With dreams of a long weekend in Wellington shattered at our feet due to fully booked motels, my folks and I decided to take a trip through the Waikato region; west of the Bay of Plenty.
We set off on the morning of Friday 26th April, following a spectacular double rainbow through Rotorua, where it arced over Mt Ngongataha, and led us to the Rainbow Mountain, where the end of the rainbow dipped its colours in the lake, before leading us on to Taupo.
We reached Lake Taupo near Kinloch, where the temperature dropped and the sun and the rain competed for the sky. The rainbow we had followed was now dropping over the headland and falling into the blue of Lake Taupo, and we ditched the car to begin a 4 hour walk to an inlet called Kawakawa Bay.
Trudging along a sandy track, through trees and bushland, with occasional clearings that overlook the secret bays of Lake Taupo, we witnessed rare native birds: Silver Eyes; a couple of Bell Birds; some common Fantails and a little white Pōpokotea, or Whitehead.
With the sun burning off the threat of rain, we came to a clearing high on the headland before descending down to the bay. Standing upon the rock, looking over a vast stretch of Lake Taupo, with the jagged highlands, hazy in the distance.
The descent to the bay took us down into damp, rocky woodland, with gigantic ferns and exotic trees lining our way. It felt as though we’d entered a rainforest, and then the path flattened out as the sound of the water lapping the beach kissed our ears, and we emerged into a clearing and onto Kawakawa Bay.
The pebbly beach curved around either side of us, disappearing around headlands on one side, and off into the distance on the other, while the lake itself splashed up against the shore like a choppy ocean. There was no chance of strolling into the water for a paddle, as the shore line drops a hundred meters or so beneath the water surface. It is a volcanic lake after all.
Another two hours later, we’d made our way back along the winding bushland path and back to the RVR, and headed into town to find our digs.
Taupo is a beautiful town, but the temperature is considerably cooler, being a lot higher up than Tauranga. Our motel was called ‘Mountain View’, but unfortunately, the Tongariro mountains were obscured by haze that day. But our balcony didn’t go to waste. We spent the evening strolling about the town, enjoying Irish pub grub in Finn’s, and topped the evening off with a Kahlua nightcap in The Shed.
Saturday 27th April
Bidding farewell to Taupo once again, we headed northwest through rolling green hills and little towns, past sheep and pigs and endless fields of cows. We passed through, Tirau, a small town littered with corrugated iron artwork. The i-site centre was made of two corrugated iron buildings in the shape of a sheep and a dog, and big corrugated Pukekos sat atop one of the shops. We stopped briefly in Cambridge to pick up a bite to eat and stretch our legs, and then continued west towards Raglan.
In the midst of the countryside, on a quiet road somewhere near Karamu, outside of Hamilton, we came across the toothbrush fence, which is, exactly as it sounds, a fence covered in toothbrushes!
We reached Raglan on the west coast, and took a short detour south to Bridal Veil Falls, where the Pakoka river leaps from a 55 metre high clifftop, creating a spectacular waterfall. A short walk alongside the river, beneath a tropical canopy, leads down over 200 steps, passing various viewpoints, until you reach the bottom, where you stand on a bridge over the river, looking up at the waterfall and getting considerably damp!
On to Raglan – a little coastal town, known for its surf, which swells up from the Tasman Sea. We stopped in the town – just a few shops and cafes on the main street – and ventured into a little place called The Shack, where I was greeted at the door by an old friend from university back in London, Grai. The Shack was a busy little cafe, with quirks like all the sides were served in miniature milk bottles. We ordered some teas and coffees and Grai took the order, as we kept looking at each other, open mouthed, in awe at how small the world is! We arranged to meet up for some drinks in the pub later on.
A cup of caffeine later, we left Grai at The Shack and wandered up a little dead-end street, lined with two craft shops, a coffee roasters, and a surf shop. We browsed the intricate bits-and-bobs in the craft shops – jewellery; pinbadges; bags; pictures; paua shell; greenstone; etc, then had a mosey at the clothes in the surf shop. From there we cut through between buildings and found ourselves walking down towards the estuary.
To the right, a boardwalk led off around the corner, while on the left a bridge crossed over the water to a headland. Mt. Karioi loomed ahead, while kite surfers scattered the horizon on the sea in the distance.
Our accommodation lay on Upper Wainui road, about 5 minutes out of Raglan town, and was called ‘Our Beach House’. We sat in the garden next to the orange tree, (though the oranges were technically greens), before heading back into to town to the Harbour Hotel. One of the great things about Raglan is the small community feel – everyone seems to know one another and are happy to help you out. The Harbour Hotel run a free pick-up and drop-off service, as long as you eat or drink at their pub, and it’s the same with the local bar as well. So we gave the hotel a ring, and shortly afterwards, a lady in a people carrier came and picked us up. We had a yummy tapas dinner and chilled in the sports bar section of the pub to watch the rugby – Chiefs v. Sharks.
Grai arrived with her sister and some mates, and they took me to the The Yot Club – the only bar in town, where everyone ‘goes to dance’. A live instrumental band called ‘Funky’ played, and I got acquainted with the locals; a couple of Americans on holiday, and several English people from Mount Maunganui. They all had the same agenda – to surf.
At the end of the night, the bar staff drove everyone home!
Sunday 28th April
Bright and early, we said goodbye to Raglan and headed south to the Waitomo Caves. We arrived just before 11, and it was already a belting hot day, and it appeared to be the home to some very interested wasps. We waited in a large greenhouse style structure, where the gift shop and cafe were located, until a mini bus arrived to take us and a small group to the first cave – Ruakuri.
The spiral entrance to the Ruakuri caves was built as an alternative way in, as the original entrance was discovered to be a sacred Maori burial site. Inside, the caves were vast, with a river running through complete with a mini waterfall, where people can partake in black-water-rafting. Glowworms speckled the rock like stars, and stalactites and stalagmites spiked each cavern and tunnel, with a unique limestone formation around each corner. The cave walk took about 2 hours and covered 1.6km underground.
With some time to spare, we found a cafe/dairy to stop for lunch, before heading to the second cave – Aranui. Set in the forest of the Ruakuri Reserve, the Aranui cave has a natural entrance, and almost feels as though you are entering the side of a cliff. It is a much smaller cave, and the only life it holds is Cave Wetas – large spider-like insects. Aranui cave was also described as a ‘fairy walk’, as the rock formations are so beautiful and intricate, it is like walking through a fairy palace, or something out of a children’s story.
The third and final cave was Waitomo, where local Maori, Chief Tane Tinorau, discovered the glowworm caves via a boat, with an English surveyor, Fred Mace in 1887. Waitomo caves have remained a part of the family ever since, and the great great great great granddaughter of Chief Tane Tinorau was our tour guide, which made it feel pretty special. We were led down into the caves on foot, through the ‘cathedral’: a huge chamber where the rock formations almost look like a pipe organ, and the acoustics are perfect for singing. The ‘cathedral’ chamber is open every Christmas for a ceremony, where local schools and a band are invited to go down into the cave for a carol service. The ‘cathedral’ is lit by hundreds of candles, and visitors are welcome to join the magical experience. From the ‘cathedral’ chamber, we went into the darkness, face to face with glowworms, and the shining mucus threads that hang down to catch bugs for dinner. We followed the dark passage downwards, onto a jetty, where we climbed into little boats in the pitch dark. The only way I can describe it is like the first time Harry Potter and his friends see Hogwarts from the little boats. Our boat was pulled along by our tour guide, on wires attached to the rock above, and as we gracefully glided through the silent darkness, a thousand fairy lights appeared all around us. It felt like magic, and there is no better name for the glowworms than the Maori one – Titiwai (The stars over the water).
The little boat came out of the cave along the Waitomo river, where the Chief and his English companion had originally entered.
Time to head back home to Tauranga: not ‘home from home’, but ‘holiday from holiday.’