Mt Taranaka, Forgotten Highway, Waitomo

SV Jenny
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Mon 9 May 2016 10:06
Dear Family and Friends,

7th May 2016

Every now and again there are experiences that are beautiful, not extreme, just breathtakingly sublime. And not in the light, in the darkness and stillness of a cave, Waitomo caves, in central North Island. Eroded by the slightly acid ground water over millions of years, the limestone caves in the area, boast over 50 surveyed caves, many, several kilometres in known length. But that is only part of the magic. No light penetrates the inner passages, and yet it is home to thousands of glow worms. Hanging from the ceiling, the glow worms spin their many silky threads some 15-20 cm below them, sticky droplets catch the torch light and the insects that stray into the caves. Turn off the lights and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness and their blue green dots of light glistens from the roof and the underside of shelves and overhangs. Catching a dingy to ride the underground river, our guide silently pulling on overhead lines, gliding us slowly and smoothly through the tunnel. The constellation of glow worm lights overhead is reflected in the water below., it is surprising how much you can see with no artificial lights whatsoever. The tunnel curves  highlighted only by the bioluminescence and its reflection, by inference you can make out some structures, the distant waterfall becomes louder and louder as we near it to turn round, nobody makes a sound, we are all spellbound by the spectacle, it is truly moving.

The humble glow worms are the larvae stage lasting around 9 months in the life cycle of a particular gnat. They are about 40mm long and unremarkable but for the 2 chemicals that they secret that combine to produce this tiny dot of light. Other caves dwellers include eels, a crayfish, beetles and Weka, a grasshopper cricket like insect with outsized legs and antennae.
Stalagtites and stagamites, flow structures and cave ‘coral’ cover the cave roof and floor, creamy and sometimes brown, they record the passage of water and time, the deluges, mud carried deep into the caves, the brown sediments discolouring the calcium carbonate. A cavern or cathedral was formed some 200 m into the system by 3 different sources of water coming together, scouring a deep open space. Overhead tomo or chimneys open to ground level, they are tall vertical shafts hanging above the tunnels, rock falls at their feet. There are so many of these the numbers are not known but typically they lie in the base of the many depressions that cover the limestone landscape.

The caves hold the remains of accidental visitors who have fallen down the chimneys. A steer, a goat and an extinct small Moa bird, similar to Emu.

This was not our first glow worm experience, we had been directed to a glow worm site the night before and had driven some 20 km, at least 10km way off the beaten track, to see them in an old pumice rock cutting. So at 9pm we were standing in a deserted cutting in the bush with just a nearby river for sounds, admiring the glow worm lights on the bluffs when headlights grew steadily brighter and 2 coach loads of tourists appeared down this very narrow lane. Honestly it seems you can’t get a moment to yourself!

And for a round up of the previous week, the highlights have been a visit to Mt Taranka, the classic volcano SE of the city of New Plymouth on the west coast and a drive down the forgotten highway with its surprising topography of camel like low level hills and the steeply incised valleys of sand and volcanic ash. This was frontier land in the mid to late 19thC, far more populous then than now. Whole communities of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people logged, cleared the land for farms, mined coal, dug roads, tunnels and later rail lines, where now early settler homes stand forlorn and derelict , awaiting the elements to consume them.  Sometimes all that is left is a chimney stack standing in a field all on its own.
We travelled one such ambitious road through the village of Strathmore, planned to link the villages to the south of Taupo. Sadly after many Km, tunnels, cuttings, increasingly difficult terrain as the valleys of pastures gave way to dense bush and deep ravines and the ‘Bridge to Somewhere’ as opposed to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ a little further south, the road pettered out. We gave up the journey before the bridge as the road, now a mud bath meant the van was slithering around the sharp bends.

The forgotten highway runs from Stratford to Taumaranui through a gorge and is well worth the effort. Much of the routes local landmarks are a bit bonkers, the site of a brick kiln and flour mill, no longer there but you can see the ditch! Others may well have been more interesting but time was short. An amusing stop is in the village of Whangamomona which declared itself a republic in 1989 when the local council proposed a district boundary change. There really isn’t much to the place bar a few houses and the hotel. In the hotel bar you can get your passport stamped by the republican publican, enjoy a beer in the frontier atmosphere and check out the old photos. What passes for amusement these days here, how about a duck calling contest or perhaps hog carrying or better still enter you livestock in the heaviest weigh in for prizes. Exciting stuff.

All our best,

Lynne and Alan