Waitomo – Day 3

Welcome to the last blog post from my 3-day weekend to Waitomo.

Monday morning I awoke to the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof of my chalet. I had planned that morning to walk the Waitomo Walkway to Ruakuri Scenic Reserve. After two days of beautiful blue skies and sun I had not planned on the rain.

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Waitomo Walkway

After waiting for the rain to clear I headed to the entrance for the Waitomo Walkway, which starts in the Waitomo Domain, opposite the Waitomo Discovery Centre (i-Site). The walk takes approximately 1 hr 15 min one way, or 2 hr 30 min return.

From Waitomo Village to the Waitomo Caves carpark it is a 15 minute walk through native bush. There is a 25 minute detour to a lookout point, which gives views of the rolling hills and the Waitomo Caves Hotel on the hill above the township. I had walked up to the lookout on Saturday so I continued on.

Johnson Family Memorial Grove

Johnson Family Memorial Grove

Next to the Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre the path picks up and it is a 5 minute bush walk to a clearing by the main road. An entrance to the path is framed by a sign for The Johnson Memorial Grove. This memorial honours the Johnson’s, a pioneer family who arrived in Waitomo in 1907.

Follow the orange markers across private farmland

Follow the orange markers across private farmland

A large part of the Waitomo Walkway crosses private farmland. Just follow the orange triangle markers as you make you away across the farmland. There are several stiles to cross and there are some electric fences to be aware of.

Suspension bridge

Suspension bridge

The track follows the Waitomo Stream and one point there is a suspension bridge to cross the stream.

The rain was not the only obstacle, as I approached a sign warning of wasp nests and advising to ‘proceed promptly and quietly’. I was wearing a rain jacket so I put up the hood and high tailed it – almost running when I sensed something fly past me – probably a harmless fly.

Warning wasps!

Warning wasps!

The Waitomo Walkway comes out at the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve carpark. There are toilet and picnic facilities at Ruakuri Scenic Reserve. From here I walked The Ruakuri Bushwalk, which is a 30 minute loop track. Every local I meet in Waitomo recommended doing this walk. This walk takes you inside the Ruakuri natural tunnel. Although I walked this during the day this is also a popular walk at night as you can see the glowworms.

Ruakuri Bushwalk

Ruakuri Bushwalk

After completing the Ruakuri Bushwalk I returned to Waitomo Village back via the way I came. After lunch I took the path from village up to Waitomo Caves Hotel, a historic hotel built in Victorian style in 1908, which had an Art deco style wing added in 1928. From here I had views over the township.

Waitomo Caves Hotel

Waitomo Caves Hotel

In the afternoon I took the one hour Footwhistle Glowworm Cave Tour offered by Cave World. The tour cost $49 for adults and $24 for children.

Te Anaroa Cave (Footwhistle Glowworm Cave)

Te Anaroa Cave (Footwhistle Glowworm Cave)

The cave is known to Māori as Te Anaroa Cave but the name footwhistle comes from a formation in the cave that looks like a foot with a whistle at the bottom. The cave has a glowworms and all formations that you would expect to find. One opportunity Caveworld offers that other companies don’t is to see the Te Anaroa cathedral (highest point in a cave) lit up by a magnesium torch, a traditional lighting method.

I caught the 5:30pm service to Hamilton provided by Naked Bus and then switched to the Auckland bus at Hamilton.

I had three fantastic days in Waitomo exploring six caves in the area and completing the Waitomo Walkway and Ruakuri bushwalk. If you are more adventurous than me and don’t mind getting wet there are black water rafting cave tours and adventure tours that involve abseiling into caves.

Waitomo – Day 2

Welcome to day 2 of my 3-day weekend to Waitomo Caves. If you haven’t read Day 1, click here.

I had booked with Spellbound Glowworm Caves for their 11am tour on Sunday morning. They also run tours at 10am, 2pm and 3pm. The tour, which lasts approximately 3 ¼ hours costs $73 for adults and $26 children.

Waitomo General Store, established in 1910

Waitomo General Store, established in 1910

After breakfast I checked in at their office, which is part of the Waitomo General Store building (15 Waitomo Caves Road). If you sign their guest book and leave an email address they will email you photos of glowworms. So if you weren’t able to capture the perfect picture of the glowworms never fear.

Spellbound deliberately keeps their group numbers small, up to 12 people, which creates a more personalised tour. After hoping into the van tour guide Norm made his way out to the private farmland where the two caves, Mangawhitikau Glowworm Cave and Te Ana o te Atua cave are located. Along the scenic drive Norm provided excellent and informative commentary on the area.

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Entrance to Te Ana o te Atua

The first cave we went to was the Te Ana o te Atua (the cave of the Spirit). The gentle 45 minute guided walk through this cave looks at various limestone formations, fossils and bones.

Norm serving tea, coffee and hot chocolate from Spellbound's 'tearooms'.

Norm serving tea, coffee and hot chocolate from Spellbound’s ‘tearooms’.

After exploring the cave we walked to Spellbound’s purpose built ‘tearoom’ where Norm made us coffee, tea and hot chocolate and offered biscuits.

Following our refreshments we made our way to the Mangawhitikau Glowworm Cave. This is the glowworm cave that Sir David Attenborough filmed for the BBC series Planet Earth. After being fitted with hard hats with lights we made our way into the cave.

Boat ride through Mangawhitikau Glowworm Cave

Boat ride through Mangawhitikau Glowworm Cave

A highlight of the tour is the 20 minute boat ride in an inflatable raft through the glowworm caves. This ride was far more impressive than one I took the day before.

Without helmet torchlights we walked back out through the cave guided by Norm. It’s amazing how your eyes can adjust to the darkness.

Walk across farmland, Spellbound Glowworm Caves tour

Walk across farmland, Spellbound Glowworm Caves tour

We finished with a scenic walk across the ridge of the farmland and meet the van and Norm who took a different scenic route back to Waitomo.

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After a late lunch at Florence’s Kitchen, which is part of Waitomo General Store I checked out the Museum of Caves at the Waitomo Discovery Centre (i-Site). Entrance to the museum is $5 but if you have booked with one of the many tour operators you may get discounted entry.  The Discovery Centre is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm and provides excellent unbiased information on all there is to  do in the area. The attached museum is small but has interesting displays on the history of Waitomo, caving, and the geology of caves. I enjoyed taking a moments rest and looking through all the old photo albums.

Waitomo – Day 1

Waitomo is known for its impressive caves with spectacular displays of glowworms and amazing stalactites and stalagmites, and it is this that attracts busloads of tourists to the small town everyday. So last weekend I decided to make Waitomo my 3-day weekend away.

The village of Waitomo is about 2 hours drive south of Auckland, 1 hour south of Hamilton and 2 hours west of Rotorua. The name Waitomo comes from the Māori words wai meaning water and tomo meaning to enter, so it can be translated, as a place where water enters the ground.

Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre

Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre

To get to Waitomo from Auckland I booked a seat on a Great Sights tour bus through Intercity for $45. The bus departed the Sky City Coach Terminal at 7:30 Saturday morning and arrived outside Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre just on 10am.  The passengers on the Great Sights tour bus were shepherded inside by a guide, where they did the 45 minute tour of Waitomo Glowworm Caves before travelling onto Rotorua and Hobbiton. On arrival I went to the ticket office to purchase a Triple Cave Combo ticket for $91, which allows entry to the three caves that Waitomo Caves has tourist rights for. It would cost $163 to do these three caves individually so it was a $72 saving.

Waitomo Caves offers a shuttle van to take guests the 10 minute drive from the Visitors’ centre to Ruakuri Cave. Visitors can of course drive themselves to Ruakuri Cave carpark and wait for the guide. I was booked on the 11am tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours. Tours also run daily at 9am, 10am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm and 3:30pm.

Impressive man made spiral entrance to Ruakuri Cave

Impressive man made spiral entrance to Ruakuri Cave

To enter the cave you walk down through an impressive man made spiral entrance way. The guide will then walk you 1.6 km through the cave pointing out all the impressive formations. Unlike the Waitomo Glowworms Cave located behind the Visitor Centre you can take photos in this cave. At certain points, like when the black water rafters pass through below on Huanui River, photography is not permitted for safety reasons.

Ruakuri Cave

Ruakuri Cave

After returning to the Visitors Centre I went on the Waitomo Glowworms Cave tour, which is the tour that bus tour companies take. Your guide will walk you 250 metres through the cave pointing out the formations and talking about the local history. While this cave is not as impressive as Ruakuri, the tour ends with a boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto and this is definitely impressive. This 45 minute tour runs every half hour so there is no need to book a specific time.

Entrance to Aranui Cave

Entrance to Aranui Cave

I was booked on the 2:30pm tour of Aranui Cave so I had a quick lunch at the onsite café (Tuna bun and side salad, $12). Visitors to the Aranui Cave drive themselves to Ruakuri Scenic Reserve and meet the guide at the sign posted meeting point. The ticket office staff kindly arranged for the tour guide Mere to take me to the cave in her car. There is a gentle 15 minute guided bush walk to the cave entrance. Mere pointed out native plants and explained some of their medicinal purposes and use by Māori. You won’t see any glowworms in Aranui Caves but if you are lucky you might spot a giant cave weta.

Aranui Cave

Aranui Cave

After returning to Waitomo Visitors Centre I watched a short documentary film in the theatre featuring some people of Waitomo and their stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the three caves. Waitomo Caves also offers a combo tour of Waitomo Glowworms Caves and Ruakuri Cave for $83 adult, $30 child, which is one of their most popular combo tours. If you wish to visit either Ruakuri and Aranui Cave I recommend booking prior to arrival in Waitomo.

View from Waitomo Walkway Lookout Point

View from Waitomo Walkway Lookout Point

From Waitomo Caves carpark there is a short bush walk that comes out at Waitomo Caves domain opposite the Waitomo Discovery Centre (i-Site). I definitely recommend taking a stroll through the bush and walking to Waitomo Lookout Point. The walk to the lookout from Waitomo Caves carpark takes approximately 25 minutes return and offers views of Waitomo township and its rolling hills of farmland – glowworms aside the Waitomo district’s main business is farming.

Chalet, Kiwi Paka Waitomo

Chalet, Kiwi Paka Waitomo

After the walk I checked into my accommodation for Saturday and Sunday night Kiwi Paka Waitomo. I had booked a single chalet but had been upgraded to a double chalet. As well as the chalets there is the Lodge which has backpacker accommodation with dorm, twin, double, and single rooms. Both nights I stayed the Lodge had guests from tour bus companies staying. Kiwi Paka has a licensed café onsite, Morepork Café & Pizzeria, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food is reasonably priced and there is more than just pizza.

Hobbiton

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Outside Bag End, Bilbo’s home

Since a young age I have always had an interest in film. When I travel I always try and make a point of visiting film museums, studios, and take film related tours. Right here in New Zealand we have the largest “green” movie set in the world – Hobbiton. It is the location for the Shire, as seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit films, and it is only a few hours drive from Auckland.

As the story goes in September 1998, locations scouts discovered the Alexander family’s sheep and cattle farm during an aerial search. It was the perfect location as it had green rolling hills and a big tree by a lake, which was crucial for Bilbo’s ‘eleventy-first’ birthday party scene. Top secret construction began in March of the following year and filming started in December, lasting three months. The agreement was that the set would be removed and the farmland would be restored to its natural state once filming was complete. But due to storm weather the clean up was delayed. The intention was to return once the land had dried out and finish the clean up. During this time the Alexander family realised they had a potential tourist attraction on their hands.

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Looking across the lake towards The Green Dragon Inn, the double arch bridge and the watermill

It was this tourist attraction that I visited over 10 yeas ago. The lake, the party tree, and the remains of a couple of hobbit holes was all that was there to see. Nothing flash at all really. In 2009, the Shire set was rebuilt for The Hobbit films with permanent materials. There are now 44 hobbit holes, gardens, a double arch bridge, a watermill, and The Green Dragon Inn.

I choose to take a day tour to get to Hobbiton. There are several different companies offering tours from Auckland. I chose Bush and Beach’s Hobbiton Express Tour.

They offer pick up from inner city accommodation. Living in the city, I opted for the 6.55 am pick up outside 172 Quay Street, opposite the Ferry Terminal building. This morning after picking up one more passenger from the Crowne Plaza, our group of 17 made our way south.

It was pouring with rain as we left but our driver and guide Dion reassuringly joked that “Hobbiton looks more English in the rain”. Dion provided excellent commentary on the Auckland and Waikato region. His factual information and trivia was peppered with just the right amount of jokes.

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We stopped for a short refreshment break just before eighty thirty at the Firepot Café in Gordontown Village before making our way through Cambridge and onto Hobbiton.  By this time the sky was clearing and by the time we arrived at Hobbition the blue sky and sun was out – I was glad I put on that SPF 50+ this morning.

At Hobbiton we meet up with another Bush and Beach tour van with a party of 11 and met our Hobbiton tour guide Kendall. There was the potential for everything to turn to shambles first thing because three cruise groups, which were meant to visit yesterday, had to reschedule for today due to the recent nasty norovirus outbreak. Kendall and the other guides coordinated it so we were not shepherded around like sardines.

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Outside the home of Samwise Gamgee

We started at the Party Tree and Party Field and then made our way around the 44 hobbit holes and gardens, including popular stops at Bilbo’s house “Bag End” and the home of Samwise Gamgee.

Kendall was an excellent guide offering various interesting tidbits of LOTR trivia and always offering to take photos.

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Guides pour guests a choice of Amber Ale, Traditional English Ale, Apple Cider or Ginger beer

After making our way across the double arch bridge and past the Watermill the tour concluded at the Green Dragon Inn, where we were offered a complimentary ale, cider or non alcoholic ginger beer.

As a private tour group we had lunch in a themed marquee behind the Green Dragon Inn. Bush and Beach advertise lunch as being at Shire’s Rest café, which is not on Hobbiton set itself, so we were very lucky to have this opportunity. After lunch I had the opportunity to walk around and take a closer look at the interior and exterior of the Green Dragon Inn and the Watermill and Bridge.

Bush and Beach offer a $10 voucher to use in the gift shop. The Shire Store sells Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit merchandise including Tolkien books, DVDs, posters, clothing, Weta Collectives and bottles of that ale, cider and ginger beer enjoyed at the Green Dragon Inn. We did not have to spend more than the $10 voucher as there were postcards for $2, fridge magnets between $5 and $10 and shot glasses for $8 each.

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At least one of the hobbit holes is open so you can peek inside

We left Hobbiton a little before 1pm and on the way back we passed through Matamata, a small rural town that promotes itself as being the gateway to Hobbiton. We made a quick unschedule stop at the Matamata i-SITE, which is modeled after the Green Dragon Inn. Those who wished could pop inside for a quick photo with Gollum (a statue).

A little after 2:30 pm we made a stop for ice cream at Pokeno Village, which is about 35 minutes out of Auckland City. You can get a large one scoop ice cream for $1.50 or if you’re feeling really adventurous a jumbo ice cream for $12.

We got into Auckland City a little bit after 3:30pm, which is a little bit later than the advertised time of 3 pm. Word of mouth would suggest this is quite a common occurrence but hey if that is the only criticism one can make about Bush and Beach they are not doing too bad.

Essential facts:

Bush and Beach Hobbition Express Tour
7:00 am – 3:00 pm
$275 per adult, $140 per child

Hobbiton Movie Set Tours
501 Buckland Road, Hinuera, Matamata