Life's a beach

Life's a beach
Life's a beach

Hamilton – old friends, glow-worms and tourist burn out

View down the Northern Explorer from the Viewing Car.

We left Wellington on the Northern Explorer, Kiwirail's flagship tourist train route that runs north to south through the North Island. We had had to be at the station for 7.20am and the hibernating grizzly travelling with me was her usual recently-roused self. Coffee helped immensely, as did the scenery. The carriages had huge panoramic windows allowing uninterrupted views and the seats had a headphone socket which provided an informative commentary on much that we saw. 

Train crossing viaduct - oddly, not vertigo inducing
Unfortunately the carriages also had a plentiful supply of noisy rugrats. Bizarrely this improved the grizzly's disposition but worsened mine. Not all were a nuisance. One young, capable German mother managed to keep her 6-month-old quiet and entertained for most of the 8.5 hour journey. This could not be said of the family responsible for three-year-old Wreck-it Ralph, who seemed incapable of stopping their charge from whinging incessantly. I don't understand why train services can't provide a separate carriage for families with young children! These people have chosen to take a noise hazard onto a long journey and they, and they alone, should live with the consequences.

Mount Ruapehu and friends, a lively trio
For much of the journey the train followed the valley of the Whakapapa River. As 'wh' is pronounced as 'f' you can understand why the name provided some mirth, even to the locals. (For clarification it's pronounced 'fuckapapa'). The route provided some spectacular scenery as it initially followed the Kapiti Coast up the west side of the island before climbing some 800 metres onto the central volcanic plateau. Some of the viaducts en route were spectacular, as was snow-capped Mount Ruapehu, one of three active volcanic peaks in the World heritage Tongariro National Park.

It may look like La La Land but it's far from freindly
We descended from the plateau around mid-afternoon via the Rarimu Spiral, a 6 kilometre winding section that loops down around 220 metres. At this point the landscape changed into a vista of rounded, rolling green hills that were somehow unreal; it felt like an invented place, a blend of Peter Jackson's Hobbiton and La La Land where the Telly Tubbies lived. Parents of a certain age will have no difficulty in visualising this. However, frequent signs of landslip were sinister reminders that this landscape was, and still is, most certainly not benign. 

Mount Ruapehu and friends again
The central part of the North Island sits on a huge, supervolcano caldera, centred on Lake Taupo. Supervolcanoes are huge upwellings of magma that are capable of blowing their stack and releasing sufficient energy and materials to create a planet-wide, extinction level event. The last major eruption from Taupo was 1800 years ago which ejected around 30 cubic kilometres of lava and wind blown material over a wide area. This made it the biggest volcanic event in the world in the last 5,000 years. More recently, in 1953, an eruption from Mt Ruapehu caused a mudslide which knocked out the rail bridge at Tangiwai causing three carriages of the Wellington-Auckland express to plunge into the Whangaehu River killing many passengers. Reassuring huh?

We arrived in Hamilton late afternoon and were met, unexpectedly, by Jenny, one of Fo's old school friends. We collected our hire car and followed Jenny back to her house for a chat and a most-welcome cuppa. We could have chatted for hours but we had to push on south to Otorohanga for our next overnight stop. Our motel for the night was well past its best and its only real virtue was its proximity to the Waitomo Caves. This is a large network of passages and caverns that time and water have carved into a limestone escarpment. Their main claim to fame, however, is glow worms and lots of them. 

We set off for the caves early the following day but, by the time we arrived, I had lost all appetite for another tourist experience. I think I had finally reached saturation point; simply unable or unwilling to play the tourist any longer. I dumped myself in a sunny spot, unearthed my iPod and left Fo to amuse herself in the cold, damp and dark caves. She enjoyed every moment of it but certainly got chilled by the 45 minute tour in 12c temperatures. What follows, excluding the final paragraph, is her commentary on the caves.

My boat ride into the glow-worm caves
Leaving Ray to enjoy a coffee and his ever-present iPod  I took the car about half a mile up the hill to a pretty spectacular construction that is the entrance to the caves. I think I was the only person travelling alone and was certainly one of the oldest. I knew my night vision was bad and, for the first ten minutes, I panicked a lot as I couldn’t see a thing unless the guide, a young Maori woman, shone her torch on it.  She eventually realised that I was struggling and took me under her wing. Thereafter I had a great time, unlike a Russian chap who incurred her wrath every time he tried to wander off.

We were taken into the Cathedral – a vast cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites (tites hold on tight to the ceiling and mites might reach it one day!). They resembled huge organ pipes and the chamber had fantastic acoustics. Indeed, Dame Kiri te Kanawa once did a concert down there and events are held regularly. It was all impressive but what fascinated me more was the fact that our guide’s parents AND grandparents had been married in there!

It's all photographic trickery, but amusing nonetheless.

From here we boarded a boat and drifted into the glow-worm caverns. All other light was extinguished, which revealed millions and millions of tiny pinpricks of light that could have stars. The effect was stunning. Even the grumbling Russian shut up. Once out into the daylight my official photo was waiting for me. I had been superimposed onto a glow-worm background. It was cleverly done but if I ever do get around to doing something brave and daring, will anyone believe me?

After the caves hot coffee was demanded before we set off for Rotorua, NZs premier tourist attraction. As we fired up the Sat Nav I realised that, for the first time in 4.5 months, I wasn't really looking forward to a new destination.

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