It was my sixth day in New Zealand and I had arrived back into Auckland the previous evening after my excursion to the Bay of Islands. I had been unwilling to explore alone in the dark, but fortunately I knew I could see the city properly at the very end of my trip, as I had a couple of days here before leaving the country. I was ready to depart for my next destination, Hot Water Beach.
I met my driver and boarded the bus with around 30 other passengers. Eventually, I got chatting and made some friends that I could share accommodation with that night. We had only been driving for a few hours when we found out we had a flat tyre and would have to wait for it to be fixed. Eventually, we were on the road again, but it seemed fated that we would never arrive into our destination, as we broke down due to the replacement tyre clearly not being adequate enough to transport a coachload of people. In the end a school bus came and collected us instead and after much faffing, we arrived into Hot Water Beach.
Hot Water Beach
To compensate us for the hassle, we were given free fish and chips at the holiday park we were staying in, but in my eyes this did not make up for missing out on the chance to see the beautiful Cathedral Cove (we did not have time to visit due to the bus’s multiple faults).
Upon arrival into Hot Water Beach, we were told that we would have to wait to experience the fascinating hot pools found underneath the sand, as they would be present after the tide went out that evening. A few of us therefore grabbed our bikinis and our sun cream and made the most of the sunshine and sand.
The holiday park had a children’s play area and we decided to be big kids for a while, bouncing on the trampoline and swinging on the swings.
Finally, it was time for our free fish and chips (which was admittedly very tasty) and our nighttime excursion to Hot Water Beach. We were provided with shovels and we dug through the golden sand to create small, thermal pools of water, being careful not to sit in them immediately as the water temperatures were known to reach 64 °C. I actually found it easier to steal somebody else’s hot pool once they left, as then the water had cooled enough for it to be comfortable and not too hot. It really was like sitting in a natural Jacuzzi and this intriguing phenomenon is caused by two underground hot springs.
The following morning, we set off from Hot Water Beach at 7:30 am and headed towards Waitomo. After around an hour and a half on the road, we stopped off for a short walk amongst beautiful, scenic surroundings at the Karangahake Gorge.
Stopping briefly at a supermarket for supplies, we then arrived into Waitomo ready to begin a caving adventure amongst the glowworms.
Those of us partaking in this five hour excursion got kitted out into wetsuits, harnesses and helmets and began practising the abseil on land before descending into the caves.
Once we were confident with the equipment and had gone through the necessary safety procedures, we began the adventure. I opted to go first because I was excited to get started. I abseiled 35 metres into the cave and the drop felt bottomless as I continued downwards into the black abyss.
Eventually, we were all at the bottom of Ruakuri Cave and we climbed, zip-lined and tubed on rubber rings in the freezing cold water. We observed the stunning glowworms all around us and I was intrigued to find out why they glow.
Our instructors told us that the “worm” we could see on the ceiling of the cave was the larval or maggot stage of a fungus gnat fly. The adult flies look a little like mosquitoes and we may have come across one in the cave, but they’re so nondescript that we would have hardly noticed. During the adult stage, the glowworm flies cannot feed and they exist simply to mate and produce eggs, to begin the next generation. The glowworms complete their entire life-cycle within the cave, and the light we could see was made from a biochemical reaction called bioluminescence. I found it amazing that such a small creature could produce such an ethereal glow.
Don’t disturb the eels living at the bottom of the cave!
After completing five hours underground, we were given warming soup and bread, which was much needed!
The subsequent morning we left Waitomo and headed straight to Rotorua to pay a visit to a landscape recognised around the world; the enchanting village of Hobbiton Movie Set.
Though I have embarrassingly never watched The Hobbit or Lord of The Rings, I knew this was a must see (and I vowed to sit through the films when I returned back home).
We were guided around the 12-acre set, being told all the intricate details and how the movie magic was created (there were 300 hobbits on set for example!). We viewed the family sheep farm that director, Peter Jackson fell in love with, saw all 44 hobbit holes and the famous Green Dragon Inn, where we sampled a Hobbit Southfarthing beverage to finish our experience.
I remember this day being one of the highlights of my New Zealand adventure as after Hobbiton, we visited the Tamaki Māori Village for an overnight stay and this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, learning the rituals, stories and history of the Māori culture within their own sacred grounds.
Situated within a 200 year old Tawa Forest called Tawa-ngāhere-pā (the beautiful Tawa trees are native to New Zealand), the experience began with a traditional welcome song. The Māori people leading the tour asked us to sing back to them, so we chose to sing a Christmas song (it was the 21st December so this was an apt choice, but we weren’t nearly as good as they were!).
We learnt some games that Māori children would play in order to learn the imperative skills they needed to survive and hunt years ago, and we were taught a song we would be singing to guests at dinner later that evening. We also witnessed traditional ceremonies, powerful performances of song and dance and interactive activities (such as the haka and poi spinning) and these were combined with fascinating stories of the Māori customs, traditions and ways of life.
We were shown a glimpse of the Māori people in the pre-European era and we then feasted on a traditional, geothermal hangi meal (the hangi is a pit in which food is cooked on heated stones and theirs was cooked on geothermal steam vents). It was delicious!
After the dinner guests departed (those who had chosen to come for dinner rather than for the overnight stay), we rounded the day off very nicely with a trip to the bar and the hot tub, before sleeping in our carved wharemoe (a communal house of the Māori people traditionally carved with stylised images of the tribe’s ancestors).
A Māori welcome
The following morning, we had a filling breakfast before saying goodbye to the lovely Māori guides. I could see why this was New Zealand’s Most Awarded Cultural Experience, and it was one I would certainly never forget (and in fact, I still remember the catchy, Māori song we learnt).