Forgive me for the title of this post – all will become clear soon enough. (And no, it doesn’t involve velcro gloves or any such thing, but did you really expect a visit to New Zealand to involve absolutely no mention of these beasts? After all there are something like 40 million sheep (compare to 4 million humans) in the country.)
Now I know that, for most of us, sheep are nothing particularly special. They are just sheep – rather stupid animals good for two things: wool and the pot (nice with a bit of the old mint sauce). That is, unless you happen to be female and from Los Angeles. Two of our companions on the caving expedition were such characters, and upon sighting their first wool-laden quadrupeds promptly burst into a chorus of shrieks which resolved after a moment for near-unconscious translation into “Oh my Gawd! They’re so cute! Stopthevan!Stopthevan! I just gotta take a photo” You’d think that they’d never seen a sheep before, which I suppose they may well not have – I’ve no idea whether sheep farming is Big Business in California or not. So we sat there in the minibus for ten minutes while they chased sheep around the karsts. I kept hoping they’d scare one so badly that it would fall down a pot-hole, but it didn’t happen. Now that would’ve been real entertainment. Sigh.
Waitomo is one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions, most famous for the limestone caves which riddle the hills and the glow-worms inhabiting them. Most people who visit the area do so very briefly, only allowing enough time to do a cave trip of some description – some involve a fairly sedate walk or boat journey through a cave lit by the green lures of the glow-worms, others are more adventurous and involved clambering up underground waterfalls and abseiling down pot-holes.
We didn’t stay much longer ourselves, only long enough to do a couple of the walks the area has to offer in addition to the obligatory cave trip. I’m afraid to say that we bottled out of the more radical trips due to the strong possibility of having to squeeze through tiny claustrophobia-inducing nooks and crannies, but our more relaxing clamber and boat trip through a large-ish cave was worth it for the spectacular glow worms. No photos of those, unfortunately, as you’d need a tripod and at least 5 or 6 minutes of open shutter time to get anything at all on film, you’ll just have to take my word for it that they were pretty amazing.
The walks were worth it too, particularly the Ruakuri walk through the bush to a natural tunnel, the result of cave collapses in the past. The walk takes you up and down fairly steep bush-clad slopes and in and out of old caves around a river valley. Apparently the walk is worth doing at night, as the area in infested with glow-worms which make for a magical atmosphere. Unfortunately this only highlighted the desirability of a car, as the walk is several Kilometres outside of the village and too far for us to come on foot at night.
Other good walks are the Opakapa Pa walk, which ends on a hilltop with great views which was the site of a Maori Pa (fortified settlement) a few hundred years back. Lastly, the 10km Waitomo Walkway is a good way to get out overland to Ruakuri if you don’t have a car or just fancy a pleasant tramp though the karst hills.
Also worth a mention is the Waitomo Museum which, although perhaps orientated more towards the school parties which come through every day, is worth visit for the thorough rundown on the local flora, fauna and geology.