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Middle Earth

Hobbits reside inside rolling green hills.  That is a fact not worth disputing.  Frodo Baggins grew up in an area that Ashley describes as “perfect, a place only found in my dreams.”  But the incredible setting for The Lord of the Rings and Ash’s imaginative slumber is oh so real.  And underneath New Zealand’s picturesque countryside is a whole other world.  A Lost World.

NZ Countryside Fence and Beyond NZ Countryside with Cattle   

Mt. RuapehuAfter spending a few days exploring the North Island’s northern coasts it was high time to discover the interior.  As our credit card statement racked up petrol line items the further south we motored, the more beautiful the hills became.  Sheep, cows, and hairs dotted the green vastness surrounding our stress-free souls.  Near Lake Taupo in the North Island’s geographic center, Mount Ruapehu provided a splendid backdrop at over 9,100 feet tall.  I learned my lesson in Chile… no more climbing active volcanoes. From higher elevations, one could see ponds intersecting wire fences and clusters of trees where farm animals would seek refuge from the sun above.  The kilometers indicated southbound progress was being made, but the incredible beauty was static.  If we were amazed by the rolling surface, a surprise was waiting just below. 

Drinking Vino in BazilsUpon reaching the tiny Kiwi town of Waitomo, the fact finding mission began.  So many things to do below the Earth’s crust, but so little time and money.  Three stops and three different recommendations of how to enjoy the limestone caves and underwater rivers.  What is better than a human being’s personal suggestion?  Video evidence.  Upon seeing the Lost World excursion with our own eyes, we ponied up the cash and rebuffed the plethora of other options like black water rafting (sounds better than it actually is).  The friendly staff of Waitomo Adventures even offered us their toilets and parking lot for the night.  That was our backup plan if we didn’t locate a camping spot in the hills.  Locate we did!  With just the lush hillside, an occasional cow, and sprinkling rain providing company, Ash and I drank merlot and ate dinner with Bazils’ hatch ajar.  Early to bed, early to rise.

Boots Hanging Ten LONG Way Down

With a cup of New Zealand’s cheapest coffee in hand from Bazils’ gas stove, we arrived at Waitomo Adventures and met a family of six from Brisbane, Australia that would round out our excursion group.  Ash couldn’t help but smile as this young family was reminiscent of her’s back home in Kansas.  In particular, the fearless eleven year-old boy whose personality had a striking likeness to Ashley’s kid brother, Bryce.  The eight of us boarded the 4×4 van and drove through a rather ordinary looking farm.  Fitting for boots, harness, and helmet was quick and it was first time we heard the oh so popular Kiwi  phrase: sweet as bro.  The gentleman guide directed this at Ashley after he fitted her harness and I thought he added an extra “s” to “as.”  Some hearty laughs and a short time later we all plodded into the green field until reaching a thick patch of trees.  Then down some slippery rock steps until a steel platform came into view hugging the side of an immensely deep limestone sinkhole. 

Collared Greens Angels From Heaven Abseiling

One by one we were locked into the abseil device and leaned out over the abyss below.  With 330+ feet between us and the mossy bottom, our inhibitions were relaxed and down we went.  Surprisingly, there is nothing to stop us from sliding off the end of the rope besides the weight of the rope itself.  Thus, the top portion was slow going while we had to wrap out feet around the rope length towards the bottom to create additional friction.  The thirty minute repel was incredible.  Once it was clear a short plunge to our death was not inevitable, the ferns and vines clinging to the sinkhole walls presented themselves.  To be suspended high above another world below and every color of green in our periphery was a unique experience to be certain.  Within 100 feet of the now evident river below, the plants gave way to a bald limestone cave that reached far into the darkness.  As if Waitomo Adventures had done this before, the rope length ended where the cave’s floor began.  Feet planted firmly back on rock, the roof of the limestone fortress looked as if one thousand Suns shown through a small tear in the night sky.

Tear in the Night Sky Mossy Beam Me Up

GlowwormsHelmet lights switched to the “on” position, the eight spelunkers trekked over the limestone boulders that once formed the cave’s ceiling.  The underground river splashed along over our right shoulders as we moved deeper into the cave, natural light giving way to darkness.  The skylight provided from the sinkhole entrance made for some interesting silhouette photos.  Careful with each step, we huddled together under a small overhang and shuttered our headlamps.  As our eyes adjusted to the light deprived environment, tiny blue specks of light began to appear.  Glowworms!  They formed constellations against the rock exterior from which they hung.  Silently watching, twenty minutes surely passed before it was time to leave.  But how the heck do you get out of a cave you just abseiled into without a walking exit? 

Mysterious... Ashley Ladder of Death Exit At Last!

Up a 100+ foot slippery ladder is how.  Ash and I were number five and six to climb, respectively.  The second of two guides went up fourth, but not before showing us how to lock our harness into the safety rope.  We waited in the dampness while the others climbed.  When other climbers would reach the top, they would lower the rope back down.  “Splat.” That is the noise a rope makes when it hits a cave floor and is ready to be utilized.  Adding to the nerve racking experience, the mud and dampness created a formidable lubricant on the ladder rungs.  Every 20 feet or so the metal structure was fastened to the limestone wall, just enough space to let the ladder sway and put a jolt into your heart.  Finally at the top, we walked a bit further in the cavern until a slightly graded path provided an exit from the Lost World.     

As they say: true beauty is what lies within, it is not what is on the outside that matters.  But it doesn’t hurt to have both.

- Greg and Ash    

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Taking excursions where your own digital camera is disallowed can be pricey and frustrating. If you really want pictures, they have you in a pinch to purchase from the tour operator.  Due to the dampness and abseil harness, cameras were disallowed on the Lost World.  However, before we booked the trip we negotiated the inclusion of all photographs on one DVD.  This saved us in excess of $80.
2) Men: when doing anything that requires a harness, spend as much time necessary to get your “junk” situated.  Nothing ruins a good time like being squeezed by a vice.

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