Monday, January 04, 2010

Day 9 - Auckland to Waitomo

When I wake up in the morning I find it’s raining which is actually quite a pleasant change from the hot weather we’ve been having. B’s house is in a very pretty place, on a large ground filled with fruit and other trees. Birds are atwitter among the leaves and a pleasant breeze blows through the house. She kindly packs food for me for lunch and dinner and assures me that she had a good time and then we bid each other farewell.

The distance to Waitomo caves is 200 kms and the GPS informs me that it’s going to take 2.5 hours. Hmmmm..... The journey is much more pleasant today because of the rain and the drop in temperature. Also, as I move southwards, the landscape gets lovelier. Brown gives way to green as the hills and fields are swathed in lovely, delectable shades of green. Up north, it was more cattle country, but now sheep start appearing in the meadows as white furry bundles head down in the grass grazing. It’s hard at times to keep my eyes away from the landscape and on the road. For once I wish someone else was driving and I was in the passenger seat feasting my eyes on the panorama spread out on both sides. I wonder what I’m doing in a metal box on wheels, burning up precious fossil fuel and whizzing by at breakneck speed. A spectacle like this deserves to savoured at a slower pace, maybe on horseback or in a horse carriage, windows open, hair blowing in the wind and spirit bounding among the trees and the hills.

After four days of company, I’m alone once again. Even though the company was nice to have, I must admit that I like the solitude. I can now actually hear myself think and even drop my thoughts and be in silence. It is usually hard to stay connected with my inner self when the attention is on the world and other surface things. So I just enjoy my own company. Sometimes I talk to the car, tell her what a great job she’s been doing, taking me across the countryside without complaint. I send out waves of love and gratitude. Did you know that all energy has consciousness?

I reach Waitomo Caves and check into the lodge. It is built into a hillside and is therefore at various levels. I find that the room I’ve been alloted is at the very top level and has a wonderful view of the surroundings. Little hillocks undulate in the distance and pine forests rise dark and thick on some of them. Sheep dot the sides of the hills and among the trees birds call and crickets sing. The lodge comprises little cottages and the owners Colin and Janet stay in the main house at the bottom level. Around each structure flowers and bushes grow in abundance. On the verandah outside the house on a roof trellis, two grape vines have spread their branches creating a green canopy and unripe grapes hang down in perfect bunches. It is so heartwarming to see foliage growing in such profusion.

Waitomo is famous for its cave system some of which contain stalagmites and stalactites and also glowworms which when viewed in the dark makes for a surreal experience. The word Waitomo comes from the Maori for wai meaning water and tomo meaning sinkhole, so it can be translated as ‘water passing through a hole’. I’ve been here before and seen the glowworms and all that but this time I want to try out black water rafting :)

So, after a quick lunch I head off to the Black Water Rafting company’s meeting point. Because we’re doing a wet exploration through the caves, we’re given wet suits to don. In the ladies changing room while we’re putting on our gear, I hear someone say ‘What am I doing here?’ again and again. :) The wet suits are, well, wet. And clingy. And stick to you like second skin. I guess it helps to keep the body heat in.

Then we all get into a van and are taken to the side of a small stream where we are asked to choose tubes that our bottoms will fit into. Tubes are circular air-filled donuts which will be used to sit upon and float once we are in the water. We are also given helmets with lights on them.

Then we do a trial run of jumping off a waterfall. We have to attach the tubes to our bottoms and jump into the water facing backwards so as to land in the water on the tube and bottom down and head up :) The trial run seems easy even though it is a bit of a shock to the system to land suddenly in the cold water, sink a little and gulp a lot of water. Then we are taken to the mouth of the cave. This cave is called the Ruakuri Cave meaning ‘cave of dogs’ because according to Maori legend, some young hunters who were returning from bird catching were suddenly attacked by wild dogs. In order to escape, they threw the dead birds at the dogs and ran away. The chief not too happy to be deprived of food sent them back to get the dogs. They, with the help of some more tribesmen came back, found the dogs in this cave, captured them, took them back, killed and ate them. In the process, also discovered this cave.

Back in the present day, for us, a different kind of adventure begins :)

The cave system here is made up of tunnels with uneven stone floors and limestone walls and stalactite ceilings. It not dry but has a constant flow of water flowing through it sometimes at a rapid pace and occasionally the floor dips so that the water then gushes over the fall. As we enter the cave it gets dark, so we switch on the light on our helmets. Then clutching our tubes we pick our way gingerly over the rocks, trying to avoid the limestone jutting out or the stalactites hanging too low. When the ceiling is too low, we get on our tubes, lie back flat and float through the gap. We climb into holes and through holes, lose our balance, grab the walls, scrape our skin. Over the waterfalls, we attach to tube to backsides, stick our bottoms into it and jump. Yippee!!! And land in a splash, gulping water and getting soaking wet.

I must say that it is interesting to note and very heartening to find that in situations like these total strangers become very helpful. For helping hands reach out whenever someone is in need of help and everyone looks out for the other. It must be the presence of danger that kindles a kinship with people you’ve never met before, who do not even speak the same language as you and whom you may never see again.

All throughout the cave system glowworms are to be found. Actually, only the first half of the word ‘glowworm’ is true because even though it glows it is not a worm, it an insect called the fungus gnat. And it’s not the insect that is glowing, it’s its shit. So what we’re looking at is glowing shit. The gnats themselves are in the larvae stage and they attach themselves to the roofs of these caves, excrete luminous stuff and thin, sticky lines that hang down. Flying insects that get into the caves, are attracted to the glow and when they come near, get trapped by the hanging lines. The glowworms pull them in and make a meal of them. They hang around like this for 9 months after which they metamorphose into adults. The adult gnats, however do not have mouths, so they cannot eat, so they just mate furiously for 3-4 days, after which the male flies off and dies. The female, then goes around laying around 120 eggs, after which she also dies. Out of all those eggs around 40 survive. The survivors proceed to eat the unsuccessful ones, thereby producing shit and then the cycle is repeated. All very fascinating.

After all that wading through ankle-deep, knee-deep water and jumping off waterfalls, we come to the most mind-blowing part of the adventure. We are asked to get into the eel formation which involves us getting into single line, putting your legs on the side of the tube of the person in front of you and grabbing the feet of the person behind you whose legs are on your side. Thereby, we form a tight line. Then we switch off our lights. And then the guide in front slowly pulls us along. I just lie on my back, my bottom in the water, looking up, and in the darkness, the roof above is lit up with the glow of thousands of glowworms. It’s like as if the starry sky has come down and is almost within reach. It is almost totally silent except for the occasional splash of water and I just lie there gliding slowly through the water, in the near total darkness, under the soft light of the glowworms. It is elemental. It is exhilarating. It is surreal. All the wading, and jumping, and scraping and falling out of tubes and gulping water suddenly becomes worthwhile.

After that wonderful experience, we come out of the eel formation, climb some more, wade some more and then come to the real test. Our guide tells us to switch off our lights and glide thorough the pitch dark all by ourselves. And off we go, bumping into each other, the walls and sometimes the floor, trying not to get lost or get left behind. Finally, light is seen at the end of the dark tunnel and we all climb out of the cave into daylight. I feel stiff and exhausted. My body sends messages like “I’m not young anymore”, “Stop torturing me”. Which I conveniently ignore. Hehehehe :)))

Back at the premise, I climb out of the wet suit and get into the hot shower. Aaaahhhhh!!!!! What a great feeling! Hot water against cold skin! To get warm again after more than an hour in a cold, wet cave system wearing a wet suit. Then we all go and have a free complimentary soup and bagel. My body is partially pacified :))) That was such a great adventure. Even though I must admit that there were times when I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this?” “What am I doing in this wet suit, jumping off waterfalls?” Pushing boundaries, of course :)))

Back at the lodge, after dinner, I pick up a conversation with Colin, the owner. Turns out this is his retirement business. He is a former high school teacher. I compliment him about the profusion of plants and flowers and his success at grape-growing. He says things grow because they can’t help growing, because the climate is such, it is conducive to growth. I enquire about a place close by where there are a few lions and you get to pet the lion cub when it’s just a few weeks old or until it grows it’s fangs. He says wild animals should not be allowed too close contact with humans, else they lose their wildness and forget their real nature. (I would say the same about myself :))) Look at dogs, he says pointing to his dog, they are pack animals, they follow a hierarchy, alpha male and alpha female, then others down the pecking order. Our dog waits for us to finish dinner before she has hers, even though we keep her dinner out first because she knows that she is further down the hierarchy. Therefore humans should never allow dogs to sleep with them, then the dogs will think they are above and will rebel when they are controlled. Dogs are like children, they like structure, Cats, on the contrary are independent and solitary and don’t care for hierarchy or structure. Quite interesting!

I come back to the room and sit and gaze at the landscape outside. The setting sun has lit up the grass and the light is streaming through the leaves. The dusk chorus is actively twittering in the trees. Thus, another memorable day has come to an end.