I believe that I mentioned in my last posting that here in Taupo we are staying at a beautiful B&B. It is called the Pillars, and should your travels ever bring you to this part of the world it is definitely where you want to stay. It is a huge colonial-style mansion in which the hosts have really made us feel at home in this wonderfully serene setting.
And this is all to the good, since the rest of our day yesterday was anything but serene; it was, more accurately, geologically active. Our first stop was at Huku Falls, which is the largest waterfall that feeds Lake Taupo. As falls go they are not at all high — only about 25′ — but their water volume is vast as the photo suggests. The river that feeds them is thunderously loud and roiling and a remarkable ice blue color like the falls themselves, and certainly suggests a quick wet death should you be foolhardy enough to try and swim there. There are a number of river- and falls-related attractions surrounding them, notably hikes along the river valley to assorted vantage points, and jet boat rides that go right up to the bottom of the falls by virtue of a set of zillion-horsepower engines that I expect are as loud as the falls themselves. (We will find out tomorrow when we take such a ride, albeit on a different river.)
We are in our own rental car, remember, and so can meander around as desired, which means frequent consultation of our road atlas to see if the is anything interesting close to where we happen to be at the moment. In this case, this being a geologically active area, as you, know, this led to our next stop being the “Craters of the Moon” thermal park, which was similar in many ways to areas such as Yellowstone and Kilauea: bubbling mud pots, steam coming out of the ground, crevices and small craters striated with mineral deposits (red, yellow, and white) and exuding toxic clouds of aerosol sulfuric acid. (The chemistry of this is that the sulfur from the vents is oxidized to form sulphur dioxide (SO2), which then combines with the moisture in the air. SO2 + H2O = H2SO4 = sulfuric acid, more or less. There will be a quiz.) Regardless of whether you remember your high school chemistry, it burns the hell out of your lungs and sinuses.
As in all such geothermal parks, you get around the place on a marked boardwalk or path, which is lined with frequent admonitions not to leave the path, or else. The “or else” in this case being falling into a steaming hole in the ground, of which there are many.
We spent about an hour there, enjoyably enough though much of our conversation during the time was along the lines of, “Yeah, this is pretty cool but it looks a lot like Yellowstone/Kilauea/some other place we’ve been.” And so we continued onward, about 100 miles west towards the coast, to visit the town of Waitomo, known for its extensive caves and most particularly for the famous Glowworm Grotto. Our route there took us through very windy, hilly countryside, aptly dubbed by a friend of ours (upon seeing my Facebook picture of it) as “The Shire.” It is not for nothing that they filmed LOTR here; this is a typical scene that we drove through for two hours. Imagine as you look at it hearing the cows lowing and the sheep baa-ing and all that stuff. In a country as thinly populated as this, the outdoors are pretty quiet. (And, happily, the is little traffic on the winding roads.)
I took this shot off of a rare straightaway; most of the drive was on a tortuous mountain road that made for pretty tiring driving (about which more later). Anyway, we made it to the caves in about two hours.
The glowworms are actually quite pervasive throughout the Waitomo cave system but one particular cave has been “touristized” especially for the purpose of seeing them. The glowworms themselves are actually the larval stage of a particular fly, the arachnocampa luminosa (Write that down. It will be part of the quiz.). During this stage of its life, it is anchored to the walls or ceiling of the cave and glows from its posterior much like a firefly. However, the little lantern is unlike a firefly’s in two important ways. First, it is a pale blue color instead of yellow. Second, it is a predatory lure, not a mating signal. The larva drops several threadlike fishing lines, each about a foot long and covered with sticky stuff, rather like a strand of spider web (hence the “arachno” in its Latin name). Mosquitos and other small flying insects in the caves are attracted to the lights, get tangled in the lines, and are reeled in and eaten. (See the picture at left from Google images.)
When you are in the caves you cannot see the lines unless the guide sidelights them with a flashlight, and when that happens you can actually see the sticky droplets as in the picture here. The lines are very fine and kind of ominous looking, just a tad too reminiscent of a scene from one of the Alien movies. (And if you are a mosquito, the outcome is pretty much the same.)
But the real stunner is the lights themselves. We walked for a ways through the cave, accompanied by a guide who gave us its history (discovered in 1887, opened to the public in 1889, stalactites grow down, stalagmites grow up, they both grow at a rate of 1/250th per year so don’t touch them, et cetera). Then we got into a flatbottomed boat which the guide pulled through the cavern via a rope that stretched along the river at about head height. The lights faded, and voila! We were seemingly outside at night on the clearest night you have ever seen, but of course what was above our heads was not the the stars but rather the ceiling of the cave, studded with perhaps 100,000 glowworms, looking for all the world like some alien set of constellations. (And indeed, being an astronomer at heart, I found myself involuntarily looking for constellations, with some consternation at not finding any familiar ones.)
You cannot take pictures, of course, and in fact I doubt that any photo really does it justice, but here’s a publicity shot that gives you a pretty good idea of what surrounds you as you glide through the silent darkness on the boat:
It is just amazing, “awesome” in the original sense of the word. If you ever come to New Zealand do not miss the opportunity to see this.
And while we’re on the subject of awesome things, I will now struggle to describe the next thing we did upon leaving the glowworms (which, as events transpired, we did not). Little more than a month ago I found myself in a lunchtime conversation (during an otherwise spectacularly boring and entirely typical monthly business lunch gathering) about New Zealand with a guy who had been here a number of years ago. He recommended something called “black water rafting” which you could do in the vicinity of the glowworm caves. “It’s great!” he said. “It’s tubing through a cave!” That sounded like our kind of thing, and it turned out there was an excursion departing from nearby at 4:30, so we went for it.
A this point, words (nearly) fail me, since this was without a doubt one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. Equipped with thick (1/4″) wet suits, plastic boots with friction soles, hard hats with mounted mining lamps, and inner tubes, we first hiked up the hillside to the cave entrance. (This part was not so much fun: hiking up a steep hillside wearing a thick wet suit and carrying a tire is hard, sweaty work.) Immediately prior to the hike, I should, was a test of sorts to see if we were going to be able to hack this: with our butts in our inner tubes, we had to jump backwards off a small dock into the river…the river being 49 degrees F.
The scene reminded me of a real old Bill Cosby routine in which he describes jumping into a mountain lake on his honeymoon: “My body turned in to a giant cramp. And my eyes would not close, because they too wanted to know what had hit them. So when I broke the surface I called out to my lovely new bride, ‘C-c-c-come on in, d-d-d-dear! The w-w-w-water’s fine!'”
49 degrees. Seriously, you have no idea. Fortunately the hike up the hillside warmed us up. We are a group of five people, plus the guide, an athletic-looking (obviously) young local woman. It is certain that Alice’s and my combined ages exceeded the total ages of the other four people including the guide.
We got to the cave enhance which, had our guide not identified as such we would never have seen. There were some rocks, and a little steam, and a tiny hole nearly invisible among the vegetation and scree. Our guide disappeared into this thimble-sized hole and beckoned us to follow, leading to a lot of to-and-fro glances as we wondered among ourselves whether this was physically possible. It was.
The experience inside the cave was nothing short of remarkable. The only light was from our helmets as we variously picked our way along uneven, smooth rocks, waded through waist-deep water (49 degrees!!), squeezed through passages a foot wide, and floated in our tubes down the river, bumping off the hard rock walls and once virtually limbo-ing claustrophobically through a tunnel in which our only option was to lie flat back in our inner tubes, the rock ceiling about two inches from our faces, and propel ourselves along by “walking” our fingertips along the ceiling.
We drifted through the utter blackness lit only by our helmets, sometimes through caverns fifty feet high, the walls sheer and studded with limestone formations, the ceilings lost in the darkness, unreachable by our lanterns. And when we turned off our headlamps, we were left with no light whatever, not a photon to be scrounged….but for the light of thousands upon thousands of glowworms on the ceiling, whose light was strong enough to, just very barely, bathe the nearest walls in blue iridescence. It was breathtaking, completely unworldly. We will never forget it.
We went over two waterfalls, one barely worthy of the name at only a foot or two in height, the other about 5’ high. And as in the river preceding the hike to the cave entrance, we negotiated the falls by standing at the top, facing upstream, crouching into our innertubes, and leaping backwards, this time into the darkness…and avoiding the rock walls.
As you can tell, this is not an experience for the claustrophobic, the faint of heart, or the arthritic of knee. (And I give Alice full credit: I don’t know too many other grandmothers who would have been willing and able to negotiate the entire experience.) Here’s a photo from some other group to give you a small idea. I have a USB stick with the pictures of us that our guide took; I will upload them in a few weeks when we’re home.
It was genuinely unforgettable, hard work, occasionally a little scary — try carrying a big innertube through a passage two feet wide while a rushing cold stream tries to dislodge your feet and bang you against the very, very hard walls. I definitely owe a debt of gratitude to the guy who told me about this.
We emerged from the cave at about 8 PM into dark and rainy weather. The fed us a cup of tomato soup and a toasted bagel to warm us up a little bit, and sent us on our way. We decided to forgo dinner: we had a bunch of snacks in the car and our hosts had equipped us with some fruit and homemade muffins. As so we undertook the drive back to Taupo, an experience that was a whole lot less fun than our caving adventure. Imagine if you will that you are tired from two hours in that cold cave river, two hundred feet below ground (and did I mention the water was 49 degrees?), that it is now raining hard, it is dark, and you are driving for two hours on unfamiliar mountain roads, lousy with switchbacks…and that you are driving on the left side of the road. What fun!
Adding to the festivities was a little reminder that this is geothermal country, and so every now and then — because the rain didn’t do enough to make things hazardous enough — you get a fog patch composed of volcanic steam, i.e. that delightful sulfuric acid aerosol that we discussed earlier. So it’s dark, the road is windy, mountainous, and slick, you’re driving on the wrong side, and visibility has just dropped to about 20 feet as you pass through a cloud that is trying to dissolve you. By the time we got back I was a wee bit tired.
So that was our day yesterday. Today we must alas depart our B&B for a more conventional hotel in Rotorua, about an hour away. (We tried to rejigger our arrangement so we could remain here for the next two nights, but we couldn’t cancel the hotel, alas.) Tomorrow: jet boating!