New Plymouth & Te Kuiti

After finishing seven months of employment in Wellington, I had made plans to head North in preparation for the arrival of my best friend Cathy, just before Christmas. This has left me with just over two weeks to fill, which is no problem at all.

I took the liberty of booking myself a rental through TransferCar, a service I’ve used before but for those unfamiliar is basically a free hire car which the rental company needs to be moved, usually from one airport to another. Often you just pay for petrol so it’s a great deal if you can make your plans work around it.

I had 48 hours to get from Wellington to Auckland, which is about an 8 hour drive in total, so I planned to take it easy and take in some sights along the way. I took State Highway 1 as far as Bulls (a real town name, where everything is appropriately bull themed or adorned with bull puns) where I swerved West onto State Highway 3, which takes you right up the coast to Taranaki.

Armed with my 4×4 (I’d unexpectedly lucked out on the rental car) and it’s aux cable facility (the car I’ve been driving for the past seven months only had the ability to play TAPES) I was ready to go. I wasn’t too sad to be leaving my beloved Wellington, because my New Year’s Eve plans will take me back down there.

I’d booked myself a night in New Plymouth, a city that I previously visited in January and really liked (although admittedly that’s probably largely down to the fact that I met my Canadian travel buddies, Ben & Harrison there). It was about a four hour drive and I’m not exaggerating when I say I sang my heart out he whole way. If you were somewhere on my route that day, it’s very likely you may have seen/ heard a lady in a white 4×4 singing along very loudly to Wham! and Tears for Fears. That was me.

Upon my arrival into the Taranaki region, I decided that I’d try get a nice shot of the mountain, since last time I was there I only got one from waaay in the distance. I turned off a little before arriving into New Plymouth, at signs for lake Mangamahoe. After a slow drive down a long pebble track that bordered the lake, I reached the northernmost tip. A five minute uphill walk presented me with an amazing south facing view back across the lake, with Mount Taranaki in the background looking dramatic. One problem with mountains is that they create clouds and on this particular day there was a bunch of ’em sat up there. I waited and waited for a sufficient gap but they were in no rush to clear off. Not that I minded too much, the view was incredible without the clear shot of the mountain.

I wandered back down the hillside through a track bordered by lush ferns, in fact, I wish I’d spent more time exploring the other walking tracks on offer around the lake, because it was a beautiful spot. Feeling ready to have a nice sit down and something to eat, I hopped back in the car in search of my hostel. To avoid too much nostalgia for the great time I’d had back in February, I opted to stay on the edge of town in a different hostel to my first visit. After seven months of having my own space it was back to sharing a room with strangers and the everyday battle for a bottom bunk!

The next morning I was up early and out on the road again, as I wanted to give myself plenty of time to reach my next destination, Waitomo. But I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.. First I want to mention the beautiful scenery along State Highway 3, which for some reason I didn’t expect at all. After New Plymouth, the road North was all new to me and in classic NZ style, the landscape changed dramatically over a very short distance. One moment I was driving with a cloudless Mt. Taranaki mocking me in my rear view mirror and the next I was driving through lush green hills, on winding roads, passing by rogue goats on the roadside. The winding road all at once got very steep as I started to climb a mountain, my sense of caution rising rapidly as my speed dropped– I was in no hurry to damage my rental car!

This might sound silly but I actually found it pretty empowering to do this drive, it felt like a real solo adventure, perhaps because I was just going off road signs and not sat nav (you can’t go wrong once you choose a highway).. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve never driven such a nice big car(!), but I felt really pleased with myself. I also felt very alone, in a good way, because for most of the morning’s drive, there were no cars ahead or behind me. Remember, this is one of the country’s state highways and I saw maybe ten cars per hour.

As the road wound back down the mountainside, which had offered incredible views by the way, I found myself driving along the coastline and unbeknown to me at the time, right by the famous Three Sisters Beach and Elephant Rock, which I would’ve liked to have visited had I 1. known about it and 2. had time! (3. Were Elephant rock still standing). I did however very much enjoy the views across the estuary in Tongaporutu, again, I wish I had time to stop in all these beautiful places.

After a really pleasant couple of hours driving, I turned off the highway at Te Kuiti, and took the loose gravel country road towards Glowing Adventures – glow worm caves. Now, if you know me at all, you know I’m probably not the kind of person who chooses to go caving. To put it bluntly, I have a lot of issues with a lot of things! I’m not good with small spaces, nor really big ones either; I don’t like the dark much but I also can’t tolerate intense brightness– so, you see what I mean?!

After going through my list of places I wanted to visit during this year, I’d decided that I really did want to see the region’s famous glow worm caves and so I set about scouring the internet for a sweet deal. If you’re interested, the best website for deals, and the one I recommend to all fellow travellers in New Zealand is BookMe. It was here that I stumbled upon Glowing Adventures, a family run business offering tours of the caves beneath their farm. The more widely advertised glow worm cave tours offer a boat ride through a giant cavern, accompanied by I think maybe fifty other people for an overall time of half an hour– and whilst I’m sure it’s fantastic, it didn’t offer me enough value for money. So, with little hesitation, I booked my Glowing Adventure…

With a group of seven, including the guide, I quickly decided that I’d made the right decision. It became evident very quickly that our experience was to be much more hands on than those who opted for the famous boat tours and definitely a lot more personalised. Our guide Heath, a classic cheeky kiwi, quickly assessed the group and planned the best route for our individual confidence levels. As we scrambled down the hillside towards the opening of the cave, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t internally panicking just a little bit, concerned that maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The guide must have seen people way less confident than me though, as after a quick wander upstream, he was soon happy enough to take us into the dark and put us through our paces.

Our group was all fairly young, (consisting of me, an Indian couple, a Belgian couple and a Polish dude) which made it a lot of fun, because whilst we were wandering about the place everyone was chatting and getting to know eachother. We were all equipped with fabulous matching outfits and gumboots (that’s kiwi for wellies) which gripped to the rocks surprisingly well. It wasn’t long before Heath had us climbing over big rocks and marching through rivers, sidestepping through tight spaces and wiggling through small holes on our bellies — the latter obstacle had me seriously questioning my choices until I conquered it, brushing it off like it was nothing and pretending like I wasn’t internally screaming the whole time.. I did voice my concern that I was worried that my arse might get me stuck in a hole, to which Heath replied that I shouldn’t worry, as he’d witnessed bigger butts than mine pass through the space before, which was reassuring!!

I did feel like I’d been pretty brave going on this particular excursion, it did seem to combine a lot of things that I’d ordinarily say I was scared of. There was one part of the cave where we all had to turn our lights off which I did not like at all! It was the experience of total darkness– no light whatsoever, and I found it very unnerving! Throughout the trip I couldn’t help thinking about earthquakes- they’re never far from my mind here after having experienced SIX so far this year. All I kept thinking was “hmm, if there’s an earthquake we could be trapped down here…” As it turns out, Heath said that despite living there his whole life he’s never noticed any earthquake related changes down there, so that made paranoid little me feel a little better.

In the biggest part of the cave we were all instructed to turn our headlamps off again, so that we could take in the sight of the glowworms in their full glory and WOW. It was amazing, a Milky Way of neon blue twinkled overhead as we all sat in silence for a good fifteen minutes, all in awe of the spectacle before our eyes. If I’d been able to take my big camera with me, I’d like to think I would’ve captured the scene, but it’s a notoriously difficult photographic environment to shoot. Instead I just sat back and enjoyed the moment, it was incredible. If you want an idea of what it looked like then here are somebody else’s amazing snapshots of the cave.

The tour lasted for around two and a half hours, now that’s value for money! We wandered back into daylight, up through the most beautiful, lush green forest and into the heat of the sun, which was slowly cooking us thanks to our thermal wear! Back up at the house there was tea and biscuits waiting for us, a particularly comforting sight for a Brit. The group sat chatting and exchanging travel plans over copious amounts of tea and I felt very, very content.

Alas, soon it was time to hit the road again, after all, I was Auckland bound.

(Thanks to the folks Glowing Adventures for the photos! And kudos to me for looking about ten years younger than I actually am!)

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