For my last full day in the country Bill generously wrangled the news assignments to allow me a short work day, and Gar and I selected an itinerary that would take us down a single scenic, relatively nearby road with numerous places along it to investigate.

There’s a turnoff just west of the Waitomo glowworm cave tourist trap –er, I mean, attraction—that takes you to a small state-park-sort of place. The whole geographic area is eroded limestone (hence the glowworm caves, into which one can walk or rappel and tube, clad in headlampped helmets, wetsuits, and Wellies, a.k.a. gumboots, if one is willing to brave the claustrophobia and toothy cave eels [!!]) and our trip du jour centered around taking in the resulting eye-popping, dankly cavernous, mossy/ferny, sinuous stone-sculptured landscapes.

So first stop was on the aforementioned turnoff, the Rurakuri bushwalk to Aranui Cave. Scott Cook’s wonderful if occasionally over-punctuated NZ Frenzy guidebook sez: “You’ll be wonderfully confused which way is which as the path zigzags back and forth between tunnels, bridges, and viewpoints… following streams that seem to flow in circles.” Precisely what it was like. At one point I was so turned around I felt like I was in Santa Cruz’ Mystery Spot and asked Gar if that damn stream didn’t seem to be flowing uphill – ? I also inadvertently argued with him about trail backtracking, thinking from the first sign (which directed us onto an apparent secondary path) that there was still a primary path to be taken. He was like, “Noooo, it’s all just back to the carpark.” [insert voice of infinite patience here]  I hate to buy into the female stereotype of not being able to navigate (thus casting corollary aspersions on driving abilities, scoff) but outside of cities, in which I tend to have a pretty solid sense of direction, I need a GPS embedded in my skull for dem country areas.

On the Rurakui bushwalk

Venturing into an interesting-looking cave. I doubt I’d have the balls to do this in any other country, but with no snakes, few critters, and barely any spiders to speak of, I knew it was unlikely I’d encounter any unpleasant surprises.

The inside of said cave, just tall enough for a small person to stand in. We’d neglected to bring flashlights, so I just set the camera flash off repeatedly to try to see what was inside.

An unsuspecting passer-by was pressed into service to take a snap of us together.

Cruising along the path.

The creek alongside which the path winds.

There are a number of tunnels through which one has to duck en route – here Gar impersonates the dreaded cave llama.

Yeah, a bit hard to take pics of caves with almost no natural light. Eyes were doing a lot of frantic adjusting that day.

This is the main attraction, the Aranui cave. You descend a long gravel stair carved into the slope with 4x4s to a viewing balcony (the vantage point gets much better as your eyes adjust to the gloom). The opening here is several stories high, and the ceiling interior even taller. It was cool, damp, and hushed, except for the sounds of water and later on, some middle-aged ladies squealing with apprehension at venturing into the darkness.

Path to access the viewing platform.

Gar in front of some of the limestone, for scale.

Farther along the path.

Mossy treefulness.

Much photografying, for obvious reasons.

After completing the little walking circuit, we returned to our original route and headed out the Te Anga Road. Next point of interest was the Haggas Lookout, the view from which one is supposed to be able, on clear days, to see “all the way Tongariro” – which [seriously, I looked this up and estimated] is allegedly 70-ish miles away!

View from the Haggas lookout (on the lightly hazy, NOT clear day).

A shortish drive away (about 20 minutes) is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. This was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Besides a brief encounter with a departing (French?) couple, we had the entire fascinatingly otherworldly park to ourselves.

You make your way through a damp, densely wooded area, down a gravelly path, across one half-hearted impersonation of a tiny swing bridge, and then the limestone river canyon makes itself known, unfolding over your head and all around you.

A pressure-treated lumber walkway covered in chicken wire for mossiness traction leads you curvily under the hundred foot trees, until suddenly revealed before you is an enormous window through rock and water onto a sunny secondary universe. The view frame is a dizzyingly tall, thinly rock-topped cave. Huge trees grow from its surface towards the sun, oblivious to the tenuous floor they’re anchored to. The far side of the cave portal gives the impression of seeing into another time altogether, like you’d walk right out onto the Jurassic era, face to surprised face with a palm-munching triceratops. There was scarcely a sound beyond shutter clicks and zooming lenses.

The Mangapohue natural bridge.

Trees growing askew-ly from the roof top.

Let’s use Gar again for a sense of scale. Whoa, eh?

Pretty sure you can lip read me saying “holy shit!” here…

…and with good reason.

The other side was, in fact, disconcertingly populated not with thunder lizards, but cows. From here a somewhat randomly situated path led up through blond and green gently riffling cow pastures dotted with rocky crags back to the carpark (watch your step; the inhabitants are prolific poopers).

On the other side, looking back the way we’d come.

Please exit through the gift shop.

From the exit stair base. Can you imagine the initial discoverer just stumbling across this place one day while out hunting / checking the livestock?? Zow.


View to the left as you distance yourself from the cave area.

Gar, leading the way on the path while I took tons of pics of the cute cows….

…like so.

Vista from the Jurassic side.

Path marker to help you find your way through the cow patties.

Of course, you don’t need no stinkin’ signposts when you bring your own Kiwi guide!

Final stop: Marokopa Falls, gushing from 90 feet high (they’re much taller than they look in the pictures) over mossy boulders, kicking up rainbows in the impact mist. We took pictures in front of it – mysteriously, the overall effect was as if someone had drawn down a cheap photographic reproduction background behind us, a la old school Olan Mills. Too beautiful to be real, perhaps – ?

Marokopa Falls.

How did this fantastic place end up looking like a fake background? As in….

…this photo. (okay, minus the wagon wheel, polyester, and rugrats, but you see what I mean, right?)

From there, it was time to head back home. Last day done. Like clockwork, I plunged back in the depths of my dread-of-the-next-day doldrums. Sure, part of me would be pleased to return to my comfy little Florida nest, skritch my critters, marinate in some alone time, abandon the daily makeup and hair-wrestling-into-submission spiff-ups on behalf of the cute Kiwi boy and remembering to wear the bra with the lacy straps. And this trip had encompassed a lot of holing up in hotels and days spent working on my laptop, time spent wondering if I needed to forcibly shoo Gar out the door for an afternoon or evening to give the poor lad a break from entertaining me, temporarily suspended as he was in his normal environment, but not entirely of it.

I saw clearly, on that last day out, reveling in the freedom and space to adventure with him, that I’d not budgeted enough time to do more of that on this trip. I was originally thinking in terms of economizing my time off from work [“preserve time for the July vacation and a little eastern seaboard roadtrip with him!,” I had cheerfully admonished myself] but lamentably, I did not realize until that final day how important it is to make sure to not skimp on doing fun things, especially with this fascinating human I so enjoy the company of. Not that I hadn’t had a wonderful time, because I certainly had, but in retrospect I wish that I hadn’t been thinking ‘business’ for so much of it.

Anyway – if you’re a smart beastie, you parlay lessons learned into future choices and don’t bemoan what you cannot change. (Granted, I’m not always a smart beastie, but play along for the moment, won’t you?)

Departure day. I’ve dragged you through this routine before ad nauseam, so I won’t expound excessively again on how sad I felt, how wrenched I was at having to leave. Always there appeared a grappling hook in my guts when leaving his orbit, the outer bounds of which I wish I could remain in. I hated to relinquish the country itself, too: the sense of space and openness, the quaint, not-too-unfamiliar foreignness, the gorgeous everywhere that made me want to be outside all the time and which there was never enough time available to sufficiently explore.

Airport experience was far less frantic this time around. We had morning beverages in the international departures lobby; sat snugly together and read our Kindles; walked around outside the terminal, watching and resenting the clock. The moment when I had to trudge onward without him towards passport control and security finally came, heralded and punctuated by a gentle Eskimo kiss and a time-arresting hug that left a raw chunk of my heart firmly attached to him – bloody, pathetic, irretrievable. And off I went again, damply snuffling in the gate area and my coach seat, crying in helpless frustration and woe on liftoff, huddling for hours over my jagged emptiness and staring morosely out the icy A330 window as we flew into darkness.

Some 29 flight-ish hours and one ardently haggled, unmetered Haitian cab ride later, I was back in my real world again, cats twining furrily around my ankles, happy from the time spent with him but aching at its termination. Harder than adjusting my body clock is adjusting my mind: forcing it back into accepting and functioning in this alternate but oh-so-familiar reality. One that I’d honestly prefer to cocktail up in a different way… a few ounces of my life here mixed with liberal dashes of my life there, shaken gently, and sipped at leisure.