Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Hamilton, Cambridge, Glow worms and kiwis

Riff Raff, Hamilton
At the end of our stay in Auckland, we collected a hire car, because from here on in we were to be driving around New Zealand.

When I say we, I really mean I, as Nic doesn't drive. And with me having only done my test at the end of 2014, this was going to be a bit scary for me, as it would be the first time I had actually driven, other than in a dual controlled car with my instructor (or examiner) sat next to me. At least with starting in New Zealand , they drive on the left and there isn't too much traffic - except in Auckland of course!

We managed the drive to Hamilton without incident though, and I was lucky, because when we got there, the tiny hostel car park, which I was later to discover could be quite tricky to park in, was empty. It amused us here that the lady in our hostel said that she could was a bit anxious about visiting Auckland - Hamilton was about as big as she could cope with. Hamilton is about the same size as Peterborough.

Hamilton was not a bad town, with a few nice shops and bars. It's main claim to fame is probably that it calls itself the birthplace of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Richard Smith moved to New Zealand from the UK with his parents, and it was here in Hamilton that he spent his late teens, cutting hair at Pat Osbornes hairdressers and going the the Embassy Theatre cinema next door to watch horror and sci-fi films.

In 1964, at the age of 22, he left for London to become Richard O'Brien the actor, eventually writing, and starring as Riff Raff, in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 2004 they put up a Riff Raff statue at the site of the old Embassy Theatre to honour O'Brien, which became slightly ironic in 2010, when New Zealand refused him citizenship; they eventually decided to make an exception, and he became a citizen in 2011.

Cambridge, New Zealand
While we were here, we took a day trip out to the rather small town of Cambridge, which had about two main streets and a very villagey feel.  There was a very tiny farmers market on, where we met a lady who had emigrated from the UK and was helping out a friend on his meat stall. The sausages that we bought were excellent.

Ruakari Cave, Waitomo
Cambridge is a very small place, with a population of about 20,000 and inevitably, only a short history, so it amused me somewhat when a woman in a shop asked if it was just like the Cambridge in the UK. I couldn't lie, I had to tell her that it was nothing like it. She was quite disappointed, but consoled herself with the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited here.

Ruakari Cave, Waitomo
Our main trip out of Hamilton was to visit the caves at Waitomo. As it rained a lot, we decided to skip the third cave, Aranui, as it involved a forest walk which we didn't feel like getting wet for. We did the other two caves though, starting with Ruakari, Maori for den of dogs, supposedly named because the cave was found 400-500 years ago when a young Maori boy was hunting for birds and was attacked by wild dogs living in the old entrance.

Ruakari Cave, Waitomo
You enter the cave through a spiral slope and a tunnel, that feels a bit like you are entering the secret lair of a Bond villain, but once inside, it is a labyrinth of limestone wonders. To be fair, I have seen better stalactites and stalagmites, but these were still pretty impressive. In particular there was a nice variety of formations, including the drapery or curtain forms, which really look like they could blow around in a breeze.
Ruakari Cave, Waitomo

We also got our first glimpse of some of the main draw for the caves, the glowworms. The glowworms here are a different type to those found in other countries as they are a type of gnat, Arachnocampa luminosa. The adult gnat has no way of eating, so only lives for a few days to breed and lay the next round of eggs. The glowworm is the larval stage, which can last from six to twelve months, and this is a case where light really does shine out of a creature's backside.

The glow is to attract food such as midges and mosquitoes, so that they become ensnared in the many lengths of sticky silk, like that in a spider's web, that they drop from their nests.

But the best view of glowworms was in the main Waitomo cave, where we got into boats and floated through in silence - or at least as close as we could get when we had one of those idiots on board who couldn't grasp the concept of keeping his mouth shut, or that the idea of whispering is not to be heard by everyone else!

It wasn't a long boat ride, but it was genuinely a beautiful sight to be looking up, in complete darkness, at all those glowworms, twinkling above us like a starry sky. Sadly no photos were allowed, but I have borrowed a photo from their advertising to show you how lovely it is.

Ruakari Cave, Waitomo
Our other visit from Hamilton was to the tiny town of Otorohanga, or more specifically, to its Kiwi House. These birds are so much a part of this country that New Zealanders refer to themselves as Kiwis, but in fact they are under threat. Kiwis are flightless and relatively defenceless, for the simple reason that before man came here, they had no natural predators. With man came dogs, cats, ferrets and stoats, that decided kiwi was an easily caught and tasty meal. With only 70,000 kiwis left in the wild, and all species ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered, measures have had to be taken to protect them and as here, run breeding programmes.

Ruakari Cave, Waitomo
There are five main species, the North Island has just the one kind, the Brown Kiwi, while the Great Spotted, Little Spotted, Rowi and Tokoeka are all from the south. They belong to the Ratite family, which includes ostriches and emissions and they lay by far the largest egg of any bird in ratio to its own size. Kiwis have very poor eyesight, but their sense of smell is excellent, and despite looking pretty spindly, their powerful legs make up a third of its weight.
Ruakari Cave, Waitomo

You can't visit the breeding centre, but there are four kiwis that are kept separately in a nocturnal house. We were there at feeding time, but even then only one of the four emerged. Atu is a female Great Spotted Kiwi. We hadn't realised that they were such a bundle of fluff; we had thought of them as being feathery, but in fact they are covered in more of a fluffy down. They really look quite cute, but again no photos allowed sadly.

We were told that kiwi can be quite territorial, and Atu showed us just how true that is. When her keeper went in to plant food in her enclosure, Atu attacked her vigorously. The keeper was wearing long heavy boots, which protected her, but her thick waterproof trousers were ripped to shreds below the knees, where Atu would peck and pull at them with her beak. Atu would also hold on to the keeper's trousers with her beak and use that to support her while she used those powerful legs to kick her. She kept this up the entire time the keeper was in her enclosure.

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