I drove on the wrong side of the road and descended into a dark watery cave in an inner tube to see some shiny sh*t. It was fun! First, let me explain the shiny poo part. Going tubing, or blackwater rafting, to see the glowworms in caves at Waitomo is a popular activity in New Zealand because tubing is fun and seeing glowworms sounds cool. New Zealand is also one of the only places in the world that you can see these bioluminescent creatures.
The fact is that glowworms are maggots. Carnivorous maggots that excrete poop that glows in the dark. This shiny maggot poo attracts curious insects that get caught in their sticky threads. Dinner comes to them. Sometimes they eat their own. The maggots then morph into horny flies that must mate in 3 days before they die, going on 48-hour copulating sprees. They sound downright disgusting, don’t they? But somehow they are still spectacularly pretty, these neon-green, star-sized lights twinkling from the cave ceiling in total darkness. I’m one of 12 people on the The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company’s Black Labyrinth Tour peeping the strange bugs while standing up to our knees in cold rushing cave water, clinging to a slippery inner tube.
I’ve attached myself to a Canadian family from Manitoba. Nadine has recently moved to New Zealand and her daughter Chantel is visiting with her boyfriend Andrew. Tanya left on the blackwater rafting tour before mine because we didn’t book our tour together and didn’t realize that we got separate times until we arrived. But Nadine, Chantel and Andrew seem like good partners in adventure and I become Canadian for a day. At the entrance of the Ruakui cave, our leader Matt tells us the Maori legend of the cave where wild dogs once guarded its entrance, attacking young hunter that returned for his revenge. Matt has plenty of other stories along the way, including tales of hauntings, and Kenan comes along to demonstrate what to do and what not to do, like hop into a pit of swirling water along the way. He’s a great model; he kind of reminds me of Keanu Reeves and I think that Tanya would be beside herself right about now, seeing that she has a ridiculous crush on Keanu Reeves.
Once inside the cave, we are instructed to turn on our goofy headlamps and slosh about in frigid water that at times is ankle deep, then knee deep, until it’s even deeper, requiring our tube. Somewhere near the start of the cave we crouch low to avoid bumping our heads on stalagmites that we’ve been instructed to avoid touching to protect the fragile natural creations. Navigating the low hanging protrusions was particularly hard for Andrew who is over 6 feet tall and I warn him to get low. Chantel sees humor in this and starts singing the rap song, “Get Low.” At one point we get in our tubes and practically lay backwards with our noses inches from the cave ceiling. But the most fun is hurling ourselves backwards down short waterfalls with our butts jammed into our tubes and landing with an echoing splash. I find myself with twins Ima and Iba at these points. The twins are from the nearby town of Hamilton and have recently graduated college. They are enjoying a pretty cool holiday together to celebrate. They are also hoping to get to Tongariro Crossing just as Tanya and I are planning in a couple of days. They are super friendly and I find myself asking often, “Are you Ima” or Iba?” which must be totally annoying to them.
At the end of the trip, we form a human chain with our feet resting on the tube ahead of us, holding the feet of the person behind us, with Matt and Kenan pulling us along. Our headlamps are off so that we can simply stare up at the “stars” of the cave. When we emerge, everyone has smiles, pleased to have made it out, and we pose sopping wet for one of the last semi-embarrassing photos (see below) that Matt and Kenan have been taking along the way. We welcome the chance to shed our heavy wet suits, which were soggy to begin with and, now, we understand why. Upon removal, we dip our suits in a tub of soapy water before returning them to our guides. Finally, there’s the hot shower and a yummy warm cup of tomato soup and a bagel waiting for us in the rafting shop.
Tanya and I reconnect in the rafting shop and compare notes. She was adopted by a British family in the cave that made sure that she made it through safely and chatted her up about BBC shows. They were baffled to learn that Downton Abbey is such a huge hit in the US. Tanya is beaming as usual and thrilled as says this has been one of the best days in New Zealand so far. I agree. Then she says something surprising, which is that she thinks she wants to drive back to Rotorua. I’m surprised, because while planning this trip I suggested that we rent a car for part of the journey to get to the various cities and tours. She couldn’t imagine driving on the other side of the road and felt really uncomfortable with the idea, certain that she’d forget which side was the “right” side and collide with oncoming traffic after her mental lapse. I tried to convince, her it would be fine as I’d driven in Australia without meeting a catastrophic end. As it turns out, the only way we could get to Waitomo was by car, so I drove us the two hours from Rotorua.
Tanya was a ball of nerves on the passenger side, but it was a smooth ride down two-lane thoroughfares with almost no traffic past picturesque farms filled with black and white cows against lush green landscapes. The number of cows was startling. They seemed to completely cover hills and ridges at some points. It left us wondering, “Where were the sheep?” We spotted them on one hillside during our entire drive. We’d later learn that New Zealand produces a third of the world’s dairy and most of the sheep are on the South Island. We made it to Waitomo in one piece, with the exception of almost taking out a jackrabbit, which left Tanya feeling emboldened, so I handed her the keys. She drove like a grandma about 20 km below the speed limit the entire way.
We’d take some of the same roads past the same farms on a big green Hobbiton bus the next day. The bus was a little late. We stood outside the hotel waiting for our pick up, thinking every tour bus might be the one. But when I saw the giant green bus with the gold letters “Hobbiton” emblazoned on the side, I said, “I guess that’s our bus.” Tanya practically skips to get on board. She’s been waiting for this part of the trip with more than baited breath. She’s been practically hyperventilating to see some “Lord of the Rings” sites. You see Tanya is a fan – the kind of fan that watches a movie over 100 times. Now, I’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” and I enjoy a good sci-fi, fantasy flick along with the best of nerds, but Tanya takes her fantasy fandom to obsessive levels, to which she’d readily admit. On our trip to Barcelona she took binders full of “Twilight” fan stories with her to read on the plane. So, a visit to Hobbiton for Tanya is like a pilgrimage to Mecca for the most devout Muslim. It’s pouring rain when we arrive at “The Shire,” the tiny township built for the movies on the Alexander Farm in Matamata. But this does not dim Tanya’s excitement and I have to admit, I’m a little excited, too. Actually, I’m impressed. The level of detail that went into creating these little hobbit homes is, well, impressive, down to the adorable little mailboxes. I’m obsessed with them. They are probably the cutest creations I’ve ever seen.
Throughout our tour, we learn that Sir Peter Jackson, the director of the “Lord of the Rings,” is a stickler for details. After finding identifying the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm as the perfect place for The Shire to nestle, he needed the perfect oak tree to stand behind Frodo Baggins home. Apparently none on the Alexander farm were suitable, so he takes to his helicopter again and finds the perfect tree on another nearby farm. He pays to have the tree uprooted, cut into puzzle pieces and reconstructed on the Baggins property. When that same tree rots and has to be removed, he sends pictures to a set design shop in Wellington to have the tree reconstructed, it leaves wired on individually, for a cool $1.6 million.
There are more stories like this. A little girl is forced to pick and eat a plum over and over for one second in one of the movies. Our guide tells us that he went to elementary school with a boy chosen to be a hobbit in the first Lord of the Rings movie who Jackson had fattened up for the film. The boy had to put on 40 kgs, over 80 pounds!
Of course, Tanya could narrate this tour all by herself. She recognizes the open field where the hobbits celebrate when they return to The Shire after their great adventure. She thinks she can identify the exact log that Frodo hid behind to escape dark horsemen in the woods. She was positively ebullient in front of Frodo’s hobbit hole. Videos were made to document her presence. Sir Jackson would be proud. Later we visit the Green Dragon, the local hobbit watering hole for a couple of mugs of hard cider, where we sit near a crackling fire to get dry before our journey continues on the big green Hobbiton bus.
The bus makes one last stop at the Hobbiton gift shop, of course. Where Tanya takes to skipping again. She is excited about the prospect of finding elf ears to wear on our trek towards Mt Doom on the Tongariro Crossing tomorrow. She bounds up to an unsuspecting store clerk to ask if they have elf ears. They don’t, according to the clerk. Tanya is crestfallen. Upon seeing this, the clerk suggests that she may be able to find some in Welllington. This is not very comforting since we aren’t in Wellington at this moment. We continue to wander around the small store with a substantial “Lord of the Rings” figurine cabinet and strong promotion of the recent Hobbit movie in the form of caps, mugs and books. Tanya purchases some postcards and Gandolf stamps, before concluding, “This gift shop sucks.” But don’t think this has soured her on the Hobbiton experience. Back on the bus, she’s gotten over the lack of elf ears in the gift shop and renews her quest for them, much like a resolute Frodo Baggins determined to destroy an enchanted ring in the fires of Mordor.