Waitomo: Plane sailing over and under the ground

By Pamela Wade

Flights of fancy are on offer at Waitomo's Woodlyn Park, finds Pamela Wade.

A Bristol Freighter is one of the more unusual places to lay your head on a visit to Waitomo. Photo / Pamela Wade
A Bristol Freighter is one of the more unusual places to lay your head on a visit to Waitomo. Photo / Pamela Wade

The propellers gleamed silver in the light of the full moon, what the chaps in 75 Squadron called a bomber's moon. Hands tight on the joystick, I peered at the instruments. The artificial horizon showed that the old crate was dead level, but the altimeter was shot.

From the navigator's seat came the terse report that the starboard tyre was flat: when NZ5906 came in for its next landing, it would be a bumpy one. A glance through the cracked glass down at the port engine showed something even more worrying: sparrows were nesting in the cowling.

Perhaps fortunately, the only airborne adventures at Woodlyn Park are the flights of fancy that result from settling into a Bristol Freighter for the night. Voted by Lonely Planet one of the world's top-10 unusual motels, this tourist park is set in a green valley just outside Waitomo village.

It offers accommodation in a 1950s rail car, two spacious hobbit houses or - our choice - one of the last Allied aircraft out of Vietnam and the last RNZAF plane to be damaged by hostile enemy fire, over Borneo in 1965.

Appealingly squat and still in its jungle camouflage colours, the BF170 looks on the outside much as it did in its prime, but inside, the cargo-hold has been converted into two units that while necessarily compact (boaties will feel right at home) are comfortable and well-equipped.

We slept sedately in a double bed tucked into the blunt nose: more adventurous types could forgo the headroom and choose instead the bed slotted into the cockpit, with a view between the pilot's and navigator's seats of the massed dials, switches and handles on the instrument panel.

The visitors' book records the imaginary flight logs of delighted kids, big and small, fond reminiscences of former pilots, and gleefully repeated jokes about in-flight entertainment and the Mile High Club (Biggles' Flies Undone, maybe?). But outside the aeroplane plenty of fun could be had with your feet on the ground.

Just up the hill from the hobbit houses and overlooking the ex-World War II patrol boat (the Waitanic) that park owner Barry Woods is converting into a further five motel units, is the rustic barn where he performs his Kiwi Culture Show.

This funny and enthusiastic one-man celebration of farming history involves saws, axes, an exploding log, a disappearing act, a 100-year-old hand-cranked shearing machine, audience participation and a cast of farm animals, including Don Rash the dancing kunekune pig, a Friesian steer called Mac, a Kiwi bear, and a huntaway dog.

There are plenty of jokes, verbal and visual, anecdotes from Barry's time as a record-breaking travelling shearer (the one about the squirrel and the nail-gun is funnier, and less gruesome, than you might expect) and sincere admiration for the ingenuity and toughness of the men who broke in the bush.

Shearing of a different sort was just down the road in the red-painted shearing shed, where a huge squashy cushion of languid angora fluff was reduced in a few minutes to a slimline, corduroy-ribbed rottweiler rabbit.

It's the most extraordinary sight: elastic cords are looped round the animal's paws and it is stretched out on a kind of revolving rack while the fine white fur is shorn with a regular sheep hand-piece.

Bred in Germany for their coats, these angora rabbits would die of overheating if left unshorn, and submit willingly to the process four times a year.

Waitomo's better-known attractions are still going strong - the glow-worm caves pull in 2500 people a day in summer - but there are other underground experiences to try.

Opened two years ago, Ruakuri cave provides perhaps the most civilised and accessible way to explore the area's remarkable subterranean world. A long and low-lit spiral route leads down to the tunnel, where a smooth path winds through a series of caverns and crosses over the underground stream on artfully suspended metal walkways.

There are glow-worms, all kinds of striking limestone formations in a range of colours, the echoing sound of rushing water and, elsewhere, an eerie silence broken only by slow drips.

One thing I was glad not to hear was what our guide called the horrible sound of an earthquake rumbling through: according to her, an underground cave is meant to be a safe place to stand.

Looking up at the many stalactites dangling above our heads, it was a theory I preferred not to test.

For a more hands-on caving experience, St Benedicts caverns can't be beaten. Togged up in boiler suit, orange helmet and standard-issue freezing works white gumboots, I dropped spider-like into the darkness.

Two abseils found me alone 50m under the earth, uneasily remembering that it was April Fool's Day. But my guide Rob soon joined me and led the way scrambling over rockfalls and through narrow tunnels.

We stopped for a drink and a chocolate fish at the point where John Hobson, who explored the system in 1962, had had to retreat because his gas lamp was giving out.

Rob then switched on his powerful spotlight and showed me what Hobson just missed on that first trip: an Aladdin's cave of every sort, size and colour of formation, from massive orange columns and waxy flowstones to impossibly long and delicate straws seemingly made out of ice.

It was astonishingly beautiful after the bare and rocky tunnels we had come through, and even after multiple visits Rob was still finding new formations to marvel at.

More breathtaking still was the 35m flying fox through the cavern which, in an act of faith, I did in total darkness, whizzing past invisible stalagmites left and right.

Sitting later under the broad wing of the Bristol Freighter, I watched the setting sun glinting off the round windows of the hobbit houses, where a white donkey and two black pigs were grazing on the roof, and decided there is more than one kind of hidden treasure in Waitomo.

CHECKLIST

Accommodation: Woodlyn Park is at 1177 Waitomo Valley Rd, just out of the village, (07) 878 6666.

Things to do: The Kiwi Culture Show is at 1.30pm every day at Woodlyn Park.

A rabbit is shorn daily at 12.45pm at the Shearing Shed nearby (free entry).

Ruakuri Caves run four tours daily ($49 adults, $16 children) ph 0800 782 5874.

St Benedicts Caverns tours leave daily from Waitomo Luminosa ph 0800 924 866.

The Museum of Caves is open daily.

Where to eat: Pub grub at the Waitomo Tavern, huge pizzas at the Morepork Cafe, paninis and more at the Long Black Cafe.

Further information: See waitomoinfo.co.nz or call 0800 474 839.

Pamela Wade was a guest at Woodlyn Park and in the caves.

- NZ Herald

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