Monday, March 8, 2010

Pt 13 Spellbound; Aranui Cave; Ruarkuri Walk; Glow worm cave; more delights of the Huhu Cafe

Thursday 25th February – Spellbound, lunch at Huhu Café; Aranui Cave; Ruakuri Walk; Glow worm cave and of course, Dinner at Huhu again.

What a difference a good nights sleep makes. Breakfast, which is included in our tariff here, runs from 8am and is located in a nice airy room with big plate glass windows overlooking pleasant rural views. The views included what appears from a distance could be a very large, very happy silky oak covered in fading flowers, but I think was actually a pine tree same as those around the gondola in Rotorua. The orangey stuff that looks like faded flowers is actually old leaves.

We are out and about comparatively early waltzing into the info centre bang on 9am. We’re trying to decide how many other caves to do beside Spellbound. We have a day and a half at least. We were thinking we might do some walks in Pureora Forest, but my road atlas seems to say the relevant roads we would need to travel are unsealed. In the end we decide to go the whole shebang. A trio combo plus we get half price entry to the caves museum because we are doing the Spellbound tour.

It’s pouring rain as time approaches to check in for the Spellbound tour, so we head over a bit early to get a good car spot. When the whole group has arrived we all pile in the Spellbound van and head out along the route towards Ruakuri Reserve and onwards on the gravel meandering along narrow roads through farmland. The caves that Spellbound use are on private land and the owner gets a percentage for every person that the tours take through.

As we approach the entry to the glow worm cave there is an opportunity to head overland for about 5 minutes or so and meet us down there, or we can stay in the van. It’s still pouring rain and the warning to take care on the cliff edges along the walk, encourage us to take the pikers way out and stay in the vehicle. The walk down to the cave entrance emerges alongside a pretty little stream.

We don our hard hats with cave lights on the front and head on into the cave. Our guide (Norm) kindly offers to take portraits of everyone and then we’re off. The access to the cave is very easy. No stairs. No steep inclines. The paths at the beginning section are natural earth, and while quite well graded you do need to walk carefully. As we enter the darkness, with illumination only from our hardhats the crystal around the cave looks like it has been dusted with silver glitter. Quite a different effect than I have seen in other caves.

It’s a very short way into the caves, just long enough to be well away from the light of the entry, that the boat is moored. Before heading for the boat we get a run down on the glow worms and get a good close up look at the worms and their webs within the cave. Plenty of opportunity to take photos, however Spellbound offer to send you good pictures via email if you supply your details or email them.

Time to head for the boats. We are warned that there is a waterfall, but rest assured we aren’t going over the waterfall. The boat is a large inflatable affair. We hop in quite easily, then it’s time again for some portrait taking of us in the boat then we begin our ride through the glow worm caverns. The cave is long and we spend quite a time drifting around and manoevering around to make sure everyone gets a good look at everything. The roar of the waterfall is quite dominant. The glow worms reflect in the water. It’s beautiful and it’s romantic. It is an awesome sight. The inflatable boat is good if a slight bump is made on the edge of the cave in the dark, but the seats are not very comfortable to sit on, being as they are, just the rounded top of an inflatable section.

After moving slowly back to the landing we then leave the boat with just the light of Norm’s little torch illuminating the step out of the boat – which is all we need now our eyes have adjusted to the dark. We then move out of the cave in a long conga line with only the light from the glow worms to show the way. It’s a great experience. The rest of the walk is completed with minimal light also – again all we need and it creates a great atmosphere.

Along the way we are advised that although some other tours say that the glow worms will turn off their lights if you make noise, so keep quiet, this is actually rubbish and just a polite way to tell tourists to shut up. It’s true that the worms don’t like light though, hence no photographs (and anyway, don’t bother because they don’t turn out anyway). The silence is important to get most out of the experience. Agreed!

Time for morning tea after an opportunity to admire the nifty treadle operated water pumps improvised on the sinks for hand washing. These pumps are seriously cool! Morning tea is a cuppa and a biscuit or two accompanied by some chatting. A couple of young women from the UK have chucked in their jobs to travel for a while. Norm asks whether they are going to Australia and some tips are given. He says go to Bondi and do the walk around the coast back to the city, and provides some details about his experience at that and we chat about various Sydney things. When the girls ask about beaches other than Bondi and Manly, we explain that the east coast of Australia, and NSW in particular, is pretty much just a string of sandy beaches broken up by headlands between. There’s the comment from Norm that I mentioned in an earlier post: "travelling around Australia you learn two things: you can get sick of the sight of gum trees and you can get sick of the sight of beautiful golden beaches.” Well yes, there are a lot of gum trees and a lot of beautiful beaches in the land of Aus. Of that there is no question!

As we chat, another international visitor (not Australian) asks about various caves around the world. Norm advised that most people wouldn’t be able to see any difference between the caves at Waitomo and other caves in Limestone Karst country in other places - and there are many. We Aussies have been making a point of not raising the subject of Jenolan Caves, but the subject is raised by Norm. “Jenolan Caves outside of Sydney is the oldest cave system open for visitors in the world. Being so old it has a lot of very good crystal formations.” Then to directed more to us. “ Ever done the Temple of Baal tour?” “Yeah! That’s a really beautiful cave” we reply. Then he goes on. “The thing I don’t like about Jenolan is that the tours just go around pointing out named features.” I sense a bit of defensiveness in the comment and it’s my turn to be defensive in return. “But there's heaps of caves at Jenolan and all the tours are different and the commentary includes heaps of other things as well, history of exploration and all sorts of other interesting stuff.” A very little bit more chat about some of the specialized tours at Jenolan, which seems intended to show us that Norm knows the guides there and so is well qualified to comment on the subject, is dropped after a finishing comment that follows on from an earlier discussion about how damaging tours are to the caves due to lighting and carbon dioxide..“We’re lucky here at Waitomo, our best caves aren’t open to the public”. I think to myself that there's caves at Jenolan not open to the public too, and one that is reported by people very familiar with all the caves there as the most spectacular of the show caves is only open once a week on Friday nights to a small group, but I bite my tongue. We can’t drop this topic of conversation too soon for me! I would have rather it never came up in the first place. We move on to other less controversial subjects and continue what was overall a very happy pleasant conversation.

After morning tea, as the rain has now eased, most of us walk the short distance over easy terrain to the next cave for a different sort of viewing. For people who are less mobile there is of course the option of heading over in the van again. the Spellbound tour really is very accessible. My mum would have no difficulty with it at all... well except perhaps the slightly up hill walk to morning tea, but it's not far and you have plenty of time in which to do it.

There is a gate to go through to enter this second cave and again a nifty automatic closure system has been improvised out of a large rock with a hole drilled through it, rigged up with a pulley to a prong on the gate. I love these little improvised aspects of the tour. They are so clever!

With a request that ladies please hold the gate for the gents coming after so they don’t get whacked by the gate, we head on in. This is also a very easily accessible level cave with few if any stairs. We head in and then out over the same ground, with different things pointed out on the way in to what is discussed on the way out. There is not a huge amount of crystal. At least not particularly spectacular or memorable crystal, but this does not lessen the interest of this cave. There is enough crystal for the usual explanations of how stalactites and stalagmites are formed, though there are no stalagmites here due to the lack of a firm floor on which they could form. The real attraction here is the features that are special to the Waitomo area. Wai means water and tomo means hole. Waitomo means water going into hole/s. In this cave there are several tomo. These tomo are very common in the area. Sinkholes or more technically called dolines, examples of these were pointed out to us on the bus trip up coming onto the property. Apparently livestock can fall in these holes and be trapped underground and we get a number of illustrations of this during our time in Waitomo. Sunlight can also stream down into the cave creating beautiful effects. This is the sort of feature that the abseiling adventures like Lost World utilize to access underground caves and rivers.

There are also bright white formations which contrast markedly with the rich brown of nearby/underlying crystal. This is explained as the result of a flood at some stage staining the crystal, then new crystal in the snowy white has formed later. It is a very interesting cave with lots of interesting things to learn about and see. Eventually we head back out into the daylight. The whole tour was excellent. It deserves its high rankings online.

We arrive back at the Spellbound hut which is fortunately right outside Huhu café where we plan to have our lunch. First a quick return to the Huhu shop where I purchase another little oil dish by Bob Steiner Ceramics. This time in a slate grey with a huhu beetle on it to remind us of this wonderful cafe. As we chat with the friendly lady serving we notice a cluster of fabulous sculptures of weta on the wall. They are very realistic, though some have exaggerated antennae. Ouch! $450 each. They are very very good though. How awesome a cluster of them would look on the wall at home. Sigh. Again international postage can be arranged with the usual duty free arrangements... maybe one day...

Inside the café I have no need to mull over the menu, I already have decided that I will have the pumpkin romano cheese & rosemary arancini which is further explained as rice balls dusted with seed crumbs & served with romesco sauce & fresh greens ($16). Hubby goes for Bacon and Eggs on Rewana Toast ($13) with sides of chorizo, potato and tomato at extra charge. As we were coming in I saw a salad in the counter fridge that solves a mystery. Israeli cous cous salad…. Ah.. so that’s what that salad was made from on our Air NZ flight last year. I can’t resist getting that. It looks great with roast pumpkin, chopped figs, raisens, tomato and things. Everything is delicious. A really satisfying meal. We’re loving the Huhu café.

By the time we’ve finished time is approaching for us to head up for the 3pm tour of the Aranui Cave with just enough time for a quick stop in to the hotel for something. The Aranui Cave is accessed from the Ruakuri Reserve. We arrive in plenty of time for the tour and assemble with the rest of the group to await the arrival of our guide. Tickets taken and numbers carefully counted then we’re off. It’s a steep walk up to a long set of stairs to enter the cave. Our guide walks quickly and doesn’t wait for anyone or stop anywhere along the way for people to catch up. There are elderly people and kids among the group and some lag quite a way behind.

Once we’re inside the door of the cave time is allowed to catch our breath and the elderly lady looks like she really needs it. She’s breathing very heavily and looking very uncomfortable. Our guide is appropriately sympathetic now. However Hubby and I were among the first to the cave and soon as we get up there the guide said to us all “no-one told you about the stairs coming up did they?” Her tone is one of smug satisfaction which I actually found quite offensive. Well, no, actually they didn’t mention it, but they really should have warned people so that they could make a decision whether they were up to the exertion required.... and you know the guide had ample opportunity to mention it herself when she had the group assembled for the tour at the reserve. The stairs don’t end at the cave door either. There’s quite a few inside this cave as well. I decided to count how many for the benefit of my report . I’ll cut to the chase and say now, that there are approximately 330 steps involved touring the Aranui cave. No ladders. I wouldn’t classify it as a strenuous cave as far as most caves I’ve been in go, other than getting to the cave entrance, the steps are in flights which are interspersed with flat walks, and each step is a comfortable and easy height, but they do add up across the tour as a whole.

The decoration in the Aranui cave is very pretty. There are a lot of stalactites with a plentiful and awe inspiration group of huge rounded stalactites in the entry area like a huge chandelier in the hall of a mountain king. There’s some stalacmites and a few smallish columns. There are large flowstone formations. Right through, the chambers are very high and it’s a very nice cave. Unfortunately there are places where a lot of damage was done in times past where people have broken stalactites and souvenired them, most are repairing themselves with further thin points of crystal having grown down from the broken tips, and it's still a nice show.

The lights throughout the cave are very large and the whole cavern is very brightly lit. It’s very pretty, but in quite a few places there is green growth of algae staining the crystal near the lights. This is pointed out as a consequence of the heat from the lighting and also the carbon dioxide in the breath from all the tourists. I understand from our Spellbound tour that they are planning to relight the caves at Waitomo to minimise the damage the heat from the lights causes.

As we move around the tour named features are pointed out. Hmm. We enjoy this but I belatedly get a bit irritated with Norm’s comments about the Jenolan Tours doing this. If you're going to snipe at this aspect of tours why not make it inclusive to the tours closer to home as well?

There is a large rich brown feature next to other white crystal. It is very similar in effect to the colour contrasts in the Spellbound cave and it quite striking. Spellbound said this was due to a flood a very long time ago. This time the guide says that this discolouration is due to iron oxide and that for some reason it has come in over the crystal there and not anywhere else. It's a rich chocolatey brown colour completely consistent across the crystal, no variation in colour density at all as far as we can tell... and it's a lit feature too, not in the dark... it's very different in look from the iron oxide staining at Jenolan which in our recollection is generally more tinged red..makes the shawls look like large slices of streaky bacon. We're puzzled because these iron oxide type minerals are really really common in Australia - it's why Uluru (and much of Australia) is red.. it's rusting.... also the source of much wealth generated by mining it, so the rich browns in this isolated feature seem quite unusual to us an effect for iron oxide stain. We're also confused by what seems to be different explanations about the cause of the colour on the different tours.

At the conclusion of the tour, again near the entrance the guide gives a torch to hubby and tells him to look up inside a particular formation. I'm thinking that maybe she is going to demonstrate how translucent crystal is but no.. you little beauty! Hubby is looking up into a small colony of cave weta. This is seriously cool. I really love weta!

As everyone leaves, the guide asks us where we are from. “Sydney” we say. Then she comments that she supposes we haven’t been up to Jenolan for years. “No, not at all, we go up about once a year and are gradually working our way through all the caves there as there’s so many”. She asks repeatedly about whether we visit Jenolan and seems to have difficulty accepting that we do actually visit Jenolan and have done so fairly recently rather than a decade ago. Her reaction was pretty weird. I guess maybe she heard our musings about our confusion on the point of iron oxide (which we'd tried to keep to ourselves) but I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps she was wondering what we were doing bothering with the Aranui Cave if we do actually visit Jenolan at home. It’s true, Jenolan, being such old caves, has more impressive crystal to see, but none-the-less we have really enjoyed our walk through the Aranui Cave… and especially seeing the cave weta!

Incidentally a quick bit of research in wikipedia hasn't really helped me with the colours of iron oxide.. the caves museum also says it's iron oxide though.. and I guess surely they must know what the stuff actually is.. but frankly, given the alternate explanation from Spellbound, I'm still wondering.... it seems so strange if it's in the area enough to colour the crystal so extremely and densely at some places, that the majority of other and/or more recent features, even in the same part of the cave, or resting over the same stained area are pure, absolutely pure, snowy white. It is really quite extraordinary and will add a new level of curiosity when we next go up to Jenolan.. maybe we've missed something there that will shed some light..

Leaving the cave we head straight for the Ruarkuri walk, which Norm from Spellbound recommended. It is just across a small area of grass as you return from the Aranui Cave tour at the Ruakuri reserve.

The walk starts off as a nice level walk by the river, then you come to stairs and steep inclines. I guess it should be no surprise given the terrain around the area that the Ruarkuri walk reflects this. I diligently count the steps once more. We did most of the walk, but skipped the last little loop, turning back after the viewing area over the river as it heads into the underground tunnel. I can’t claim to have counted absolutely precisely, but we would have travelled about 240 stairs each way, so 480 stairs along the walk, plus a few sections of just fairly steeply inclined paths. It is a beautiful walk though and we were glad we did it. Just figured it would be useful for people to know before they set out!

Anyway, back to he walk - it's climbs up and around and through the local landscape there are natural tunnels, one of which looks for all the world like it has been man made of rock hewn bricks

and viewpoints where the river tumbles through rock arches.

Lush green forest round about. It is a very pleasant, if fairly strenuous walk.

When we are coming out of the reserve a sign discusses the various caves and walks from that carpark. It’s just blatantly misleading. It says that the Ruarkuri walk is along easy graded paths. Not a word about the number of stairs. It makes it sound like a really easy 30 minute walk when it simply isn’t. We’re sensing a trend, but perhaps this is just due to New Zealand generally being so hilly everywhere we’ve been this trip. Maybe to the locals the fact that a walk will have lots of stairs or inclines and descents just goes without saying. The signage here provides a trap for young players.

We’ve timed it quite well to catch one of the last glow worm cave tours of the day and line up for the 5 oclock tour. By now there’s not that many people around and there’s less than 20 people assembled. While we wait we read about the fire that destroyed the old info centre. The photos of the old building look really nice. How aweful it must have been for this small community to have the fire. It's five years ago though .. I guess when there is an unexpected fire you typically don't have a set of plans for rebuilding tucked away in a drawer somewhere. I guess they have taken their time and thought about what's needed for the future and are trying hard to get it right in the rebuilding to give a solid base for the future... very sensible, despite the time it takes. There's also panels of information attached to the construction site hoarding about the life cycle of the glow worm.

Our guide arrives and he’s quite a performer, but there’s little interaction with the group, and some questions asked again when no answer is given, are just ignored. Few further questions are asked as a consequence. The information is imparted very competently and in an entertaining manner. A few funny stories. It’s all pretty good and worthwhile hearing, but lacks the personal touch. At one point our guide relates how another guide just made up bullshit when asked a question about a flower near the cave entrance by a tourist. This was apparently frowned upon and that guide got a "botany lesson" “and was lucky not get more than that”. The tone of the presentation suggests this is meant to be funny. Well, maybe it would be if we didn’t have a suspicion, from one of our Waitangi tours, it’s not as isolated an incident as you would hope. Our confusion on the issue of iron oxide isn't helping us see the funny side either...

At any rate, having had a pretty good tour of the outer sections of the cave, a good look at the webs from some glow worms and had some pretty good (named) features pointed out, we head down to the boats. There are quite a few stairs in this cave as well. I've fallen down on the stair counting job, but it’s not a very strenuous cave. It would certainly not be any worse overall than the Aranui Cave. Maybe a bit easier, and it looks like it will probably be easier still when the new visitors centre is completed.

Down by the river we all hop in one large boat. It is an aluminium job, more comfortable than the inflatable that Spellbound use. We have been instructed to keep quiet in the boat to maintain the mystique of the experience. Everyone cooperates pretty well. The little kids have some questions for their parents, but they are quiet and you can't resent it when sweet little nippers are really trying to be good. The cavern the boat travels through is fabulous. It’s high and expansive. It’s beautifully quiet with just the noise of dripping water, there's a sense of reverence here under glow worms. There are heaps of glow worms too. Awesome! We go round and round slowly then head to the exit landing.

As we approach the final section of the boat trip our guide says that it's OK with him if people want to take some photos from here on. When his mother goes to take some snaps a little boy behind me pipes up in a loud voice "No! Photos aren't allowed". "But the man said it's OK here" "He's lying! The sign said no photos". There was just no way that little guy was having a bar of this photo business! I try to stifle a hearty laugh. A trip down memory lane. We can so imagine one of our boys having the exact same reaction. Just a brief pause to capture the scene as our guide takes the boat back to the landing where the tours commence, then hubby and I laugh and reminisce about our own rule lover when he too was a little cutey as we walk back up the path.

The Glow Worm cave was really great. No, we’re not under the glow worms as long as with spellbound, but it was awesome. I’m really glad we did this tour. It’s different enough that it’s still interesting and the different guides tell you different stuff although they also cover some common ground. There’s three boats tied up at the landing and at busy times I imagine that as others have reported, it might not feel so relaxed, but certainly later in the day as we have done on this occassion, it’s a most worthwhile tour. Great for people with kids who don’t want the longer Spellbound set of experiences, this tour only being about 45 minutes long. We’re not at all sorry to have gone all out with visiting the caves while we are here.

However, as we head around the first part of the glow worm cave tour, a prominent feature of the guide’s patter was the pointing out of named crystal formations.. and we enjoyed that... but. I’m not just a bit irritated with Norm’s comments about the Jenolan tours now. I’m downright snakey. It's a free world and people can like or dislike whatever they choose to as far as cave tours go, but why single out Jenolan for pointing out the named crystal formations in the caves there, when the cave tours at Waitomo do the exact same thing!

In fact, perhaps there is more reason for doing it at Jenolan as the system of show caves open to tours there is far far more complex than the simple in/out route taken in the Aranui and Glow Worm caves at Waitomo... At Jenolan even the guides can lose their way if they don’t memorise the formations and the order you take to see them, and the turns you make after particular ones. Features are named when caves are being explored for that reason. There is one tour we did at Jenolan not so long ago and when you've reached the end point of the tour the guide says, see if you can remember the formations you've seen. You guys lead us back out by following the order of formations and turns. It was really quite difficult to do and a very interesting exercise, without our guide we would have been in those caves forever!

.. And why make a comment that implies that Jenolan don’t tell all the other stuff they tell on tours at Waitomo or with Spellbound when at Jenolan they actually tell you every bit as much! Makes no difference to me, I am familiar with Jenolan, but there were others present who don't know any better and who may get entirely the wrong impression. Jenolan has genuinely spectacular crystal formations, including cool stuff like helictites and one large feature known as the gem of the west which is covered in them. Jenolan also has cool stuff like an incredibly slow moving river that has effects I won't spoil by revealing here.. and a tassie devil skeleton - they've been extinct on the mainland for a long long time. The caves at Jenolan are really wonderful and their tours are really great as well, but Jenolan does not have glow worms to see, or tomos, or cave weta or moa skeletons. The limestone rock through which the cave is formed is very different and interesting at Waitomo and the shape of the caves is pretty cool too, with high ceilings and more water and rivers that are fast flowing and noisy.. even without doing the adventure stuff, at which Waitomo is clearly ahead of the game, Waitomo has plenty of stuff of interest to see that you won’t see at Jenolan, or that is sufficiently different to be worthwhile, but these comments about the Jenolan tours, which seem to have been driven by some sort of defensiveness arising from Jenolan's superior crystal, have really got up my nose.

The walk back up to the carpark is uphill but not very far. When the new information centre is completed it appears that it will be positioned so that you basically go in and come out via the building.

By now it’s coming on for 6pm. We have reserved an outside table at Huhu for dinner. There’s a convention of triumph sports car owners arrived at the Waitomo Hotel. The carpark is jam packed with cute little classic vehicles and it’s looking like the hotel restaurant is going to be very busy tonight, so we’re glad to be heading back to the Huhu to our table that we booked when paying for dinner last night.. the menu has some more things we are keen to sample. I have had my eye on the housemade fettucine with garlic, cherry tomatoes, fresh green leaves and parmesan (goat feta is an option I can happily forgo) $16. Hubby goes for the Manuka Honey and Chili Prawns with tomato chili jam, avocado salsa and crispy lavash $18. My fettucine is nice, maybe a little bland without the goat cheese, it’s blown out of the water by hubby’s prawns. Oh man they were fabulous! Would I like to swap dishes half way? You bet!! And hubby isn’t complaining about his Speights gold medal ale either… in fact when we got home I asked hubby which out of all the NZ beers he sampled, was his favourite. Speights Gold Medal Ale was the winner.

I’ve got no hope of gaining ground on the main course as we’ve both gone for the free range chicken breast stuffed with romano cheese, wrapped in pancetta served with spiced fruit, mashed potato and warm green bean and spinach salad $26. It is very delicious and beautifully cooked.

It’s a beautiful evening and we are enjoying the views and the cool evening air as we await delivery of our desserts. We have to sample the Piopio blueberry cheesecake with lightly whipped vanilla bean crème fraiche ($14); can’t resist another go at the caramelized rum bananas; and after a brief struggle hubby insists we also sample the Double chocolate brownie with fresh berries, raspberry coulis and whipped cream ($12). Decidedly decadent. I have to report that the cheesecake was wonderful. Not your average run of the mill type of thing at all. It was a beautifully soft unbaked cheese filling in a delicate pastry shell, and topped with the lovely crème fraiche and blueberries of just the right level of ripeness. We like our blueberries while they still have a little tang to them, as they get more ripe they get decidedly tasteless, but these are just right. Delicious.

The Brownie is soft and rich and oh so intensely chocolate. Nice, but I am not a chocoholic. That’s more hubby’s scene. The bananas are great too and the hokey pokey ice cream is crunchy and creamy. A fabulous meal once again and for what you get it’s extremely good value. I particularly liked the fact that the mains came with vegetables and there was no need to order your veges and pay extra again. We highly recommend the Huhu café. Great food, great service, great ambience. We loved it.

Back to the hotel and we watch an program about psychics helping solve NZ crimes hosted by Rebecca Gibney. It’s really interesting and apparently a regular Thursday night thing. Keeps me up later than I intended, but then it’s determinedly close the laptop and off to the land of nod.

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