The spectacular Ruakuri Cave in Waitomo. © Hamilton Waikato

Waitomo: caves, waterfalls... and sheep

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The joys of Waitomo will begin to appear when you stop just out of the township. 

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.  

Mighty Mt Ruapehu seen from Waitomo. 📷 @shaun_jeffers #WaitomoCaves #NZmustdo

A post shared by Waitomo Glowworm Caves (@waitomoglowwormcaves) on Feb 14, 2017 at 8:21pm PST

Te Kuiti is known locally as Meadsville – the home of famous rugby player and long-time resident, the late Colin Meads. Everyone in town has their own treasured Meads story and they proudly tell you the rugby great was often spotted in town. 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 2,000 sheep charge down the main street.

There is strong history in this part of the country. The second Māori king, Tāwhiao Tūkaroto Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, 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. 

About 19 kilometres north-west of Te Kuiti, the small but famous settlement of Waitomo where visitors arrive in droves to experience the many caves. 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 glowworms 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 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 Ōtorohanga, population 2,700. Placed in a bend of Waipā in the upper basin of that river, Ōtorohanga 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 which has a full gluten-free menu alongside the regular one.

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