Floating under the wondrous glow of worm-bums makes for magical moments in Waitomo.
WAITOMO, NEW ZEALAND
In Waitomo (‘Wai’ in Maori means water) we booked into Big Bird B&B (self-catered units).
Warm and welcoming hosts, Ann and Ross Barnes, took the time to share their knowledge of the area. There was a time when along with the B&B Ann ran a gift shop in town while Ross was a conservation officer. One of his responsibilities was the development of nature trails in the area. They still operate a small farm raising ostrich, emu, miniature horses and cattle. As with most of their B&B guests, Ross took us along to feed the ostriches and explained the growth and development of these big birds. Ann followed up by showing ostrich eggs and hides, including leather jackets and vests.
If all that wasn’t enough on their busy plates, just as the sun set Ross took us and his other guests trail walking, providing an excellent talk on the flora and fauna along the path. With darkened skies, he pointed out the Southern Cross constellation which us folk north of the equator don’t get to see. He also shone his flashlight in the direction of two pointer stars which can be used along with the Southern Cross to determine due south. Looking to the heavens, without interference from bright city lights, we could see clearly the Milky Way and two galaxies.
The main attraction of his walk … glowworms. Like a firefly, the glowworm is able to light the back end of its grub body to attract prey into spider web-like ‘fishing lines’ which hang down from its cocoon. The light is produced by the same chemical reaction which lights glow-rods used at rock concerts. Populations of glowworms are numerous in this part of New Zealand and a great deal of the tourist traffic is focused on seeing them in their natural environment. We hope to see more as we’re planning to go black water rafting in the morning.
Breakfast at 7:30, then into our swimsuits and off to the Black Water Rafting reception lounge by 8:15. Along with nine others we squeeze, shiver, laugh, pull and tug ourselves into wet suits. After adjusting crash helmets with attached lights we pile into a van. At our first stop we select inner tubes to fit our derrières (no rude comments please), have a practice dry run at linking up by holding onto the feet of the person behind and do our first jump backwards (with inner tube in place) into cold water. Climbing out of the water, they loaded us and our inner tubes back into the van and take us to the start location where we descend down into a cave. Everyone sat and visited while allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the dark. Our guides were very good at providing safety information in a way that was humorous and made us feel comfortable.
Once everyone was introduced (like we are going to remember!) and with inner tubes in hand, we made our way deeper into the limestone cave. Then the first big moment … directions were issued to stand, one at a time, at the brim of the unknown, turn backwards, position inner tube and prepare to fling ourselves into the black abyss with the expectation that below … somewhere below … there will be water. “Be sure to push off like you did in practice so you miss the rocks,” the knowledgeable guide directed in an urgently-calm voice. Terry who has issues with being underground, and dislikes having his head underwater, was asking himself why he was here … about to jump; worse … about to jump willingly and blindly backward into the rock and water-infested darkness. But he did.
With one following another, our group began to float (some hand-paddling required) along the underground stream, sometimes linked together but most times on our own. When told to turn off our helmet lights, we were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of glowworms looking like stars in a black-arched sky.
For ninety minutes we floated, occasionally jumping backwards over mini-Niagara’s (average two meters high), crawled over rocks and between narrow passage ways, drifting along in caves where we could touch the rocks above and in others where ceilings soared like grand cathedrals. Now and then we turned off our headlamps and witnessed the wondrous glow of hundreds of tiny worm bums. Magical!
We emerged from the darkness at a bridge we had crossed the night before on our trail tour with Ross. A little walk down the trail and back into the water we went to complete the balance of our tubing above ground. Stripped of wet suits we warmed up with a hot shower followed by a visit with fellow floaters over bagels and hot tomato soup. All in all a great experience.
An on-site museum documents the history of the caves and offers a film on the lifecycle of a glowworm.
We decided to stay at Big Bird a second night … but this night we would bed down in a little self-contained cottage.
As soon as we were changed from the cozy clothes of the morning into summer wear for the sunny afternoon we were off down the road again … this time to see the Billy Black Kiwi Culture Show.
For sheep friends, Billy Black (in real life Barry Wood) spent some time in the 1980s shearing sheep on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia (he knew Sherrie’s Uncle Bob). Billy has developed a tourist show and besides demonstrating antique logging equipment he brings on stage, as part of his act, a pig, sheep dog, sheep, rooster, possum and a steer. The seated audience can see the hillside paddocks containing the animals as the stage, for the most part, does not have a back wall. – he pulls ropes to open the various paddock gates. The sheep dog collects the misfits on command and brings them down, through the gates and onto the stage, all in view of the audience. Billy is a one man show so he uses audience members to help when needed.
Billy has constructed on his premises a rather unique gathering of accommodation experiences, from a boat and train caboose to an airplane and more recently a Hobbit house in an area he calls Woodlyn Park.
Before retiring for the evening, Terry laced up his running shoes and ran/walked the trail starting with the part Ross walks with guests and continuing along what some publications described as “the best short walk in New Zealand”. On his trek he came across some fellows rappelling down the side of a cliff formed from the collapse of a long-ago cave. They offered him a turn, but he said, “Perhaps later.”
While he was off on his run, it started to rain. Sherrie helped Ann bring in the laundry – many country households still hang their laundry out to dry. When traveling there is something engaging and satisfying about doing everyday chores with locals (feeding animals, doing chores, cooking); experiences which can become more cherished than the ones advertised in glossy brochures. Don’t be shy about asking to ‘help out’.
Waitomo Big Bird Bed & Breakfast
Clean, comfortable, spacious and special Big Bird Bed & Breakfast Much is more than just a place to stay and taste Ann’s scrumptious breakfasts (and, oh, the bread!). A stay at BBB&B it comes with a chance to help out on a petting farm and experience and learn from exceptional hosts Ann and Ross.
Address: 17 Waitomo Caves Rd, Hangatiki 3977, New Zealand Phone: Phone Number +64 7-873 7459
SIGHTSEEING IN WAITOMO
Unique to New Zealand, the glowworm is a tiny creature which radiates a luminescent light. Travel through the world renowned Waitomo Caves and marvel at nature’s nightlights. Truly a ‘MUST SEE’. Travel by boat or step up the experience by black water rafting; an adventure for all ages, with mobility, following experienced guides as you abseil, weave, jump, climb and float through glowworm wonderlands.
BILLY BLACK KIWI CULTURE SHOW
A international record setting sheepshearer for many years, Billy took is passion for animals, showing, shearing and sharing, then wrapped them up in his one man Kiwi Culture Show. Billy is the real deal and his humorous show features log sawing, live animals (which may include a working sheep dog, huge cattle, a smart pig) and perhaps even you. No matter what your age, he will have you laughing and learning.
Billy Black’s show takes place in Woodlyn Park where you can find some very unique alternative accommodations.
WAITOMO BIG BIRD AND MINIATURE ANIMAL PETTING FARM
Visitors to Big Bird and Miniature Animal Petting Farm will experience up close and personal introductions to ostrich, miniature horses and an every changing eclectic menagerie. “It always gives us pleasure,” Ann and Ross say, “to give ‘animal enrichment’ to those who enjoy ‘animal therapy’.” This is not an activity only for children, adults benefit from animal enrichment too and don’t be surprise at who says, “I want to stay longer. I want to go back.”
It is part of Big Bird Bed & Breakfast and minutes away from both Waitomo Caves and Billy Black Kiwi Culture Show.