Otorohanga, NZ to Waitomo Caves, NZ

14.7 mi / 10.1 mph / 985 ft. climbing
Home: Waitomo Village Chalets

Friday morning traffic on the two highways (SH3 and SH39) through Otorohanga was much busier than we had seen a couple days earlier, proving that the four-day school holiday around Easter turns it into a big travel weekend (the NZ Transport Agency even published traffic-backup predictions for the weekend like it did for the Christmas/New Year holidays). Luckily we only had to do a couple miles on the SHes (and much of that of the was of the in-town, low-speed variety) before we turned off onto a nearly-empty country road for the rest of the ride (if this was the less-populated South Island, there would have only been one road connecting our start and destination, but here we get multiple choices).

This sign (which we haven’t seen elsewhere) is an indicator of how close we are to Auckland and its newly-arrived foreign tourists (a two-hour drive). The bizarre thing is how it was on this country road miles from any intersection; if you haven’t figured out what side of the road to ride on by now, I don’t think you would have made it this far, and definitely not onto this road!

The rounded green hills we were riding through were incredibly scenic and Shire-like, but unfortunately the cloudy day didn’t allow photos to do them justice. Worse, we began catching some drizzle, which had me concerned because we were going to need to kill some time before checking into our new motel, and killing time while wet and cold could lead to more than time being killed.

Cows, deep-carved hills, and forest.
We’re here to see glowworms, Hobbiton is supposed to be a two-day ride from here, but are we sure we aren’t there already?
Just outside of Waitomo was this AirBNB establishment where you could stay in various on-land boats, a train car, hobbit holes, or this DC-3 (the same type of plane that we ate McDonald’s inside of in Taupo). Unfortunately our dates were booked up!

Luckily the drizzle remained light/intermittent, and we made it to Waitomo only slightly-damp. Even more luckily, we found the General Store open on this Good Friday (unlike the chain supermarkets), and it would stay open all weekend! The “store” part of it has extremely-minimal stock (e.g., three loaves of white bread arrayed diagonally on a shelf), but enough to be helpful to us, and more-importantly at the moment, the cafe side was open, and we got a couple of coffees and hot buttered scones to warm up with, kill some time eating, and wait out the just-arrived heavier rain. They were adding a 10% surcharge due to the holiday (we’d seen a similar sensible approach during Waitangi Day in February), but we would have happily paid a 30% surcharge in recognition of how much easier our lives would now be over the next three days.

Eventually the sun appeared, and with time remaining until check-in, we rode a couple more hilly miles out to the Ruakuri Walk, a short but scenery-dense loop up and down through a gorge with limestone cliffs, tunnels, waterfalls, caves, and dense native bush.

Rett arriving to the entrance of Aranui Cave, which is accessible from this public walk, but a locked gate prevents access unless you’re with a paid tour guide.
Rett climbing around a limestone structure that she couldn’t believe was natural, rather than man-made, mostly because the exposed limestone layers are so thick, flat, and regular that they look like brick.
It’s pretty crazy to be in this wet, jungle environment, when a quarter mile away are the open grass- and livestock-covered hills. And while the gorge topography here probably has a slight effect on that, the main difference is that this is the untouched native flora, while most of the surrounding hills (which were once covered in the same jungle) have been cleared by humans.
One of several awesome natural tunnels/caves to walk through on the trail.
Upon exit from the tunnel, we’re greeted by this deep chasm, where a horseshoe bend in the river becomes visible after flowing through an underground passage. That watery passage is covered by rock that we had just been walking on top of!
Emerging from another cave/tunnel/really-cool-house.
A slightly-closer view to show how the structure of the rock really does make it look like it was built by human hands!
The “mouth” of the previous cave, from a new more-mouthy angle.
This collection of small moss-covered mounds on the opposite bank looks like a physical relief map of the region, the kind you see at a National Park Visitor Center. Each mound represents a large hill, with streams and roads winding along the brown valleys between them.
Here we need to cross over the river using a lame human-built bridge, rather than the bridges of stone that separated us from the water earlier.
Some fallen limestone blocks in the water. Here, rather than looking like rows of brick, they look like the furrowed bark of tree trunks (on their other sides, split along the plane of the rocks, they looked completely different, covered by a nice green lawn).
The vegetation is so dense here, sunlight has a hard time penetrating. Which keeps it moist, which allows more growth, which keeps it moist, and so goes the virtuous cycle.
Rett investigating the entrance to a water-filled cave.
If only we had a raft (or didn’t care about getting wet), we could go in there! But we could see our breath condensing in the cool air exiting the cave, so getting wet was not a good idea!
Ripples in the water reflecting on this massive stalactite (which also appears to have a couple of eyes on its massive Lovecraftian face).
Drip goes the water into the milky pool.

Our main reason to come to Waitomo is to do a tubing float through the glowworm-covered river-caves, but getting a well-lit preview of the area was pretty awesome. Since we hadn’t yet checked into our room, we had a brutal 11% climb on our heavily food-laden bikes out of the gorge, but the subsequent ride back through the sunny Shirelands showed that both the native and human-modified landscapes here hold their own beauty.

Riding back to town through the sunny Shirelands.


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