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Gorges and Caves

Today we had an early start, leaving Hot Water Beach at 7:30am to get on the road to Waitomo. We had a stop after driving for an hour or so at Karangahake Gorge. Featuring an old gold mine and historic railway remains, there are several walking routes around the gorge including the mine tunnels however after the recent deluge, the tunnels were flooded and inaccessible. Still, the sun finally put in an appearance (a little late if you ask me but but late than never) and it was lovely to stroll around the gorge. The area was very scenic with lots of dense native bush growing around the rushing water. There were a couple of bridges to cross which was exciting as they swayed as you walked over them. The bridges had a limit of 10 people and the higher towards that number you got the more the bridge swayed as you crossed.

 

After about half an hour exploring the gorge we piled back onto the bus. The second stop of the day was at Morrinsville to stop off at the supermarket to buy lunch and get supplies for our stay at the next accommodation.

We made good time getting to Waitomo, arriving at The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company just after 1pm. Here we paid for the activites we had signed up for yesterday. One of my friends was being very ambitious doing the Black Abyss adventure. I had considered doing this myself but I want to try and budget myself as sensibly as I can, especially as there are more exciting things on my list to do as yet.

Out of the activities available to us in Waitomo, I decided to go for the walking tour of Ruakuri Cave. Once we’d paid for our activities and the people doing the Black Abyss had got their gear from the bus, the rest of us hopped back onto the Kiwi bus to drive down the road to our accommodation for the night, Kiwi Paka. Not exactly a hostel, we were staying in a lodge which was split into rooms of varying bed numbers.

At 3pm we boarded the mini bus to go over to Ruakuri Cave. The journey didn’t take very long, and after about 5 minutes we were standing outside the cave, excited for the tour to begin.

The cave we would be walking through is called Ruakuri Cave. Rua means den in Maori and kuri means dog – so the name roughly translates to “den of dogs”. It was discovered by the Maori people about 500 years ago and it is the longest cave in New Zealand that has been discovered. The story goes that a young Maori boy was hunting for birds when he was attacked by wild dogs just outside of the cave entrance. The boy returned to the spot with others and they made the discovery of the cave network. We did not go to the original entrance as it was used by the Maori as a burial site which is now protected. The entrance we were standing by as our guide for the afternoon introduced himself, is much more recent – built 12 years ago when the caves were reopened.

The tour takes you down a spiral staircase where your eyes start to get adjusted to the dark with orange lights. Don’t fear, anyone interested in doing the tour who might be afraid of the dark. The rest of the tour is lit however the amount of light in the cave is strictly monitored in order to preserve such a unique environment.

We then walked around stalactites and stalagmites as well as other unique and unusual limestone formations dubbed cave coral. We also encountered a few fossils in the cave from prehistoric sea creatures which was pretty neat. There was the underground river as well and we heard our fellow Kiwi Bus teammates doing the black water rafting below us. The main attraction though, was the glowworms.

The glowworms which live in the caves are arachnocampa luminosa (which sounds like a Harry Potter spell) and they are unique to New Zealand. In certain areas of the caves, the walls and ceiling (if that’s the right word) are covered in glowworms. Of course, glowworms aren’t actually worms, they are the larvae of fungus gnats. As with many insects, majority of their life is spent in larvae form and they glow as a means to attract food. The glowworms are almost perfectly spaced from one another – if they get too close they can easily become a fellow glowworm’s dinner! They glow through bioluminescence – a natural phenomenon which occurs more commonly in marine vertebrates and invertebrates. In layman’s terms, bioluminescence is a chemical reaction which involves a light-emitting molecule and an enzyme. The light the glowworms produce is blue green and I tried to capture the sheer wonder of it with my camera but without my tripod the photos didn’t come out so good. Points for trying though.

The glowworms survive as larvae for between 6 to 12 months depending on food supply. When they hatch from an egg they are about 3 to 5 millimetres in size and can grow to about 3 centimetres – quite the growth spurt. At the end of the larva stage it comes a pupa and hang from the roof of the cave on a silken thread. It will continue to glow, albeit intermittently, for one or two weeks before emerging as a gnat. In this adult stage which only lasts a matter of days, the glowworms do not feed, they simply mate, lay eggs and then die.

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It was a pretty sensational tour, with a very informative and entertaining tour guide to lead us through the caves. The sun was still shining when we made it back outside although by now it was much lower in the sky. We then had the short drive back to Kiwi Paka. Potentially pizza and a pub quiz beckons so my evening’s entertainment is sorted. I’m holding out hope that the weather stays fine for tomorrow for Hobbiton.

 

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Narnia! (but not really)

So today marked the start of my journey around New Zealand back on the Kiwi Experience bus. I checked out of my hostel and headed over to Queen Street to join the other adventurers waiting for the bus. It was a relatively early start – we were making good headway out of Auckland by 9am. We stopped off for a quick toilet break, then headed over to Thames, a town at the southwestern end of the Coromandel. We stopped off for an hour for an early lunch and to buy food supplies for our stay at Hot Water Beach in the evening. I made a friend on the bus, a fellow Brit, and we spent our hour having a good chat about what we had both been up to in New Zealand so far.

Then it was back on the bus and we headed straight to Hot Water Beach. On the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, the beach gets its name from the underground hot springs which filter up through the sand between high and low tide. It is a an incredibly popular tourist spot in New Zealand with an estimated number of 700,000 annual visitors. With two hours either side of low tide, the done thing is to dig a hole in the beach and allow it to fill up with the hot rising water. Wait for the water to cool a little – no one wants a nasty burn – and voilà, you have your own hot tub in the beach itself.

The Kiwi bus was driving us to the Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park (a bit of a mouthful if you ask me) where we would spend the night. A clipboard listing the accommodation was passed around the bus, and I was said to see that, when the clipboard finally reached me, I had missed out on signing myself into the Tui Lodge. The Fantail Lodge would have to serve as substitute.

The Holiday Park itself is very nice, with an assortment of accommodation to cater for all needs. The lodge where I will be spending the night is perhaps the nicest backpacking accommodation I have stayed in so far in New Zealand. The room is very clean, the beds are comfortable and there aren’t too many jammed into one room. There is also a small kitchen area (the microwave doesn’t work but nevermind) and there is a bathroom area with two showers, two toilets and – you guessed it, two sinks. For the grand total of $32 I don’t think it’s too bad. Being the only accommodation at Hot Water Beach, I was initially dreading some awful place that was charging top dollar simply because it could. I was pleased to be proven wrong – and I supposed Top 10 is in the name of the place for a reason.

We arrived at the Holiday Park around 1:30pm and we had about half an hour to check in, sort out our day bags and meet roommates before most of us piled back onto the bus to go to Cathedral Cove.

When we left Auckland the sun was shining and it looked to be a beautiful day, regardless of where you might be in the country. I had checked the weather online, and it forecasted rain in the morning in the direction of our destination but it should clear up by the afternoon which would be perfect for our trip to not one but two beaches. When we arrived in Thames around 11am it was raining, but more drizzle than anything else. Once we hit the road again, the rain was steady but there was a glimpse every now and then of blue sky. Sadly, my optimism for the weather to improve was misplaced.

Cathedral Cove is beautiful, regardless of the weather, but I had hoped to enjoy it in the sunshine all the same. There is a path which takes roughly half an hour’s walk to reach the cove where you can wander across the two beaches, and of course through the cove. The weather was too bad for kayaking but on better days I can definitely see the appeal of exploring this section of New Zealand coastline from the water.

Accessible only via foot, boat or kayak, Cathedral Cove is a must see on the Coromandel. There are several scenic tracks around the Cove and the surround bays are popular for snorkelling and diving. You might recognise the cave and beach from the film Prince Caspian of The Chronicles of Narnia series when the Pevenise children make their return to the fantastical land. I can tick Narnia off my bucket list, just Middle Earth and Westeros to go.

After a brief wander around (the rain putting a damper on things) it was time to head back up the path to get the bus back to Hot Water Beach. With the low tide scheduled for around 5:45pm, the plan was to head to the beach, dig a hole and experience the magic. Of course, on the short drive back the heavens opened and any thoughts of heading to a beach of any sort was pushed far from my mind. Already being soaked from the walk back from Cathedral Cove, I decided the only other water I wanted to encounter was from a hot shower. After said shower and hanging my clothes up to hopefully dry, I had dinner and spent my evening writing my blog (of course).

The weather should not put you off doing things, I know, and as our driver, Dylan, said earlier in the day, New Zealand has a massive outdoor culture. Scenery, he rightly said, is free and the only way to enjoy it is to put yourself out there to see it. While I agree with this, it was a shame that the rain prevented today from being as sensational as it should have been. I have every intention of coming back to Cathedral Cove to enjoy it in all its glory, and I hope that the other weather dependent activities to do along the route of the still manage to go ahead. It looks like rain again tomorrow but should be alright on Wednesday. Fingers crossed everything stays fine for Hobbiton!

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Albert Park

If you enter Albert Park at its entrance at the corner of Bowen Avenue and Kitchener Street, you might be forgiven for thinking you have walked into a rainforest. Native trees tower over the footpaths which, it has to be said, make for a pretty steep climb up to the park itself.

Albert Park occupies the site of the former Albert Barracks which was one of Auckland’s early European military fortifications. In turn, the barracks were built on the site of Te Horotiu pa. The barracks were composed of a number of wooden and masonry structures which were enclosed by a rock fortification built from local volcanic stone. The area was developed into a park during the 1880’s and offered visitors commanding views over the city and the harbour beyond. Sadly, the view is less spectacular these days as the park is surrounded by buildings. Walking amongst the trees, however, shields the buildings and offices from view. It’s a shame the issue of traffic population isn’t erased as easily.

The design of the park followed the result of a public competition. A bronze statue of Queen Victoria stands at the north axis of the park and was unveiled with considerable ceremony as part of the celebrations of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. A bandstand sits opposite at the south axis. The submit of the park offers a formal layout with flower gardens which encircle a cast iron fountain. Imported from Great Britain in 1881, the fountain forms the centrepiece of the park and depicts cherubs riding dolphins.

Albert Park is home to other memorials and sculptures. A marble Boer War memorial, flagpole and two large field guns are perhaps the most eye catching – the guns having once been part Auckland’s defence system which was set up during the Russian Invasion Scare of the 1880s. Beneath the park itself sits an extensive series of tunnels built as air raid shelters in 1941. These tunnels, however, were decommissioned and sealed up before the end of the Second World War.

There was a slight drizzle in the air, although this quickly passed. It was nice to return to the park a couple of months after my first visit to see how the park had changed. Many of the plants were now in flower or had leaves when their branches had previously been bare. Spring is certainly on the way.

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Slow Down, You’re Already Here

Today I got a taste of island life with a trip over to Waiheke Island which lies in the Hauraki Gulf. I caught the ferry over which took about 40 minutes from Auckland Ferry Terminal to Matiatia Bay. I had bought a ticket with the Waiheke Explorer Hop-On Hop-Off bus service as my means of transport for getting around the island. The Explorer Bus has set stops which are points of interest and you can jump off the bus at any of these to explore a little of Waiheke for yourself. The island is home to over 30 vineyards, beautiful beaches and stunning landscape. The tour guide on the bus tells you about the island and the history and culture of the destinations the tour will take you on.

Sadly, the ferry was a little late in getting into the Bay so I missed the 10am bus and had to wait an hour for the next one. This quickly turned out not to be as bad as it seemed as I went for a walk along one of the pathways around Matiatia Bay which offered gorgeous views over the Bay as well as of Rangitoto and other islands beyond. The walk also seemed to do my sore foot some good and at any rate, after a 40 minute ferry ride it was good to stretch my legs.

I spotted the next Explorer Bus pull up and made sure I wouldn’t miss out on this one. I already had a leaflet at hand which details a map of the island, the timetable, bus stops and a brief description of the different places to jump off, but there were provided by the tour guide for any traveller who might want one (or had come less prepared than myself). Once the bus was full of excited tourists, off we went.

My first stop was number 3 on the list, the village of Ostend. Having studied the map on the ferry over to the island, I had prioritised visiting two of the island’s beaches – Oneroa and Onetangi, but the tour guide mentioned the monthly market would be held at Ostend. I thought why not give it a look, so hopped off to have a look around. Sadly, the rain stopped play as it were, as many of the stallholders covered their goods and waited out the rain. I wandered down to the nearby shops, bought myself some lunch, and headed back to the markets when the rain clearer up. The market was very nice, lots of locally made items and food – some of which was very tempting. I’m not sure if I would recommend a stop at Ostend unless the markets were on again, but each to their own.

By the time the next bus came around there was a sustainable queue waiting to move onto the next stop like me. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for everyone, but it seemed there was a seat with my name on it and I can’t deny I was feeling pretty smug as the bus pulled away, leaving several people waiting. I would have felt bad for them but they started up some ‘We were here first’ nonsense which quashed any feelings of sympathy.

I made my next stop Onetangi to see the most beautiful white sand beach. It was quite novel really, having walked over the black sands of Raglan the previous day. Onetangi beach is 1.87 kilometres of uninterrupted sand. The beach is host to annual sandcastle building contests and is the site of Onetangi Beach Races where the islanders race anything they can. At one end the beach is clothing optional, but thankfully all of the beachgoers today were fully clothed. I had a lovely hour or so walking up and down the beach, until the rain returned. I took shelter in the bus station and didn’t have to wait too long for the sun to come out and for the next Explorer Bus to arrive.

My next stop was Oneroa Beach, the main beach of the island on the northern side of the town of Oneroa. Another beautiful, sweeping beach, it’s easy to see why people on Waiheke are so relaxed and happy. The tour guide explained a saying locals have on the island, ‘slow down, you’re already here’. I think it’s a beautiful phrase (ignore the fact the context concerned tourists speeding along the island’s winding roads). Tucked at the end of Oneroa Beach is Little Oneroa Beach, or Little O as the tour guide affectionately called it. A cliff wall separates the beaches and Little O is just as lovely, only smaller than its counterpart.

I’m not a wine person so the stops at the vineyards were lost on me a little, however most offered tours of the grounds and wine tasting as well. Travelling around to some of the vineyard stops, however, showed off the scenic views from those vineyards perched on hilltops. Perhaps I might make a return trip to the island to walk around a vineyard or two. After all, you don’t have to be a wine lover to appreciate a good view.

I caught the 5pm ferry back to Auckland just as the golden hour soaked the surrounding islands and the city itself in a stunning, gilded glow.

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Return to Raglan

A trip back to Raglan was long overdue, so I finally made myself catch the bus to enjoy the coastal town one more time before the Kiwi Bus beckoned once more. The bus doesn’t run to Raglan very often, perhaps four times a day, and I knew – in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t going to make it in time for the 8:10am bus. Not to worry, after a lie in (which was inevitable really) I headed to Hamilton’s city centre to catch the bus from the Transport Centre.

I could not have picked a better day. The sun was absolutely glorious and the bus journey, which took about an hour, was stunning once we were out of the city. The road winds between mountains and offers extraordinary views and eventually you glimpse the sea and Raglan itself.

I took myself off for a lovely long walk along the beach, almost as far as Manu Bay. I did keep a sharp eye out for dolphins but sadly there were none to be seen. I’m hoping to see plenty when I head to Kaikoura, and might even be lucky to spot a few when I catch the ferry to the South Island. I did, rather unexpectantly, see a few fish jumping out of the water, which was very entertaining. I saw a few gulls and oystercatchers but the main nature on display were the dogs being taken out for a beachside stroll. They reminded me of Jasper back home, although he’s only encountered sand at Bawdsey Quay – nowhere as exotic as Raglan.

I headed back to the town in search of a late lunch and stopped by Raglan Bakery and Café for a quiche and a cheeky brownie. The weather was so lovely I debated getting an ice cream but two puddings in a day would be a little excessive. I wandered around the town a little more before sitting by the water and enjoying the view. Somehow during the course of my walk, and this is typical of me, really, I managed to hurt my foot. Don’t quite know how I managed it, but I was glad to be catching the bus back to give it a chance to recover from my walk.

Had a small panic when I thought I’d missed the bus (the last bus of the day to return to Hamilton) but thankfully it reappeared and I breathed quite the sigh of relief. The sun was starting to set on the bus ride back to Hamilton, with the mountains and forests doused in long shadows and golden light. It had been a lovely way to spend my last day in Hamilton.

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Hamilton Riff Raff

Do you like the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Silly question, everyone does. Time for an interesting fun fact. Richard O’Brien who developed the idea and writing of the aforementioned Show lived and worked in Hamilton. He also co-wrote the script for the 1975 film and starred in the film as Riff Raff. O’Brien continued to write musicals, act (both on stage and screen) and became presenter of The Crystal Maze in 1990.

In 2004, Hamilton City Council honoured O’Brien with a life-sized statue of him as Riff Raff on the site of the former Embassy Theatre. Weta Workshop in Wellington was commissioned to make the statue and free wifi is available from the three-pronged stun gun. You can see it for yourself in Embassy Park, at the south end of Victoria Street, the main street in Hamilton city centre. The upper park of the park is Rocky Horror Show themed, with public toilets, chandelier, and pavilion – all of which look as though they have come directly from the Planet Transsexual.

NZ Wildlife – Sacred Kingfisher

So kingfishers, at the moment, hold the title of my favourite species of bird. Back home I was lucky enough to get a photo of a European kingfisher back in February on one of my lunchtime walks at work. I would see them regularly enough, and if anyone in the UK, more specifically near Suffolk – Lackford Lakes is the place to go to see kingfishers.

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The kingfisher you’ll find in New Zealand is larger than its European cousin, and is a hell of a lot easier to spot. There seems to be a lot more of them as well – on my day trip to Cape Regina I saw at least 60 kingfishers on the bus journey. Never in a million years would you see 60 kingfishers in a day back home. I was loving life that day – as I’m sure you can imagine.

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The New Zealand kingfisher is primarily cream and green-blue – with iridescent feathers on its wings and back. It has a broad black strip from its bill to its ears, and has a large bill. Its legs and feet are grey or pink-brown. A way to distinguish between the male and female is that the female is greener and duller. Its green-blue cap and black bill distinguishes the sacred kingfisher from other kingfisher species.

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You can find the sacred kingfisher on both the North and South Islands of New Zealand and are recorded in coastal and inland freshwater habitats. They favour farmland and riverbanks and are less common further inland and in mountainous regions.

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The sacred kingfisher eats a varied diet; terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, crabs, tadpoles, crayfish, cicadas, beetles, lizards and even mice. Of course, the diet is also dependent upon location. With the recent rain, when I last went out on a hunt for kingfishers I saw one after worms. Mostly, sacred kingfishers are seen singly or in pairs. They will use a range of perches, from tree branches to washing lines, fences – and on one occasion I saw one sitting on a volleyball net.

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Kingfishers nest in trees, cliffs and banks – where a nest chamber is excavated through a kingfisher chiselling out the nest with their bill. Incubation of the eggs is usually the role of the female however it is a shared duty. Mating occurs in early September and adults become very aggressive in defensive of their nest. Kingfishers lay between 3 and 7 eggs in a clutch which are incubated for roughly 20 days. The eggs of the kingfisher are a smooth glossy white and are about 2.4 cm in length. Chicks are fed by both parents and begin to fledge at 26 days. Chicks are fed for between 7 to 10 days after leaving the nest before they then start to catch food for themselves.

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