Shearing bunnies

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Road trip!

Not content with annoying the fish at Lake Waikaremoana, more animal bizarreness was in store when my friend Jill showed me the sights of Waitomo and Raglan. After lunch in Hamilton we arrived at Kiwi Pakas, a rather lovely YHA in Waitomo. We unpacked, obtained our cutlery from reception and headed out to explore. First stop was the Shearing Shed, attatched to an angora rabbit farm. It was possibly the silliest thing I've ever seen. So how do you shear a rabbit? I hear you cry. The first step is to somehow tie nooses round its paws and stretch it on a kind of rabbit rack (which has the ability to rotate for ease of shearing back and tummy). Next it gets clipped all over (number 1 crew cut) and finally the scissors come out to tidy it up. This includes trimming the tail (which looks skinny and short without the fluff), but leaving the paws and tops of the ears for maximum silly effect. the rabbits seemed to endure all this with an air of profound weariness and vague embarrassment. They are then returned to the farm to spend the next three months putting all their energy into regaining their former stature as puffballs before going through the whole ordeal again. But really, it must get pretty hot under all that fluff.

After the silliness, we thought we should really get down to what makes Waitomo a huge tourist attraction: the scenery and, in particular, the caves. We drove west of the village, along a twisting road littered with fallen rocks and dead possums, which seem to be particuarly suicidal in this area. Our first stop was a short boardwalk out to a natural limestone bridge, the remnant of a cave which collapsed. Driving on a few kilometres further we reached Piripiri cave, deep, dark and unlit; we ventured a little way in, wishing that we'd brought a more powerful torch, but my meagre beam still allowed us to admire the stalagmite-studded ceiling. The last section of our drive led to our most beautiful destination: Marokopa falls. The falls were 32 metres high and absolutely stunning. The water cascaded from rock to rock, and light refracting through the spray creating a rainbow arcing across the pool at the bottom.

The next day we encountered more waterfalls- this time of a subterranean kind. I persuaded Jill to try abseiling and we joined a caving trip to explore the wonderfully named Haggas Honking Holes cave system. We donned our marvellously attractive wetsuits and wellies, got helmets qand arnesses and were given an induction to the art of abseiling. Then we headed to the cave mouth, climbed a long ladder down into the gloom and then faced our first abseil- 24 metres into the pitch blackness below. I went first, bouncing down into the blackness. It felt like a real journey into the unknown; a guide was waiting for me at the bottom but his head torch was off and I was unable to see the bottom until I was nearly there. In the midnight world I turned off my torch to see glow-worms shining on the cave roof, and watched the light of Jill's torch as she followed me down. From the look on her face as she unclipped her harness from the line I wondered if she was ever going to talk to me again!

But the fun was just beginning (and despite Jill's expression she was having fun too); the rest of the group joined us and we headed farther down into the cave, following a stream. Soon we came to our next abseil, slightly shorter but even more enjoyable as this time we were abseiling down a waterfall! The third abseil was almost straight after this; another wet one. By the time we got to the bottom we were all soaked- not that it mattered as the caves got much lower at this point and we had to crawl through the next section of the cave system. Before too long it opened up more and we were able to stand and admire the stalagmites, stalagtites and other beautifully delicate limestone formations created by water dripping through the caves. We got up close to some of the glow-worms, which were bigger than I'd imagined- about an inch long, their glow a small dot in their digestive system to lure other bugs towards their webs. The webs were pretty; long threads covered in sticky beads which looked like crystals, hanging down to trap insects attracted too close by the light.

After over an hour of exploring we began to head upwards. This involved more walks through caves and a few rock climbs- with and without ropes. I became glad of my little bits of bouldering practise in Nepal as one or two patches were quite tricky! Our guides were great though- ready with advice (and the occasional shove) if needed. A few more ladders and a bit of clambering later, and we were once again bathed in daylight. We tipped the water from our wellies and squelched back to dry clothing. Apart from the huge sense of adventure- and achievement- the great thing about caving was the peace and the feeling of treading through a relative wilderness. The cave floor was still in its natural, muddy state and other than the occasional ladder there were none of the metal contructions and walkways often found in commercial caves.

After an ice cream, we gave in to commercialisation and joined the glow-worm tour. This involved a short walk round a cave (perfectly manicured with tiled floors and metal walkways and full of people who complained very time a drip from the ceiling hit them). We then all piled into a boat and headed into a dark cave, illuminated only by the constellation of glow-worms on the cave roof. It was pretty- apart from the kid in the seat behind us who would not shut up! Best teacher glares required. For a bit of peace we headed off on a bushwalk, through woodland and more lovely karst scenery.

The next day it was a complete change of scene, as we drove to the seaside town of Raglan. One of New Zealand's surfing meccas, it also had great beaches and lots of arty shops. After lunch and exploring the stores, we armed ourselves with our books and towels and lazed on the beach of Manu Bay, watching the blue waves rolling in. A glorious- though slightly lazy- day.
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