From the glow-worms of Waitomo to the volcanoes of Middle Earth, David Whitley enjoys the natural splendours of New Zealand’s North Island
Standing on the edge of darkness, I’m told to shunt my backside into a big inner tube and jump. One giant leap for man, and the booming sound of my landing echoes around the cave. A quick dip of hands in water makes me immensely glad of the wetsuit covering everything else. With hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that a river running underground through a cave system will be rather cold, but that doesn’t alleviate the initial shock.
Hand-paddling along an underground river in a rubber tube through the caves of Waitomo isn’t the first bizarre experience of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company’s Black Abyss tour. First, I had to get here. That involved shimmying 30 metres down into the earth through a hole in the rock that felt as wide as a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Following a brief safety demonstration, it was a trusting plunge into unseen territory, bouncing off the cave walls on the way down.
In the caves, headlamps light the way along the river, but after a short float downstream, our guide pulls us over. It’s time to turn off the lights. At this point, the cave’s auxiliary lighting system kicks in. The roof and walls begin to twinkle like stars, and they get brighter as the guide unleashes a booming, echoing clap. We’re surrounded by glow-worms, and they respond to noise by glowing brighter.
The name glow-worm may sound romantic, but these creatures are actually fly larvae — or maggots. They use the light to lure insects into spider’s web-like tendrils that hang down below. As long as you’re not one of those insects, it’s a heavenly, humbling experience. We drift through the glittering maggotscape in reverent silence.
Such odd experiences are what New Zealand really excels in. The Kiwis are an inventive bunch, as becomes quickly apparent on the Stratford to Okahukura railway line a little further south.
This rural branch line was closed in 2009, but got a new lease of life when a local farmer decided to run converted golf buggies along it. Forgotten World Adventures is a brilliant idea, appealing to anyone who has ever had a hankering to be a train driver. The buggies, with their steel wheels anchoring them in place, trundle along the railway line at a top speed of 20km/h through the hills of dairy country, long tunnels and increasingly spectacular gorges — and everyone gets to drive their own buggy. With the sun out, it becomes a pursuit of deliriously simple happiness: the speed is perfect for taking everything in and it’s a beautifully uncrowded part of the country.
After a couple of hours chugging along the track, we pull over in the village of Whangamomona. Well, we say village, the locals say independent republic. A scour of the walls in the local pub reveals hundreds of newspaper articles about Whangamomona’s secession from New Zealand after the locals objected to council boundary changes. These articules are full of pictures of the ‘national day’ being celebrated, and one report includes an honour roll of former presidents — one of which was a goat.
When not being elevated to positions of power, New Zealand’s wildlife inspires incredible conservation projects. After a mesmerising, winding drive along the coast into Wellington, a large fence bars the way to a valley in the hills above the capital. The fence, stretching 5.3 miles and encircling the entire valley, is the key part of an ambitious plan to restore this section of bushland to how it would have looked before humans arrived in New Zealand.
That means allowing native trees to grow to their full height, but more crucially, keeping non-native animals out. Endemic species that have died out on the mainland and survive only in offshore island sanctuaries are being reintroduced to Zealandia.
These include the kaka, New Zealand’s native parrot, which screeches raucously as it flies over the reservoir. Seven breeding pairs were released in 2002, with more than 300 chicks having been born since.
But the star attraction is the little spotted kiwi, the rarest of the kiwi species. It is thought that there are fewer than 2,000 of them in existence, and Zealandia is the only place to see them on the New Zealand mainland.
They’re most easily found on the evening tours, in which volunteer guides walk visitors through the sanctuary by dusk light and torches. It doesn’t take long for the honking call of Flipflop to be heard. He’s trying to impress the ladies.
We soon spot him, making a break from the bushes and wobbling along the path with his comical bobbing run. He’s heart-breakingly cute, and if the giant fence helps keep his species alive, the investment is unquestionably justified.
Middle Earth Mission
When it comes to the cities of North Island, Wellington hogs the headlines. But if you’re adding a second, Napier is a fascinating place.
In 1931, a huge earthquake tore through the city and the resulting fires razed the centre. The lagoon and marshlands that prevented the city from expanding disappeared as the sea floor was raised by two metres. It was this event that helped create the architectural uniformity that makes Napier special today. After the earthquake, most of the city was rebuilt in the art deco style that was fashionable at the time. Eight decades on it’s a rival to Miami’s South Beach — albeit with a more understated, workaday attitude.
The Napier Art Deco Trust’s walking and bus tours do a fantastic job of pointing out little details, like the unfurling ferns and Maori weapon motifs on the ASB Bank building, or the sunbursts on the manhole covers. There’s no one stand-out attraction — Napier’s just a highly odd, coherent whole. It has the surreal look of a town that’s been dropped in from an alien planet, with no one being impolite enough to mention the fact.
The rumbling forces that tore Napier apart make their presence felt elsewhere in the country, with the centre of the North Island having the best examples. The volcanoes of Tongariro National Park — Ruapehu and Tongariro — soar above the usually calm waters of Lake Taupo.
This is the setting for what’s widely considered one of the greatest day walks in the world. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 12-mile hike that crosses the national park. It’s not extreme trekking, but requires reasonable fitness levels for the gentle uphill plod through fields of lava.
The Crossing becomes genuinely astonishing at the South Crater — a vast barren bowl. It’s flanked by Ngauruhoe, a perfect cylindrical cone that’s technically a vent of Tongariro, even though it’s taller than Tongariro itself. The all-scree slope, marked with red streaks, is more familiar as Mount Doom from The Lord Of The Rings films.
Heading further upwards toward the Red Crater, the Middle Earth theme continues, with the ridge looking down over the Oturere Valley — which doubled as Mordor in the movies.
At the top, we stop for lunch. Down below is a series of emerald-coloured lakes so vivid they look dangerously sirenesque. Other-worldly is an adjective often used to describe New Zealand, but nowhere is it more appropriate than here. Any tiredness in the calves is entirely worth it. All that’s left is to succumb to awe.