We were the only people at Wharariki Beach – click to expand to full size
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
My off the beaten track Intrepid tour of the South Island (Te Waipounamu) of New Zealand began in Nelson. I was originally supposed to fly from the Nelson airport to the Westhaven Retreat by helicopter following a domestic flight into Nelson. It would have been faster than the multi-hour drive. Most importantly we would soar above the popular Tasman National Park, the smallest national park in New Zealand and one of the most popular.
Pilot Logan Moore standing in front of the Eurocopter EC120 at Westhaven Retreat
When a series of wildfires broke out near Nelson I anticipated my helicopter flight would be cancelled and it was. While I enjoyed the drive with my guide (Veronika Vermeulen, owner, Aroha New Zealand Tours) because it allowed me to get to know her and see a bit of the country, I was disappointed at having missed the helicopter flight. Fortunately, Veronika found a work around.
Our view of Westhaven Retreat as we departed
She scheduled the private Top of the South Tour on our departure. To make it possible on our departure day she left Westhaven Retreat early in the morning in the sports utility vehicle with our luggage. I stayed behind to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and the pretty ocean vistas. A few minutes after breakfast, from the expansive windows of the Westhaven dining room, I spotted a tiny metal bird approaching. In the blink of an eye the other guests and I watched it land on the nearby lawn.
At the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site
Within minutes Logan Moore, chief executive officer and pilot of Tasman Helicopters (Tangmere place, Nelson Airport www.tasmanhelicopters.co.nz, email@example.com, 035288075) and I were airborne. From departure to arrival we didn’t see a soul. We flew in a Eurocopter EC120 built in 2008 with just over 2,000 flight hours and capacity for four passengers.
We flew over coastal areas, some isolated and some well populated
The 90-minute flight was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand. We stopped twice, at Wharariki Beach and at the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site. I especially loved the dazzling beach stop. For a few minutes I had the impression we were the only humans for miles on the beautiful and unspoiled beach. Minutes later we landed in a rocky and hilly landscape. As soon as Logan identified which Lord of the Rings movie the film site belonged to I recognized it. The video clip on his tablet confirmed it.
During a coffee break at Motueka Airport
Tasman Helicopters, co-owned by Ross Moore and Logan Moore, was established in 2015. According to Logan, who responded to questions by email, the company had no safety incidents.
Thanks to nice weather the scenery sparkled. The sky was clear and the flight was smooth, making time disappear faster than I anticipated. We landed at Motueka Airport, where my guide awaited me. As we continued on my tour memories of the flight lingered.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The 37-acres of Lotusland were divided into two dozen areas with a total of more than 30,000 plants.
Although my wife, Sandra Wells and I had no plans to visit Lotusland (695 Ashley Road, Santa Barbara, California 93108, +1 805 969-9990, www.lotusland.org) while we were in Santa Barbara, California we were glad we did. We had more than enough already crammed into the two days we expected to be in the area, located 90 miles north of Los Angeles and known as the Central Coast Wine Country. Perhaps because the city had been featured in the 2004 movie Sideways or because of its pleasant weather and lively arts scene many celebrities have homes there. Let’s just say we were very skeptical when we started and came away converts to the idea that gardens can be fascinating, educational, and fun.
Although the address is on Ashley Road the visitor entrance was at Cold Springs Road and Sycamore Canyon Road. Its long-in-the-making Japanese Garden had just opened two weeks prior to our visit and demand for tickets was backed up. I believe the heavy demand was due to the attraction’s location in a residential neighborhood that capped the number of visitors.
The 37-acres of Lotusland were divided into two dozen areas with a total of more than 30,000 plants, including 3,000 different types of plants, starting with the Australian Gardens at the entrance, which featured, among others, the tea trees from which the well-known healing oil is extracted. Just beyond the gate was the Japanese section (started in 1968, with a final budget of $6 million). It was being finished when we arrived, including the addition of a pagoda as well as the placement of koi and catfish in the pond.
Part of Madame Ganna Walska’s home where the Lotusland offices are now located
Our guide was the well-informed Craig Morgan, whose passion for the beauty and benefits of plants in general and enthusiasm, especially for the garden, sparked our interest. When we later read The Healing Power of Gardens by Oliver Sacks, M.D., in his collected essays, Everything In Its Place, in which the famed observer of the human condition spoke about his experiences using gardens as healing centers we thought of Lotusland.
Then there is the colorful back story. Ralph Stevens bought the property in 1882 for his commercial nursery and home. His widow operated it as a guest ranch, and put it to other uses for 17 years. President Herbert Hoover visited for a garden fundraiser in 1937.
Future owner Ganna Walska was born Hanna Puacz in Brest-Liovsk, Poland, in 1887. At 25, she eloped with a Russian count and seven years later was studying singing in Paris and working under her new stage name. The following year the Russian Orthodox Church dissolved their marriage and Walska moved to New York City to escape World War I. While singing at a theater, she developed a throat ailment that took her to Joseph Fraenkel, M.D. They married 10 days later. In 1918, she made her concert debut on the same bill as legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. At her operatic debut in Havana, Cuba, at the end of the year she met Harold McCormick of International Harvester, a sponsor of the Chicago Opera.
After Fraenkel died, Walska was devastated. When she met rich heir Alexander Cochran on a voyage to Paris they married. Back in New York, she pursued her budding interest in mysticism and seances, as well as a friendship with McCormick, who arranged her debut with the Chicago Opera. A jealous Cochran forced her to cancel her performance. She divorced him in 1922 and married McCormick. He planned a 23-city United States concert tour, but she cancelled the first half when he underwent an appendectomy. He bought her a theater in Paris, which she managed for 10 years and ended up owning for nearly half a century. She made concert tours of America in 1923, 1925, and 1928, the only times during their marriage she visited the United States, despite McCormick’s residence in Chicago. He divorced her in 1931 on the grounds of desertion, but they remained friends. She lived half the year in France, half in New York, where she continued to explore Indian philosophy and her fascination with hypnotism. In 1940, she escaped France on the last commercial passenger ship before the Nazi occupation.
In New York, she studied yoga with Theos Bernard, known as the White Lama. After Walska’s next husband, a physician, died in 1940, Bernard proposed and they decided to buy what was then known as Cuesta Linda, renaming it Tibetanland, with a plan to turn it into a monastery for Tibetan monks. They began planting a variety of gardens and Walska published her autobiography, Always Room at the Top, in 1943. Three years later, they divorced and she never remarried, dedicating her life to collecting rare plants from around the world and creating a unique landscape. She renamed the garden Lotusland because the lotus, which grows in mud but produces a beautiful flower and could be a metaphor for human aspiration, is regarded by many cultures as a symbol of enlightenment and rebirth. She died in 1984. The Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation spent the next nine years preparing the property for public tours.
There was art amidst the plants at Lotusland
Lotusland was full of sculptures, such as in the Theatre Garden, which featured a collection of grotesques, 17th century stone figures of an Italian entertainment troupe of dwarves. They were so valued that Walska had them buried with her jewelry when she fled the German occupation. Around some of the pools, like the one in the Aloe Garden (with its 140 species), were giant open clam shells, colorful abalone shells, and turquoise glass (retrieved from the slag at the factory making Sparkletts water bottles). Colored tiles, stones, and sand were used to create pictures and designs by the sides of the paths. There was a Topiary Garden featuring plants growing over wire frames that represented a menagerie, as well as an enormous working clock of flowers. According to Lotusland promotional materials Walska was one of the first garden designers to plant groups en masse to create a dramatic impression.
Cactus flowers provided unexpected color
The Cactus Garden contained more than 300 species (one-sixth of the total known), grouped by their country of origin (native to the Americas, they spread to the rest of the world). All have adapted to conserve water, such as thickened parts for storage and the spines, which are its leaves that curb water loss by reducing air flow close to the stem and providing some shade (as well as defense against critters). Unlike other plants, their photosynthesis process, in which carbon dioxide enters the plant and water escapes, cacti delay the latter until night, reducing water loss. A mature saguaro can absorb as much as 200 gallons of water in a single rainstorm. We were amazed at how cacti differed in their shapes, colors, flowers, and the way they twisted to adapt to their neighbors.
It was surprising to come across other species in the Tropical Garden, such as the epiphyllum native to the Brazilian rainforest. We had never thought of cactus being a tropical plant.
Broad-leafed begonias among the ferns and a mature Dragon Tree, with its umbrella-like branches.
Although we thought of Lotusland as an oasis for desert flora and there were sections for dry-climate trees like palm and olive, it was also lush with a wide variety of plants of other climes.
We thought of Lotusland as an oasis for desert flora and there were sections for dry-climate trees like palm and olive, but it was also lush with a wide variety of plants of other climes. Lotuses and lilies covered a pond in the Water Garden and the Insectary Garden attracted butterflies and insects that have helped gardeners avoid using pesticides. Ferns shared shade with broad-leafed begonias (whose asymmetrical leaves are unique to the plant world in not matching), while other sections were devoted to cypress trees and roses. Mature dragon trees, whose branches reached almost vertically toward the sky, were striking and emitted a red resin known as dragon’s blood, used in folk medicine and favored by Roman gladiators to give them a fierce appearance. Lotusland had one of the most significant collections of bromeliads in the United States, a diverse family whose members trap moisture. They were clustered in several of the gardens, ranging from Spanish moss to pineapple.
One area in transition was the Blue Garden, which Walska had stocked with blue and silver-gray foliage. Tall trees had blocked the sun and the area was being replanted.
Three of the rarest plants on the planet, giant cycads
The most important section was devoted to the cycads, plants found in the fossil records going back 300 years, whose enormous cone-like reproductive structures called strobili (some weighing 30 pounds) were eaten by dinosaurs. Individual plants are either entirely male or female and may live as long as 1,000 years. They have stout, woody trunks that are often under the ground, while the foliage emerges from the top and grows in a rosette form, so they can look somewhat like ferns or palms. There were 900 specimens in the Cycad Garden.
In 1977, Walska auctioned her jewelry to pay $980,000 for two of the rarest plants in the world, two encyphalartos woodii cycads. Another was added later at an undisclosed price. Five were left in the world, all in private hands and all of one gender. It was believed that there were none left in the wild.
The horticultural wonderland of Lotusland impressed us. We were constantly surprised by the garden’s rare species, the exotic appearance of so many plants, and their beauty (not to mention the interesting story of Madame Walska). We now understand what she meant when she said in her autobiography that she was “the enemy of the average.” We look forward to exploring other gardens across the world.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
We spent a few minutes at the hidden valley of Campbell’s Kingdom (click on photo to expand image)
One of the activities I most remember from a trip to New Zealand this year was a 60-minute Doubtful Sound Gold Star Flight. Although it was originally supposed to be the twice as long Dusky & Doubtful Sound flight poor weather caused it to be severely shortened. To say the flight was bumpy is an understatement. Because of the conditions in the sky everything was gray and wet. Despite that the scenery was magnificent in every direction. From my window side seat I saw oversize natural beauty with no sign of human habitation as far as my eyes could reach. It was one of the highlights of my Intrepid tour in the South Island.
The helicopter picked us up at Cabot Lodge, where I was staying
Our pilot Kim Hollows, founder of Fiordland Helicopters
With the arrival of the storm I had become convinced my only chance to see the famed Fiordland National Park would vanish. According to Fiorland.org, the park is over 1.2 million hectares large, and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. Due to the remote location and my tight itinerary it wouldn’t have been possible to reschedule the flight. When my guide described the weather the day prior to the flight I crossed my fingers that we might have a chance to see the park. After two or three delays I figured it wouldn’t happen so when the chopper landed on the green lawn of Cabot Lodge, where I was staying, I was elated.
We flew in a late model AS350 B2 Squirrel.
Minutes after Veronika Vermeulen, my guide, and I rushed out to meet Kim Hollows, chief executive officer and founder of Fiordland Helicopters (K.E. Hollows Ltd, 6 Milford Crescent, Te Anau 9600, New Zealand, +64 (0)3 249 7575, www.fiordlandhelicopters.co.nz, firstname.lastname@example.org) we were airborne. Given the turbulence I appreciated that as we departed our pilot said little beyond an initial greeting and boarding instructions. His quiet and energetic demeanor inspired confidence. Kim’s attention was on flying that day. Mine was on the view and taking photos while praying that my stomach would keep it together until we returned.
Fiordland National Park
The highlight of the flight were expansive views of Doubtful Sound, the second largest of the fourteen fiords in the park. Since Doubtful is not as popular as it’s sister fiord Milford Sound, the the flight was meant to make visitors feel “like you are alone in the middle of nowhere.” It did. I’m not sure when we crossed the main divide. I remember the tall unnamed waterfall in the hidden valley of Campbell’s Kingdom because it was the only place we landed. We flew in a late model AS350 B2 Squirrel. The company declined to disclose the hours flown or the year of manufacture “due to privacy.” The aircraft could accommodate up to six passengers with a maximum internal weight of 650 kilos.
The scenery was awe inspiring.
Kim obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1980. Although he has flown throughout New Zealand he has spent most of his air time in the lower South Island and Fiordland, according to a staff person at his office who later responded to questions via email. In addition to scenic helicopter flights he has been involved in deer recovery, commercial helicopter operations, filming, photography, and work for the Department of Conservation. He founded K.E. Hollows Ltd, now known as Fiordland Helicopters, in 1986. The spokesperson indicated the company’s safety record was impeccable. Relying on his vast knowledge and passion for the region he made Ata Whenua – Shadowlands, a film that shows daily at the Fiordland Cinema nearby. The owners of Cabot Lodge kindly made it available so the other lodge guests and I could watch it on my return from the flight. The clear weather conditions showcased in the film made me further appreciate the awe inspiring scenery. Should I return to New Zealand I would love to include the Dusky & Doubtful Sound flight in my itinerary. I will recommend it to friends traveling to the South Island.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
Wayne Allanson aboard our 10-seat KeelowCraft on the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River in New Zealand
I didn’t know quite what to expect during the off the beaten track Waiatoto River Safari in the 355,000 hectare Aspiring National Park, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (U.N.E.S.C.O.) Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park in the South Island of New Zealand. My first clue was Ruth Allanson’s smile when we stopped to check in and sign release forms. It lit up her face and put me at ease. She and Wayne, her husband, owned the company.
Ruth Allanson of Waiatoto River Safari
During the tour Wayne stopped in a sheltered corner of the river to tell us about the park.
Our departure point
The simple indoor stand housed a desk, promotional brochures and a few local stonework souvenirs. From there a two minute drive led to our departure point, where moments later we met Wayne on the bank of the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River. We were 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown.
The Waiatoto River, 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown
Although it was a clear summer day when we arrived (by the time we returned clouds had descended) there was a chill in the air that promised it would be cooler still on the boat. After applying liberal amounts of insect repellent against the sandflies and donning a loaner coat and I was ready. Veronika Vermeulen, owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours and my guide on an Intrepid tour of the South Island, and I followed Wayne onto a 10-seat KeelowCraft for our two and a half hour private tour. Our boat was 5.7 meters long, 2.2 meters wide, required 125 milliliters of water to operate, and could accommodate up 11 passengers plus driver. It had a Chev 350 V8 petrol engine with a Hamilton 212 jet pump.
The Waiatoto River, part of the U.N.E.S.C.O. Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park – click to enlarge
The setting was beautiful. The tour was one of the highlights of my trip to the South Island. The river and lush green vegetation were all around us. After the many crowded attractions we had passed on previous days it was wonderful to be alone on the river. This was in part because the tour was the only way to visit the unspoiled area by land and water. Later Ruth explained by email that the scenery and nature are unique to New Zealand.
One of my favorite aspects of the tour was that we were the only people visible on the river.
One of few boats we saw although during the whitebait season hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the popular fish
The loud engine sounds ensured we focused on the scenery rather than conversation. Wayne slowed down or stopped to show us points of interest, share information and indulge my photo needs. On one of the stops he offered us whitebait snacks. During the whitebait season, hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the tiny fish. Although it was past whitebait season Ruth and Wayne had a frozen supply from which they made the snacks.
White water on the Waiatoto River
We covered 23 kilometers until the rapids became impossible to navigate. There Wayne tied the boat to the shore. It was easy to step onto land through the front of the boat. Veronika and I gazed at the rushing water, while Wayne secured the boat. Once he joined us we walked 500 meters into the quiet landscape before heading back down the river to the Hindley Stream. By the time we returned to our departure point we had covered 50 kilometers during the tour.
When the river became unmanageable we stopped for a short stroll.
It was nice to know the boats operated with Qualmark Environ motors specially imported for their low fuel use and clean running. I saw no pollution in the water or on land. The Allansons encouraged their clients to “take photos and leave footprints only.”
We encountered lush greenery on our short walk.
With advance notice they were able to accommodate some travelers with disabilities. Babies from about 5 months old (provided the life jacket fit) could join their tours and there was no upper age restriction. Life jackets were available up to XXXXL.
At our first stop – click to Enlarge
Once we glided over the river I was glad for the extra loaner layer and the safety of the life vest. Although at one point there were sandflies, perhaps because of the copious quantities of natural repellent I lathered on, they didn’t bother me at all. Waiatoto River Safaris Limited (975 Haast-Jackson Bay road, Hannahs Clearing, Haast, 7844, New Zealand, +64 3 7500 780, www.riversafaris.co.nz, email@example.com) was owned and operated by a local family since 1997. Theirs was the only company with permission to offer boat tours on Waiatoto River (helicopter companies were allowed enter the park). Ruth and Wayne held Martime New Zealand commercial jet boat licenses, first aid and commercial pilot licenses as well as airplane instructor ratings. They had 12 years of jet boating experience.
According to the U.N.E.S.C.O. website, Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park covers 10 percent of the landmass of New Zealand. It has fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. It was worthy of a detour. I especially enjoyed seeing it by boat.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
Sabrina Schels, my pilot, next to our glider
In hind sight going gliding in lieu of the Mount Cook activities that were cancelled due to blustery skies may not have been the smartest choice weather wise. But, my tour time was nearly over. It was the last day of my Intrepid tour. So Veronika Vermeulen, my tour guide, and I signed up for a one hour Instructional Trial Flight with Glide Omarama (Airport Road, Omarama, New Zealand, +64 (3) 438 9555, www.glideomarama.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
The entrance to Glide Omarama
On the ground everything seemed fine. It was sunny and warm. The early afternoon sky was bright blue dotted with pretty white clouds. After signing the Glide Omarama release forms in the office we met our pilots, who escorted us and the other fliers in a van to an open field. Each of us would be in a glider with a pilot of our own. A plane would tow each of the four gliders in the field. Sabrina Schels, my pilot, described our German made 400 kilogram glider (700 kilograms with pilot and passenger) and its features. I paid close attention to ensure I followed her instructions. Although she spoke with a slight German accent her instructions were clear and easy to follow.
She asked that I be careful not to hit the glider top with my camera, explaining the top cost the same as a full size vehicle. Later I understood how easy it would be to bang the cover with my camera without meaning to do it. I began to listen in earnest when she explained that in an emergency we would push the top of the glider off and jump. Being trapped beneath the clear cover seemed possible, a thought that hadn’t occurred to me until then. When she pointed to a plastic bag, indicating I should use it if I became airsick, I began to wonder how bumpy the ride would be. She asked me to let her know right away if I felt any discomfort.
In the foreground Sabrina, in the background another glider
Donning a lightweight parachute with her assistance I tucked my cameras on the side of the glider. I sat in the front facing a sea of instruments. She took the back seat. Soon it was our turn. I was looking forward to the flight. The tow plane tug was barely noticeable and in moments we were airborne, moving away as if by magic from our starting point. After she released the towing cable Sabrina began to circle ever higher using thermals to rise. It was a bumpy ride with the glider dipping often and with it my stomach. From where we were we could see for miles. It was beautiful.
The tow plane tug was barely noticeable
In much less time than I would have anticipated my lunch began to dance uncomfortably in my belly. I hoped it would pass, but I had no such luck. I let Sabrina know and she stopped circling. As soon as she did I felt better, well enough to admire the scenery. As pretty as it was every cell in my body ached for my stomach to settle down. I yearned to land. Instead I glanced to either side of the glider, admiring the view.
“Good gliding weather allows us to use different forms of lift such as thermals, ridge lift, convergence and mountain lee waves to operate and fly cross country six to seven days a week,” Sabrina said later when I asked about optimal gliding conditions. Under crystal clear air it is possible to see 200 kilometers into the distance, she explained. “Omarama is especially famous for its huge and powerful waves. We have highly experienced staff which are working for us full time. Some of us have even flown World Championships. Every glider flight is a very personal and unique experience especially tailored to the interests of our clients, as it is a one on one instruction. Not only can we take people up for the first
flight but also train them to become pilots themselves or teach experienced pilots how to safely fly in the mountains.”
I sighed with relief when we landed. In no time we were out of the glider, walking on the grass toward the office, where we each received a Certificate of Achievement with our name on it for the completion of the flight. Any concerns about safety had disappeared once we were airborne. Sabrina’s handling of the glider was smooth and seemingly effortless. She was attentive of my comfort, friendly and patient. I just wish I had been better able to enjoy my flight. Still it was a worthwhile ride and I would do it again.
Glide Omarama was about ninety minutes drive from Queenstown. Although instructions and training were usually provided in English, some of the staff speak German, French, Romanian, Hungarian depending on the season, Sabrina later explained by email.
There has never been a fatal accident on a trial flight in New Zealand, Sabrina replied when asked about safety. Adding, “Gliding is considerably safer than skydiving
Sabrina, a native of Bavaria, Germany has a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering. Flying since she was 15 she had a German glider maintenance certificate, a winch driver’s license, and a New Zealand B Category instructor rating. She loves to fly vintage gliders, she said. At Glide Omarama she worked first as ground crew before becoming a year round Instructor. She loves cross-country soaring and has taken guests on flights over 800 kilometers long.
Our glider was about 15 years old, which she explained, is new in terms of a glider’s life (there are still gliders flying which were built in the 1940s). Children 12 or older were welcome on trial flights and to learn to glide. The company offered wheelchair access.
The company, owned by Gavin Wills, a pilot and former mountaineer, employed between 12 and 15 instructors. Development of the Omarama Airfield began in 1991 for the 1995 World Championships when a group of pilots led by Bill Walker transformed a deserted dust bowl into an irrigated airfield with grass, trees, hangars, tie downs, chalets and a campground. Omarama emerged from there. By the time I visited New Zealand there were two parallel runways, each 1.5 kilometers long, and four additional short landing runways.
By Elena del Valle
Photos courtesy of Underworld Adventures*
We rode a small train for two kilometers to reach the Metro Cave in the Paparoa National Park in the South Island, New Zealand.
I had been looking forward with a bit of trepidation to Underworld Rafting, a hiking, glowworm viewing and river rafting experience in the Metro Cave Te Ananui Cave of the South Island of New Zealand since Veronika Vermeulen, owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd. (539C Key Road, RD1, Kinleith, Tokoroa 3491, New Zealand, +64-21-890 611, https://www.arohatours.co.nz/, email@example.com) and my guide in New Zealand, recommended it for inclusion in my custom itinerary. She said if I was open to new experiences and able to hike a short distance in the heat of summer I would like it. I trusted her judgement and agreed to go. When the day arrived I applied liberal amounts of insect repellent to protect me from the New Zealand sandflies as well as sunblock and set aside any concerns. I was glad I did because it was outstanding.
From start to finish the four hour soft adventure within the 430 square kilometer Paparoa National Park in the West Coast was far more fun (and at times more challenging) than I had expected. Following a short drive from Birds Ferry Lodge and Ferry Mans Cottage, where I was staying near Westport, Veronika and I arrived at Underworld Adventures (State Highway 6, Charleston 7892, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand, +64 3 7888 168, www.caverafting.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) in the late morning.
Wearing wet suits we hiked 131 steps to the cave entrance carrying a tube like the ones in the photo.
Mira Schwill, co-manager with Ray Moroney, greeted Veronika warmly. Following introductions we sat at a table in the Underworld Adventures and Café, a sunlit space with a towering ceiling that was the home of Underworld Adventures, to complete our sign-in on a digital tablet. Minutes later we descended to the lower level of the building, where we changed into wet suits and met Peter, our guide. The staff handed each of us a helmet with a light. Although Veronika and I were on private tour with Peter we had to make our way to the cave and back with a tour group. We saw them in the changing area, but they spoke no English and kept their distance when we greeted them. While we waited for the tour group to join us Peter, an energetic and enthusiastic young man who liked to surf as a hobby, outlined our activities and easily answered all my questions.
Once everyone was ready we climbed aboard a weathered van with a small European family. The tour group went on a second van. Ten minutes later most of us boarded a small train with two engines, one gas and another diesel. I later learned the engines, called Dorothy and Cecil, had been built for the company in 2002.
We covered two kilometers with the train. Its leisurely pace allowed me to admire the rain forest vegetation along our path. From the platform we walked about one kilometer along a well marked uneven path to the cave entrance. On the way we picked up large tubes, which while lightweight (they weighed between two and a half and three kilos) were awkward to balance while walking on the slippery ground. This was especially true in the steep last section of 131 steps to the cave entrance and inside.
Some of the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites we saw that day
While it had been too warm to zip our wet suits on the way up during the walk inside the cave we could see our breaths in the light of our helmets. It was the only light within the cave. Although I was glad for protection the helmet provided my head It fit loosely and shifted around constantly. We only walked one and a half kilometers of the nine kilometers of the cave. It was slow going due to the low light, pebble strewn uneven surface of the path, shifting helmet, varying height of the cave ceiling and tubes we carried. More than once we were forced to crouch down, while negotiating our balance with the large tube in tow and the helmet moving to an fro.
When we exited the cave we floated on our tubes along the Waitakere Nile River.
Inside the cave it was silent and filled in places with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. There was no sign of the tour group. Peter showed us the cave formations and told us about the man who had discovered the cave. In the serenity of the cave it was as if we were the only ones there like the man who first discovered them carrying matches to break the deep darkness of the unknown within.
Peter watched our slow progress, describing the noteworthy sections of the cave, and offering assistance in particularly tricky segments. After a while I heard the soft sound of moving water. It was almost disappointing because I knew we would soon depart the wondrous world of the cave.
Glowworms in the cave ceiling in the Paparoa National Park in the South Island, New Zealand
But, the glowworms stole the show. We lay atop our tubes, turning off our lights and staring up at the ceiling, which moments earlier had appeared bare. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I began to notice pale worm shapes a few feet above us. When we turned the lights back on I examined the arachnids with interest. From there we walked to the water’s edge and climbed aboard our tubes, making our way past thousands more of the glowing creatures. It was unexpectedly moving.
Sun filtered through thick greenery where we floated out of the cave in our tubes.
Peter, our guide, and Charlie, who guided the tour group
I was thankful for the wet suit, which kept the chill of the water from cooling me down too fast. The sound of water grew louder and before long we were back in the early afternoon sunshine. The hot sun felt good. I was glad I had sunblock. Around us the river was clean, the water clear as I ran webbed mittens, too large for my hands, in an inefficient yet effortful attempt at steering over the rapids. Peter reminded us to take care as the current carried us one kilometer down the small rapids to our exit point. I was tired and smiling when I walked out with my tube in hand, glad I had followed Veronika’s advice.
Veronika on her way down the small rapids
Our guide had received company training and worked as a guide for three seasons. Underworld Adventures, established in 1987, was owned by Geoff Schurr, Ray Moroney, Stue Berendt, and Graham Howard. It employed nine staff during the off season and fourteen during the high season.
I would recommend Underworld Rafting to my friends who are steady on their feet (there were numerous places were it would have been easy to twist an ankle or loose my footing) while carrying a three kilo tube and a helmet on their heads and in good health. Emergency aid inside the cave could take one to two hours to arrive. Having shared space with a stand offish group during part of the tour I particularly appreciated that mine had been a private tour.
At the conclusion of the tour Underworld Adventures made the photos from that day available for download free of charge. They also provided me with two small printed souvenir photos in an Underworld Rafting sleeve.
*Because I wore a wet suit and didn’t have a waterproof camera I left my camera at the cottage. Additionally, an uneven path and low light conditions in the cave meant special equipment and extra time were necessary for publication worthy photos. Our guide took photos with company equipment during our adventure. The folks at Underworld Adventures kindly allowed us to publish them here along with other photos taken on other dates.