Day 3: New Zealand – Let It Glow…

Woke up to a gorgeous morning in Raglan, much to my dismay. Why couldn’t it have been this lovely yesterday?

Packed up the bus and stopped on the hill to take a couple photos of the gorgeous beach. All I could think about was how amazing this place would be in the summer.

We were headed in the direction of the Waitomo Caves to see glow worms. When I travel I heavily rely on Pinterest to figure out what the cool things are to do in any location. What I love about the service is that you see epic photos of every activity. Although going off Pinterest alone can be hit or miss, for example the glass beach in Kauai, that looked amazing in photos, but ended up being extremely hot to walk on in the baking sun and was sandwiched between an industrial refinery and a cemetery. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the water there. Pinterest fail.

Despite my excitement, as this was on my list of “must do in NZ”, and having researched this in deeper detail than just the cover photo on Pinterest, I still fell asleep on the ride there. I have never been the best travel seatmate/conversationalist. My ability to pass out in almost any moving vehicle is unrivaled by any man. I was sitting next to Ian, an army guy from the UK. Bless him for sitting next to me for a lot of our journey, because it basically means sitting next to no one and being silent for the duration of the ride.

We arrive at the caves and I had signed up for tubing, thinking that it was cheaper and there would be less swimming involved and more floating down a lazy river. The plain walk sounded boring, and then the rappelling seemed expensive but later on realized it would be the same cost as tubing with our tour discount, doh. Once we reached the counter, I specifically asked the lady at the desk if one needed to know how to swim, and she replied “Nope”.

Most of the friends I had made thus far on the tour had opted for the rappelling because they realized sooner than I did that it would be “thevalue”, Simon and Beckah sat this one out since they had done it before and went for a walk with Seagull. Then our guide shows up, a handsome bearded man named Josh and we’re on our way. Took some photos of the gorgeous hills during the bus ride before we reached the caves.

Hills have eyes, the hills have eyes

Hills have eyes, the hills have eyes

Once we get to the storage building nearby the caves we needed to “Suit Up!”, as Barney Stinson would say. The *fun* part of these wetsuits… they were still wet and cold. The night before Seagull told to bring swimsuits and a change of clothes and socks. Along with the people on our tour were two travelers from the SF Bay Area Richard and TJ who also work in tech. They had rented a car and were driving around New Zealand themselves, with roughly 1 week of time to spend. When we met they were on the tail end of their journey.

It's going to be legendary!

It’s going to be legendary!

Sadly we were not allowed to bring personal cameras. As I get senile I will surely forget what my individual experience was like without my own camera. After we were dressed we took some silly photos with the waterproof camera that the tour provided and began the walk towards the caves. They had given us all white Wellies to wear so as we trudged through the mud we were good in terms of footwear, but it was still slippery goings as it had still be raining the day before.

We reach this steel cage in the ground and when you look down it seems like something straight out of Alias. Looking down the tunnel, I estimate it’s around a three story tall ladder descending down into darkness. Immediately imagine slipping on the metal stairs from the mud on our wellies and getting battered to death by the steel cage on the way down. Fun times! Before fear can completely take over, Josh asks us who wants to go first and TJ pre-empts the awkwardness that I’m feeling from our group and cheers “I’ll go first!”

Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Being that she was this tiny spunky asian girl, I volunteered to go second. I mean if she’s got guts to do this first, I sure as hell don’t want to be last. Josh helps us take photos on the way down.

I guess I would be smiling as I descend into darkness. It's my way.

I guess I would be smiling as I descend into darkness. It’s my way.

After I get down into the cave I look around and… TJ is no where in sight, wtf? I flip on my headlamp and look around calling out “Hello?” but all I can hear back is rushing water. I find a rope on the ground and decide to follow it into the rushing water. Brrrrr. Winter water in NZ is f*cking cold! At the end of the rope is TJ sitting cheerfully as ever on a rock. We wait there for others to join us.

After that is the first “test” of the glow worm caves. Claustrophobia. There is a narrow tunnel that we have to crawl and shimmy our way through. Josh goes first and then one by one we head through and he captures this moment on film. I used to think that I was claustrophobic, as my brother and I used to play the blanket burrito game growing up, but now that I’m thinking back on it, we played more of a blanket straight jacket game vs burrito. Being unable to move my arms and legs is a fear of mine, but in the cave it wasn’t frightening as I could still move my limbs.

We tredge deeper into the caves and I’m realizing this is no lazy river activity where we only view glow worms like stars in the night sky. This adventure is hiking through sharp volcanic rock and chilled to the bone up to our waists in ice cold water for a bit over an hour.

Beam me up Scottie!

Beam me up Scottie!

Finally we get to where the tubes are tied up and Josh tells us how there are 2 ways to get into the tube, the lame way which is pulling it over to the edge of the water and planting your butt in the tube, or the awesome way that everyone does which is jumping off a small ledge backwards with the tube on your butt.

My hand shoots up. “Um. I can’t swim Josh!” He assures me it’s fine, and then briefly mentions there are 2 parts later on where I will need to swim, but the wetsuit should keep me buoyant enough to make my way through. Everyone takes their turns going up to the ledge and doing a trust fall into the water. I’m up and I do the same. Hrm not too bad. A little sloshing of cave water to the face but nothing too scary.

He links us all together in a straight line via tucking our feet under someones armpit and takes up the lead to paddle us along this finally lazy river. Apparently in this cave, if you sing, it echoes beautifully, but alas none were so brave on my journey to attempt singing, even though I pestered Natasha about it twice since I noticed she liked to sing as much as I do, the night before. We turn off our headlamps and silently admire the glow worm trail above us, and it’s beautiful.

Lazy River at Last

Lazy River at Last

At the end of the tubing we pull up on a bank and sip a warm orange juice beverage out of a thermos. I help Josh distribute the cups since he seemed to be having trouble separating them. After that we each get a piece of chocolate. Josh has to float the tubes back to the start and tie them back up and asks if anyone wants to accompany him, we all take a slight shiver and look away and he trudges away to do it himself. He mentions another small claustrophobic tunnel that we could try if we were feeling brave but only without using our headlamps.

None of us partook in this other adventure. Once he disappeared into the darkness I decided it was time for us to take selfies. Lou had the longest arms, so I dubbed him photographer.

When we were searching for where we last saw the camera, we flashed our lamps to where the thermos was to come face to face with what looked like a cross between a spider and a giant grasshopper. We turned from it and then flashed back and then it was gone. Slightly spooked, we continued on our selfie action.

Boredom begets selfies

Boredom begets selfies

Josh comes back and we continue walking along, I’m following right behind him now. Earlier he had explained how he had majored in Psychology, and part of the fun that he imbues from giving this tour is seeing people’s different reactions while within the cave. We start chatting and I mention that I majored in Cognitive Science and onto other topics like where I was from what I knew about New Zealand before coming here.

Flash back several days to my birthday. Every year on my birthday Jason chats me well wishes, aside from that we don’t regularly talk. We met in New York in 2009 through a friend and went on to share a frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity. Humans of New York featured him recently with the funniest soundbite.

"I'm not very good at comforting people. They're like: 'I'm having a horrible day.' And I'm like: 'Oh.'"

Posted by Humans of New York on Monday, June 1, 2015

We started talking about my 100 days project, Taylor Swift concerts, New Zealand, and I confessed that I really didn’t know anything about New Zealand except that LOTRs was filmed there. Whereby he reminded me that Xena was also filmed there. I admitted to my secret love for Xena, and he surprised me with his not so secret love of the show. If only I knew him then, what conversations we would have had.

Back in the cave, I’m talking to Josh and I bring up the one fact that I knew that LOTRs and Xena Warrior princess was filmed in NZ and he lights up at the mention of Xena (thanks Jason!).

Josh: Did you watch the updated Spartacus?
Me: Oh yeah totally.
Josh: Remember Crixus?
Me: Yeah
Josh: I had to practice sparing and sword fighting with him once. He’s a really nice guy.
Me: Wait hrm? How?
Josh: Oh I’m part of this sword fighting group that sometimes gets asked to be extras and instructors for movies.
Me: Oh wow that’s really cool.

We continue trudging along waist high water and then he teaches us about water petrified wood. Shortly after we reach a point where we have to swim. *sigh* Josh mentions that this part is 15 meters deep and has a current, so try not to let the current take away your boots.

I walk into a paddle and am coasting along using my arms and holding onto the rope. Generally not feeling too bad as the wetsuit is keeping me buoyant until… Richard runs into me. Twice. He knocks me off balance and I drink in cave water. Not awesome. Off balance I frantically clutch to the cave walls to adjust, then continue on. But with Richard hot on my heels I am pulling quickly to get ahead of his pace. Finally I end up awkwardly backwards and then lose a boot to the current. Doh.

It was this moment that I say to myself. I will learn to swim this year. I don’t mind if I drown myself because I was too stupid to learn, but hell if I will have someone tip me over and drown.

Once out of swimming portion, there is a brief area where the water is so high that we have to tilt our head upwards and are about an inch away from the cave ceiling. After that we’re out of the cave. I lament that I am missing my boot and Josh gives a sigh, and then offers me his. Ooops. Not friends forever I guess, even though I thought we shared a moment back there. Alas.

Trudge back to the storage building, I’m following behind as Josh goes one wellie less and his black sock is soaking up the mud. Once at the building we put our boots back and remove what we can of the wet suits and gear before going into to take off the main portion and get showered.

The showers are fantastic. Steel floors and wooden doors, better than some of the hostels we stayed at, and boiling hot water. We all cheer. Then in the girls area we all begin fixing the makeup. I hand TJ a makeup wipe and she exclaims, “Really?” Before saying thank you enthusiastically.

Once done we’re waiting for other folks to wrap up and I noticed that TJ is using VSCOcam on her iPhone. This cues me in that she’s definitely an Instagrammer. We exchange profile IDs and I immediately ask her if she’d be part of my 100 days of People and Texts project and she agrees, although exclaiming that she looks like poop.

Oh no. I  look like poop.

Oh no. I look like poop.

Bus ride back and then we head to Otorohanga to get snacks before heading to a long hanging bridge in Arapuni. I’m afraid of heights so I gingerly walk out before Simon starts bounding his way on the bridge. Once we’re back safely on the other side I slap him in the shoulder. He laughs.

Tonight we’d be staying overnight at a Marae (Maori meeting house) in Mourea and learning about the native culture. We took a slight detour to learn about local foliage at Trout Pool Falls, including the silverback fern, which symbolizes leadership. Our guide gave this to Simon and he would keep this fern in his pocket and would attempt to command respect with it on the rest of the journey we had with him. Not sure how well he faired.

At the Marae, we’d all sleep in a large open room. It was by far the warmest accommodations we had stayed at thus far, and the room would give way for a large slumber party. At the Marae, you aren’t allowed to wear shoes inside and you can’t enter the area without first being silently lead in to respect the ancestors. Then there is a tradition of breaking bread with the locals to connote that you are now family of the Marae. We all partook in delicious cookies to honor this tradition.

Once lead into the large meeting house, Beckah called to me and mentioned she saved me the space next to her cot. What a sweetheart. We unloaded our stuff and started to learn about the culture and prep for a cultural dance competition, men vs women. Whoever lost would have to wash dishes.

Haka times

Haka times

The women killed it, so we didn’t have to wash dishes for dinner, but the caveat was the next day for breakfast the women would have to wash dishes.

For the women we learned a dance while swinging a rock like thing, called the Maori Poi. The men would learn the Haka, a manly yelling ritual dance.

After performing the dances it was dinner time, and this delicious chicken was served. By far the best meal thus far on our journey. Chicken, salad and cookies. I went back for seconds. At dinner we talked about how Simon and Beckah met. I forget where, but what I do remember was they connected over a love of music. One night he was thinking about her and asked her to meet him in the park at 4am. They spent the night singing in the park near some homeless people. Oh young love, it’s so sweet, courageous, honest and wonderful. If someone asked me to meet them in the park at 4am, I’d just be like “Hell no, can you just come over and we can watch Hulu in bed?” To be old, jaded and scarred, I may be slowly becoming a bitter woman, but I loved living vicariously through their positive energy.

Once full we returned back to the meeting house and Simon started playing guitar as people chatted with the Maori folks. I proceeded to follow Sue Ling and charge my appliances in the main room before being exhausted at 9pm. While everyone was still buzzing about, sweet slumber overtook me.

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