There and back again; visiting Waikato

It’s been a while between Dunedin and Milford Sound and my next trip away from Wellington, but that gap felt a lot longer than it actually was. Part of that was the change in alert levels here in New Zealand, and another part is realising how little I’ve seen of the country since I’ve been here so far.

This was always going to be one of the bigger trips I made, even though there were only two main things on the agenda.

A base in Hamilton

Flights between Wellington and Hamilton are around an hour long, depending on wind and such. It’s an easy journey to make – compared to some of the flights in Australia – and if you go early enough, you can enjoy almost a full day when you arrive.

The first night was spent in Cambridge, to the southeast of Hamilton, which is a lovely and scenic little place. There’s a really nice river walk or cycle path to enjoy, as well as a small museum and some great cafés. Make sure you take a look at the lake in the middle of town, too.

Hamilton itself is smaller city than Wellington and served as the base for the rest of the trip. It offered easy access to both the Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton, which was the whole point of the trip.

The usual amenities can be found; shops, restaurants, bars and such, but there’s also a great river walk here, too – and there are parks and grassy areas on both sides. Getting to the Hamilton Gardens was also on the list, made more impressive by the walk there from the CBD.

The Waitomo Caves

It took an early start (MUCH earlier than I’m used to) to reach Waitomo from Hamilton, but it was WORTH IT!

It’s important to note that there are a lot of caves around the area, and the official Waitomo Caves only leaves from the town before taking groups to their cave of choice. The same is true for any other number of companies. Very few are actually based at the cave – and they all use different ones. The network of caves means each operator will take you on a different experience, so it’s important to find the one that matches what you want.

You may find one that is more of a boat tour, where you can sit back and see the glow worms at work, or one that includes a zipline, abseiling or more. Very few include more than two of these activities at most.

Kiwi Cave Rafting, however, is a little different. Not only do you have to head out of Waitomo and towards the cave to start, but it’s going to give you a full cave experience.

Our group ready to enter the caves
Our group ready to enter the caves

All the equipment you need is given to you before a short ride to the cave entrance. The first part is to abseil down to the bottom – all 27 feet. Remember the person who doesn’t like heights? Yeah, still me, but I did it – and quickly, too.

Abseiling 27ft down into the caves
Abseiling 27ft down into the caves

Then, through some almost ice-cold water, we trekked through a dark cave, carrying rubber rings part of the way. Once deep enough, our guide introduced us to the glow worms. He pointed out other tours and caves might have more, but that could be true of any cave, and change at different times. The view was still stunning, even more so once our eyes got used to it.

Glow worms in the cave and reflecting on the water below. Note; picture provided by Kiwi Cave Rafting
Glow worms in the cave and reflecting on the water below. Note; picture provided by Kiwi Cave Rafting

Instead of wading back, we took the rings and drifted back, watching the glow worms as we passed, to return to where we started. It wasn’t time to head back up, though, and we followed the water through into a second part of the cave, also on our little rafts.

Rafting through the caves was fun!
Rafting through the caves was fun!

We climbed over rocks, through gaps and had a lot of fun before heading back again, almost numb to the cold water by this point. After a quick refuel, it was time for what I knew would be the hardest part of the day: the climb back up.

This was to a lower ledge than we came down from, so it was only a 20ft climb.

ONLY?!

I ended up going last. The first part was fairly easy, but the middle, aptly called ‘the ladder’ by our guide, proved to be the hardest. Despite not even being high, the rocks were wet and slippery. The line up was tense, but I found it hard to get over the ledge. I looked down, and that freaked me out, and I froze.

The one thing I didn’t want to do.

I almost called up that I couldn’t. That I was stuck, that I needed help.

But I didn’t. I knew I wouldn’t, but this has always been something I couldn’t get over (pun intended). I didn’t want that to be the case anymore. I gave myself a few harsh words and pushed my way up and over. I’m breathing hard by this point, panic still close to striking, but I made it to the top. As you can see, I’m very happy about it.

Triumphant in reaching the top of the 20ft wall
Triumphant in reaching the top of the 20ft wall

The whole thing took about four-hours, and we showered after to warm up – although the power had gone so the water was cold, but still warmer than the cave. The whole thing, as amazing as it was, wiped me out for the rest of the day, so I needed an early night to get ready for the next day.

Visiting the Shire and Hobbiton

This was the day.

I’ve been waiting for this day for years. Literal years.

Anyone who knows me in any capacity knows how much I love Middle Earth – but that’s a different story.

This was the day when I visited Hobbiton.

The sign for the Hobbiton Movie Set
The sign for the Hobbiton Movie Set

I almost had this day nearly two years ago, when I thought about hopping over from Australia for my 30th birthday. Then when I first arrived, I had an idea to make it the first thing I really did in New Zealand. In the end, those plans didn’t happen.

Due to Covid, the group sizes were small – only ten people were on the tour in total! Considering there are between 2-3k people daily at Hobbiton normally, this made it much easier to see, appreciate and take pictures of this part of the Shire.

You’ll see iconic settings from the movies, and notice that the Hobbit holes are different sizes, which is part of the magic of bringing Hobbiton to life. You can see in some of the pictures just how this works – as regardless of the size, they’re still fully detailed.

This is actually the Hobbiton from The Hobbit movies, as the first set wasn’t permanent. This one is, and also features a Mill (which can now operate) and the Green Dragon Inn, where you can get drinks and a bit to eat, too!

Inside the Green Dragon Inn
Inside the Green Dragon Inn

My visit to Hobbiton took place on 22nd September, which is also International Hobbit Day. Bonus points for those of you who can tell me why that’s an important date.

There’s a whole big event on the day, but that was a bit out of the budget for this year. If the chance comes up again, you can bet I’ll be back and there as Gandalf the Grey!

Setting up for International Hobbit Day
Setting up for International Hobbit Day

I mean, just look at this place and tell me you don’t want to visit!

Almost way to soon, it was back to Wellington, but I had some great inspiration and motivation to draw on – and plenty of memories!

Until next time.

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