The joys of Waitomo will begin to appear before you when you stop just out of the township at Waitomo Orchard and Gifts.
There you will be treated to a bit of Waikato hospitality at the family business that sells everything from novelty t-shirts to organic fruit, but most notably: ice cream by the plentiful scoop. In summer the staff roll more than 300 ice creams a day from this unassuming shop on the side of the road.
I spoke to the shop’s owners Trev and Michelle van Straalen when I visited the area to write about it in 2013 and Trev, a middle-aged father of five, had said he would stay right where he was if he won the Lotto. Maybe, he said, he would spend a few dollars on getting some automatic doors for the shop. That’s the kind of spirit you encounter when tripping through this area. Hard-working Kiwis, humble and happy with their lot. And why would you want to live anywhere else, even with your pockets full from a Lotto win?
The golden land stretches out seemingly forever and the place sparkles in sunshine many days of the year with ripe green grass as your view. It’s terrific.
Te Kuiti, known locally as Meadsville because of famous rugby player and long-time resident Colin Meads, holds the seat of Waitomo with a population of around 4500. Everyone in town has their own treasured Meads story and they proudly tell you the rugby great is often spotted in town, where Meads himself says he happily waves out when he hears his name called. He has always had his name in the phone book. If you don’t catch a glimpse of him, there are pictures on display in the main street that any TK resident will gladly point out to you.
The other title the town has proudly adopted is 'the sheep shearing capital of the world'. A great sheep shearing statue stands in the middle of Te Kuiti township that’s well worth a look and every year the town hosts a muster where 2000 sheep charge down the main street.
There is strong history in this part of the country. The second Maori king, Tawhiao, lived in exile in Te Kuiti after Waikato tribal lands were confiscated by the government in the land wars of the 1860s. For more recent history, there’s a lovely heritage railway house on Rora Street that has been converted into a museum where volunteers tell great stories about how they came to live in this part of the country and they know a whole lot about the history of the town. It’s not hard to strike up a conversation with people here. Try Bosco Café on your way into town for a decent cup of Atomic coffee and menu or cabinet food and you’ll certainly be served by friendly staff.
About 19 kilometres north-west of Te Kuiti, the small settlement of Waitomo is a village visited by throngs of tourists all year round. They arrive in droves to visit the many caves in the area and those who dare take part in activities down below like black water rafting, which is said to be a world class expedition.
Translated loosely as the 'stream that flows into the hole in the ground', Waitomo is a place you could arrive at age 12, or as an oldie and certainly find something wondrous in your visit, like the glow worms that are as frequent as stars on a clear night and the stalactites that hang from the ceiling and stalagmites growing upwards on ground level and layers of rock that have formed over centuries thanks to dripping water. It’s likely you will wander through with your jaw dropped and in complete awe of the place.
There is plenty to see in Waitomo even if you don’t visit the caves. The museum is interesting and worth a look, the Waitomo General Store has an excellent range of goods, the Waitomo Caves Hotel is worth stopping by for a stay, or just a moment of nostalgia, and if you’re after a memorable dining experience, try HUHU Café, it has a great lunch and dinner menu and does good coffee.
Not far up the road from the Waitomo village is the small town of Otorohanga, population 2,700. Placed in a bend of Waipa in the upper basin of that river, Otorohanga is a rural service town most famous for its Kiwi House and Native Bird Park. The town has proudly named itself Kiwiana Town as a nod to this popular facility. Here, you are more likely than anywhere to spot a Kiwi and a range of other New Zealand birds and reptiles, including the tuatara. Try the popular restaurant The Thirsty Weta, open every day from 10am. The restaurant has a full gluten free menu alongside the regular one.