Whangarei, New Zealand
10.15 bus out of Paihia. The party bus, in that both Emma and Nicki were on it too. My party was short lived, as I was off at 11.30 on reaching Whangerai (fun-ger-ai). It hadn’t looked up to much when we stopped there on the way up, but my temporary friend, Daniel, had mentioned waterfalls and walking, and that was enough to make a night’s stop feel worth it.
I was picked up from the bus stop by Graham, as the YHA is at the waterfall, 5km away from town. Graham gave me a short tour and I was, not for the first time, impressed by a hostel owner’s ability to say the same things to different people but remain interested.
I stayed at the YHA Whangerai Falls, so seeing the waterfall required little effort. That’s at one corner of a triangle, though, with an hour’s walk to Abbey Caves, a further hour from there to town, and one more back to the hostel. That was my afternoon sorted, then. The waterfall was just stunning – 2 minutes walk to a dramatic fall, surrounded by greenery, flowers setting the whole thing off, compared to 1.5 hours walk to little Huraru falls. No justice.
The caves are described as the budget conscious traveller’s answer to the Waitomo glowworm caves, as they are free. They are ‘undeveloped’ – not turned into luxury homes? – and signs warn you off. These are not designated safe, at your own risk, etc. I realised that blithely saying “I’ve got a torch” when I could have borrowed a head torch wasn’t the best idea. My torch is a keyring alien, with a button to push for 20 seconds of light. As I scrambled down into Organ cave, I realised the peril of a handheld torch – you need both hands to hold on, plus light to see by. The cave, once past the steep descent in (think 70 cm high drops from one rock to the next, no steps or easy wander down here) was pitch black.
Onward. I at least had a leaflet, so knew what to expect. Or did when I read it, in the cavern. Just 60m in is the 50ft cavern. By the time you get there your feet are wet from ankle high water, but the blunder through the rocks is worth it. Lights off, as two fellow cavers suggested, and there was the glow from the worms.
Who aren’t worms, but fly larvae, but never mind all that. Stunning. They glow brighter as they get hungrier – they seemed mid digestion to me, but the look is fabulous, very like looking up at the stars, though with a greenish tinge. There was now no one with me to say ‘ah, but when you’ve seen the stars from the salt flats of Bolivia…’, or ‘Waitomo is grander’ so I just took it as it was.
Organ cave is the largest, with another 120m or so, but getting to the grand chamber involves a waist-high wade through water. The people ahead had opted out, and so did I, passing a group of four at the entrance. I climbed out quickly, only then realising that they were waiting to come down, looking like they had made their first refusal at the fence. I ought to have offered to help, perhaps.
Heading down the path, through limestone outcrops and glorious greenery, I and a German girl – looking slightly more expert with a helmet hanging from her backpack – wondered if we were on the right path, but it was just a case of following the main path and there was middle cave. This is a short one, about 90 through, and with a ‘tricky climb out’ at the end. More pitch black, and this time it occurred to me that my tiny torch was doing a great job, but without it I was banging into the rocks, and I’d had this thing for years without using it: how much battery life could there be?
I reached the end, stood up on a rock and contemplated my exit. They weren’t kidding about the ‘tricky’ part, I could reach a hand above my head, figured I could jam a foot in about a metre up and maybe go from there, though I didn’t really see how. Just through from there I could see two more holes leading out, though, and scrambling under a large rock – quick obligatory thought of “been there for years, is now the time for it to slip?” I found a narrower way out that looked much easier. I decided not to be put off by the mass of spiders webs near the entrance that suggested no one else had used this exit, abandoned climbing manual etiquette by lifting a knee onto the first surface and went out, punching the air gently.
The glowworms were pretty there, too. A couple of paths led away, I picked one, baulked at the steep descent to a gully, thinking I’d get down only to find I was nowhere, then spotted the German girl at the bottom so figured I was back at the entrance. I scrambled down and it didn’t look familiar – I was at the entrance to Ivy cave, as it turned out. This one is longer, over 100m, and sounded straightforward enough. 60m in, a section of low ceiling before you emerge towards light, last 10m gets wetter and has a mud base. I went in. I hadn’t spotted whether GG had gone in, and that turned out to be crucial. I reached the low ceiling with nothing other than renewed wetness in my shoes as penance, and looked. This wasn’t a path with, ooh, low ceiling, there’s the entrance. Instead, a gap through jagged rocks twisted away from me and headed down, looking more like the mouth of a predator, with a downhill route, than a passage.
The leaflet says there’s a gap. I couldn’t work out whether I’d go through head or feet-first, and wanted confirmation I’d get through, but waiting and listening for a few minutes – probably not something to get a reputation for doing in caves, “oh look, squatting there by the side, in silence, it’s that British guy again” – brought none of my fellow cavers through. All probably still trying to negotiate the entrance to organ cave-hard with people watching, easy to do without, because you can (and I did) go down on your arse. I bottled it. Stuff Ivy cave, I said to no one in particular, and wandered off.
I could put my headphones back in, now. Soundtrack to the day, Grouplove, Tongue Tied-happy happy happy – but I had belatedly realised in the organ cave that barging in with my tiny torch and headphones in was a little too relaxed and tucked the iPod away. I sat in the sun for a moment, feeling alone in “little earth’ as the next door backpackers is named, surely in testament to the scenery. I had just opened my mouth to sing when a group of four passed me with a hello. Before wandering on to comment on the loon with his mouth wide open, no doubt.
Caves and glownotheyrenotworms seen, I continued along the road into town. Quite a walk, but the scenery was spectacular, with the caves up high, hills dropped away on the route to coastal Whangerai. The city (50,000 inhabitants here to qualify, it just does) was described as a bit spread out and unplanned by the hostel owner on Paihia, but the town basin is pretty enough, with a huge tourist info centre. It’s just a place where you have to get used to walking through one developed bit, then feeling like you’re walking out of town as you pass industrial or run down buildings, before you find the next bit. The library is tucked away – in a nice square, next to a park, but also next to a graffitied bridge and a couple of empty buildings that look slightly post apocalyptic after the row of neat shops that precedes them. I was only there for the wifi, though enjoyed a tour round the library once I realised it was open.
Back to the hostel, at first along the long road I’d been driven along but as soon as possible onto the river track. Stunning. The waterfall is dramatic-much more so than Huraru, and for much less effort, though returning to it admittedly took me several hours. The riverside is studded with red flowers, which could have been picked for their splashes of colour, offsetting the greenery and rippling brown water beautifully. I even managed not to be too envious of the joggers, pounding the track.
Returning to the hostel after 7, still in daylight and sunshine, I expected to flake out. I went into the kitchen for water, was ignored by a German couple then turned to go out and the tall girl in the corner, who I hadn’t really looked at said “I’ve got a photo of you on my phone, haven’t I?”
So it turned out that yes, I had recorded myself on her phone the day before at the lighthouse. A video, in fact. She’d in fact been on the same tour as me, though keeping herself to herself. Offering to take her photo then buggering off without small talk had been the right approach, then. We got chatting, she sat down to dinner; ooh, make or break time, faux pas to join or not? Seeing as we’d chatted easily without resort to “where are you from?” “where are you going?” or “what are your plans?” I figured it was worth carrying on, and boy was I right.
I have been so lucky over the last few days, meeting, now, three people with whom to have proper conversations, and laugh at those who sit, wave a finger in the air and switch I transmit, motto;
“I’m probably only waiting for you to stop talking, so that I can.”
I realised how long I have suffered those sort of conversations when I was actually surprised to find one of the girls continuing a running gag that I had made; oh! You heard! Better, Long Louise (tall – Thai masseuse, “you lo-ong!”) is a pisstaker of many accents, with a quick laugh and happy to laugh at herself. “I worked on a farm, watched them cutting the animals’ bollocks off. Because they didn’t want them to breed.”
“Oh right – not just for the cooking pot, then? Are you used to talking to Americans and having to explain everything?”
She gave as good as she got, mind, first convincing me she had seen glowworms 40cm long, before looking at me funny till I realised flies that large would be the talk of the world, and later:
“Oh, my little brother looks like Leo Di Caprio.”
“Cor, lovely.” (Pauses, looks puzzled for a second).
“Did you have different parents?”
No post walk collapse, then, just another last-ones-standing night, finally into bed some time before 2. I’ve said it before of many things, but it’s true here too – this is exactly what I hoped my time off would be made of.