The Raglan trip had been on our calendars for weeks, so it was with great excitement that we all piled into the bus with our trusty driver Takashe at 1pm outside the student apartments. Spirits were high as everyone chatted about their first couple of weeks on the ground at the University of Auckland, John ummed and ahhed about whether he wanted to bring his surf board, and vigorous debate unfolded about whether Weta’s are in fact poisonous (they’re not) and whether Waitomo caves would be crawling with them (they were).
Eager to beat the traffic, we hit the road and rolled into our backpacker hostel at about 4pm, located no more than 400m from the entrance to the famous Waitomo Caves. Although we were situated next to one of New Zealand’s iconic geological wonders, the roads were sleepy and farmland and bush rolled into the distance as far as the eye could see. The lodge was absolutely adorable; the lounge doubled as reception and our fellow guests in the yard outside included two goats, a mischievous pig and some gorgeous Labradors. That night, we commenced a team working bee as we prepared a good old kiwi burger feast. Emma and Sarah commanded the BBQ with effortless finesse while the team inside grooved around chopping tomatoes, lettuce and beetroot (controversial), listening to music from a Dunedin band they’d discovered at a gig last weekend. Beetroot or no beetroot, it was the best burger I’d tasted in a long time.
The next morning the crew was up and at ‘em at the crack of dawn. Armed with their packed bags over one shoulder and a piece of toast in hand, the first group hurried down the road to the Waitomo Caves. The Waitomo Caves are an extensive network of caverns that have been forged from icy underground rivers over the past million years. As we bustled into the foyer of the Blackwater Rafting Company, we were greeted by a bunch of bantering caving guides. They threw us into already saturated wetsuits, desperately implored us not to pee in them, and then we were off, bumping and shaking down the road in a mini-van. Our guides were hilarious and also tough as nails – one of them, a girl no older than us who went by the name “Little G”, didn’t even have a jacket on as she lead us into the caves and dunked herself into the freezing underground river.
Armed with a rubber floaty tube each, we dutifully filed in after her and what ensued was an hour of some of the most magical scenes I’ve experienced in New Zealand. We felt our way along, the eerie caves lit up by our head torches. Excitement and nerves had my stomach tied in knots. We got to the first and second waterfalls and one by one turned and half jumped/were flung by Little G off the ledges, crashing into the icy river below. The water was an initial shock to the system, but then suddenly we were floating peacefully under a canopy of glow worms, their little blue bodies twinkling like stars. Our voices echoed and bounced back at us off the stalactites and stalagmites as we gazed in awe at the natural planetarium of bugs above our heads. It was worth the dunking. I whistled as we floated around a corner and Little G froze next to me on her rubber tire. “Was that you?” she whispered. I laughed and assured her it was. I thought she was putting it on until she breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to run me through the extensive catalogue of “ghost encounters” the guides had experienced down in the caves while adventuring alone. The students were suddenly very grateful for the presence of their 17 other companions.
That night we stayed at Karioi Lodge, a backpackers nestled in the bush overlooking the ocean just outside of Raglan, one of New Zealand’s famous surf towns. The bush was filled with bird songs and Karioi was buzzing with travelers from abroad, chattering away in their native languages as they played pool and prepared dinner. As night fell and we sat around the outdoor table talking and eating pesto pasta, we were once again greeted by our glow worm friends twinkling along the moss and rocks down the driveway. The whole world felt very far away that evening.
Fast forward 12 hours and the crew was assembled on Raglan’s main surf beach with boards in hand, assessing the ocean. The waves were perfect for learning, the sun was out, and the whole group took to surfing like ducks to water. Although almost everyone was learning for the first time, I watched in amazement as student after student popped up onto their feet, sliding down the waves beaming from ear to ear. Our surf instructors waded through the ocean with us, stopping every now and then to yell “PADDLE!!” at a flailing Arcadian and giving us the odd push as each wave rushed up. Surely it’s only a matter of time until the Auckland students are shredding up a storm at Piha!
Salty, sun kissed and tuckered out, we spent a cruisy hour lunching and sampling Raglan’s very own coffee roast in the main township. Then, at last, it was time to board the bus for the final journey back to Auckland. The majority of the group nodded off to sleep as we drove homebound through the countryside, many of them content in the knowledge that they will certainly be back to this beautiful part of New Zealand.