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Raglan Te Anga Road

14th December 2011

A Day in the Caves with the Glowworms and Passing Time with the Cabin Dwellers

Bridal Veil Falls from Two Different Viewpoints
    It pelted in down through the night, and unfortunately I had parked too close to a pohutukawa tree. The random dripping from it started to annoy me, so I moved the wagon a few metres out of the way. I apologised to the lads in the nearby campervan in the morning, but they hadn't heard me. I'll remember that in future.
    Speaking of showers, the shower I had in the morning provided a bright interlude. It wasn't so much as a wide spray, but a straight circular lance of water, shooting out at the same force and volume as a fireman's hose. You didn't stand in such a torrent, you leaned into it, and as soon as I ventured into the death zone, the jet was deflected onto my towel and clothes. How about that, a combined shower, massage and laundry service combined. I seem to remember a similar experience in the Rockies last year. No wonder there are signs out indicating there is a water shortage, it is all being diverted to this shower block.
    I made the long drive climb out of Raglan and took a detour to the Bridal Veil Falls, a local beauty spot. The falls were in good form today after all the rain, a complete contrast to the falls of the same name I had seen in Yosemite, which were struggling to conjure up a trickle of water.
    The waters here plummeted 55m over a sheer basalt face; quite impressive when looking straight down from the top, and equally impressive when looking up from below. It took me back to an activity holiday I had spent in Slovenia with my two daughters a few years ago. There we did some extreme canyoning, and one of the joys was abseiling down the full height of such a waterfall.
Glowworm Cave
    Bridal Veil Falls, or Waireinga as it is known in Maori, is a significant natural landscape feature sitting within the hapu boundaries of a number of ancestral hapu that affiliate to Motakotako Marae and surrounding marea of Aotea Moana. Waireinga means "leaping waters", referring to wairua (spirits) leaping the great height of this waterfall. Waireinga is also spiritually known by tangata whenua (people of the land) to be occupied by patupairehe (Maori fairies) who are kaitiaki (guardians) of the area. Waireinga flows from and into various rerenga (streams) such as Kaikai and Pakota to Aotea Moana and out to Te Moana Taapokopoko a Taawhaki (Tasman Sea). The beauty of Waireinga is reminiscent of the ecosystem to which it is connected. Tangata whenua of the area will work to keep the health and wellbeing of Waireinga and its ecosystem as pristine as possible for the enjoyment of future generations to experience.
    I continued my pilgrimage south down the 39, passing the huge Pirongia Forest Park on my right. Like Mount Karioi, Mount Pirongia was a massive volcano whose flanks were blanketed in forest. Also, like Karioi, an air of mystery hung about this monster, as its tops were shrouded under a swirling slate grey curtain.
    I soldiered on to Waitomo. Here, green rolling hills, lush with pasture and orchards, give no clue to the subterranean world of incredible cave networks lying below. Waitomo is a Maori word derived from "wai'"meaning water and "tomo," a shaft. The entire region is honeycombed with limestone caves, subterranean streams and deep "tomos." The caves are one of New Zealand's most impressive natural wonders and have entertained visitors for over a hundred years.
Glowworm Feeding Lines
    30 million years ago the limestone was formed in the area on what was then the seabed. Over the ages, tectonic plate movement has raised this layer, buckling and cracking the limestone in the process. Acidic rainwater exploited the weaknesses in these cracks, slowly widening them, and later streams flowed through them to create caves.
    In 1887 local Maori Chief, Tane Tinorau, introduced the caves to an English surveyor, Fred Mace. The underground labyrinths had never been fully explored. On a simple raft of flax stems, armed with candles as their only lighting, the two men floated into the cave along a stream that led underground. Their first discovery was the Glowworm Grotto, its ceilings dotted with the lights of thousands of glowworms. When they left the raft and explored the lower cave levels, they found themselves surrounded by glorious cave decorations. The two men returned many times, and on a subsequent trip, Chief Tane discovered the upper level of the cave and an easier access. In 1889 Tane Tinorau opened the cave to tourists. Visitor numbers soared and Chief Tane and his wife, Huti, escorted groups through the cave for a small fee. In 1906 the administration of the cave was taken over by the government. In 1989, almost 100 years after the initial Glowworm Cave discovery, the land and cave were returned to the descendants of the original owners. Today many of the direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti continue to be employed at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave.
    A tour around the caves was a must, and I enrolled for the 2pm tour. Leaving the grey light behind, the tour climbed down into an underground network of caverns and passages dripping with pristine crystal formations: limestone curtains, dainty stalactite straws, flowstone, crystal tapestries and hefty stalagmites. The walkway suddenly emerged into a large cavern, the Cathedral. Its lofty interior was very impressive, and like all cathedrals it possessed excellent acoustic properties; indeed Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the Vienna Boys Choir have given concerts here. At this point, our guide asked if anyone would like to sing in this grand location. There was silence for a while, then a voice piped up, "Maisie from Hong Kong!" Maisie did not want to sing. So our guide, who was Maori and perhaps one of the descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau, sang a haunting Maori love song. I have noticed Maori do tend to sing well. The piece de resistance then ensued as we made our way onto a barge, which drifted off on the river into a pitch black realm of absolute silence. Suddenly, as our eyes grew accustomed to the dark, we looked upwards and realised the entire roof of the cavern was a mass of ghostly pale blue twinkling lights, so densely packed together that it resembled the Milky Way. The constellation of pinprick lights comes from thousands of glowworms; truly magical. As we glided along the water in total silence, as requested by our guide, I was mesmerised by the way the moving galaxy above my head would suddenly transform itself to moonlight shining through a leafy canopy, and then back to a galaxy again, a little like the old woman and duck optical illusion. Sadly photography was forbidden in the Glowworm Cave; the picture shown on this page is a copy of an official photo. The words copy and right don't spring to mind.
Wondrous Formations
    The New Zealand Glowworm is a two-winged insect in the larval stage of its life-cycle. It lives in dark damp places and emits a blue light to attract flying insects for food. The glowworm's life cycle takes about 11 months. Small spherical eggs are laid in clutches of 30-40 on walls and ceilings. Within 20 days the young larvae hatch from the eggs, crawl upward until they reach a suitable area to hang their feeding lines. Each glowworm may have as many as 70 lines up to 20cm long. The lines are strong, elastic and beaded with a very sticky substance in order to trap insects. Even at this small size, less than 3mm long, they emit a visible blue light and slowly grow over 9 months to the shape and size of a matchstick. Flying insects are attracted by the glowworm's light (bioluminescence) and trapped on the "fishing lines". As the glowworm senses the struggling of the trapped insect it pulls up the line to devour its prey. After 9 months, the glowworm moves onto a pupa stage, similar to the cocoon stage in the butterfly lifecycle. This lasts about 13 days with the pupa suspended by a thread. Then the adult glowworms emerge looking like large mosquitos. Their only function now is to reproduce and disperse the species. Males wait for the female to emerge from the pupa, and mating takes place immediately, the female lays her eggs, and so the cycle continues. As for the adults, they emerge with no mouths and usually starve to death within a few days. Yes, it is a grim life being a glowworm.
Magical Curtains
     Further on was the Ruakuri Cave, another tour that I enrolled for, and where photography is permitted. Local legend has it that the cave was once inhabited by a pack of wild dogs, hence the name "rua" meaning two and "kuri", the Maori name for a dog. Cliffs along the track here contained Maori burial caves, so at considerable expense, a deep spiral case was built to provide alternate access. The tour took us through 1.6km of the 7.5km system, with similar formations to those we had seen in the Glowworm Cave.
    We reached a point in the cave system where ghostly voices appeared from the depths far below us. Only in New Zealand do you get Black Water Rafting. The Black Labyrinth tour, which lasts three hours, involves floating in a wetsuit on an inner tube down a river that flows through Ruakuri Cave. We peered over a ledge and way down below us was a group of floaters passing by with small lights shining from their helmets. Occasionally the rafters would turn their lights off when they passed through a glowworm section. Further down the cave system, we could hear the boom of a waterfall hidden in the depths. Our guide, Susan, asked us to guess at how high it was. I rightly assumed the cavern would amplify the sound, so even though it boomed with the same intensity of the Bridal Veil Falls I had visited earlier, I guessed they might only be 8m high. We were all wrong, apparently they were 2m high. The neat little snippet that she added at this point concerned the Black Water Rafters. As they approached this waterfall, their guide would ask them to switch off their lights. They would be able to hear the thundering, but have no idea how far off they were, how tall it was, or whether they would pull in before reaching it. Then all of a sudden they would topple over the top and fall off their inner tube. A devilish ploy that to guarantee a few screams. Having done white-water rafting, potholing and extreme canyoning in Slovenia with my daughters, I decided to forego these pleasures.
Santa in his Grotto
    Susan mentioned that it took 9 months to construct the spiral staircase entrance way, and 2.5 years to build the walkways through the cave. Workers had to swim into the caving system to gain access to where they were working, and materials had to be floated in too. Later during the construction phase, a 15cm pipe was bored from the surface into the caving system, and materials was passed up and down that narrow tube.
    We returned back to the surface; I had quite enjoyed my subterranean adventure. I took a walk in the rain up to a high point to look out over the land above the 350 or so caves. Apart from the giveaway limestone outcrops scattered about, I would never have guessed that another "world" existed below my feet. My wet hand brushing a wire fence, that turned out to be electrified, reminded me that cattle was very much big business around here.
There be Caves Below
    Soaked, I headed further south to a campsite at Te Kuiti whose claim to fame is the shearing capital of the world. It's not that time of year, fortunately, the sight and sound of 2000 sheep stampeding down the main street might be everybodys cup of tea around here. An old guy hobbled over to the office when I arrived, slightly taciturn. "Name? Where ya from? Got a tent? Just you?" I furnished him with the details. His vintage TV set in the corner showed ghostly images through the speckled noise on its screen. The north of South Island was experiencing severe flooding, and the images were pretty grim. 2m high rivers were flowing through streets and evacuations were underway. Maybe I haven't got it too bad where I am at the moment.
    I retired to the communal kitchen to type up my notes. A young guy appeared with a Kiwi accent so strong I had to embarrassingly ask him to repeat everything he said. I got, "Where you from?" on the third attempt. "Britain," I answered. "Expect you have good women there?" was his response to that. "They are alright," was the only off the cuff remark I could think of, not sure where exactly he was coming from. "You retired?" he asked. "Yes, I used to work as an engineer," was my response. "Engineers get paid a lot over there," was either a statement or a question, I couldn't tell. "Actually no, not in Britain. In other countries engineers are treated with high regard and get paid accordingly. In Britain, engineers are regarded as just men with oily rags, and it is no longer a profession young people move into." And the conversation carried on in the same vein while he cooked and ate his meal. The young guy in his early twenties was Romanian by birth (which could explain the thickness of his accent), but had been adopted and brought up in New Zealand. He now worked in a meat factory, and lived in one of the cabins on the campsite.
    Another chap appeared to cook his meal, perhaps in his early forties. He was Dutch and had married a New Zealand girl. He loved New Zealand and had lived over here for 14 years. His marriage failed, and he now lived in another cabin while he worked temporarily as a mechanic a kilometre down the road. I talked with him about the recent Labour Elections; yesterday I had heard how Labour had elected Shearing as its new leader, and Robertson as the deputy leader. He informed me that the party currently in power are the Nationals. "Bad news," he told me, since they have sold off things like the railways, and are now trying to sell off more assets. "So if they are going down these routes that folk object to, why do people vote them in?" I asked. "The Nationals are for the farmers," he said, "and New Zealand is one big farming community," he responded. All countries seem to have their quirks.
    Yet another cabin dweller appeared, cooked his meal, ate it, and left with zero communication. These cabin dwellers are a unique lot.
    I returned to my mobile cabin in the pouring rain, snuggled up in my duvet listening to a train going by not far away. I had seen lots of rail tracks in this country, but never a train. At least I have heard one now. The sound of the train faded away, to be replaced by the white noise of the incessant rain. I can handle that sort of white noise, it soon lulled me to sleep.

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Raglan Te Anga Road

Uploaded from Taumarunui Campsite on 16th December at 13:45

Last updated 16.12.2011