It takes a little under one hour by car to reach Waitomo from Cambridge. My husband and I had pre-arranged a half-day group tour package with Waitomo Adventures to explore the TumuTumu Cave. Typically, adventure activity websites do their fair share of boasting impressive experiences so I took the description with a grain of salt. Blackwater rafting, helmets, wetsuits, climbing, caves… okay, that sounded pretty cool.
I was pleasantly jerked into an adrenaline-filled reality as soon as I climbed down the hole into total darkness. This was certainly a stark contrast to the sprawling green ranch property we had been merrily walking along just a few minutes ago. If plunging into ice-cold water up to your neck, awkwardly doggy paddling and pulling yourself along a rope for an indeterminate distance doesn’t get you going– I don’t know what will.
Watch out for sharp rock edges that run below, above, and on the sides of the entire cave (like fins on a mutant shark). Those glow worms on the ceiling? Not exactly worms; they’re really larva called arachnocampa luminosa. These little buddies glow to attract food and burn waste. Fun fact: the hungrier ones will glow brighter than their friends that are satiated. Don’t let the fact that they are larva bother you; this is truly a stunning sight deep below the earth.
We drove back to Auckland (heater cranked full blast on my side of the car) and checked into a perfect-sized studio flat located on Pt Chevalier Road. The host (very much a traveler himself) had read my profile and caught onto my obsession with noodles, so he left two instant varieties in the kitchen with a note. I made a mental note to pay it forward to another noodle lover someday.
The following morning signaled our last day in New Zealand. There were only two things left on our agenda– beach time and the elusive kiwi bird we had heard so much about. Our crosshairs were set on Bethells Beach, a brief 40-minute drive away from the flat. I can’t rave enough about driving in New Zealand. This country never falls short of breathtaking natural beauty and incredibly diverse terrain. It felt as though we were trekking in southeast Asia– prolific, tropical, and moist greenery at every turn. The beach was entirely vacant, with a fierce wind that sent the cocoa sand surfing like the ocean waves straight into my shoes.
The trip’s grand finale took place at the Auckland Zoo; where a serendipitous opportunity allowed us to see (and pet) a real kiwi. At the time, the Zoo was offering special “behind the scenes” experience with certain animals and corresponding prices. It just so happened that there was a kiwi experience for $45 USD per person scheduled on the same day as our visit. Sold.
There are five types of kiwi birds: brown, little spotted, great spotted, rowi, and tokoekas. Sadly enough, 95% of kiwi chicks are killed before they reach adulthood due to (human-introduced) predators, such as stoats, dogs, cats, and ferrets. The population hangs in a precarious place, so great conservation efforts are being made to help these little ones out. Our special tour experience gave us an inside look on “Operation Nest Egg”. In this program, the Auckland Zoo takes kiwi eggs from the wild and hatches them onsite. The chicks stay in the zoo for several weeks before being released on Moturoa or Rotoroa, which are predator-free island sanctuaries. After a year, the kiwis are recaptured and returned to their original habitat. This process increases a chick’s chance of survival to adulthood from 5% to 65%.