Reply
  3. fizzy chicken

    just lovin it. I born and bred in NZ 45 years ago and love exploring these exotic islands vicariously. Post more blogs! :)

    Reply

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