Waitomo: Trek across King Country

By Anna Jones

Waitomo is world famous for its subterranean wonders but, as Anna Jones writes, there are plenty of treasures above ground too.

Horse trekking through the area. Photo / Supplied
Horse trekking through the area. Photo / Supplied

My visit to Waitomo prompted the usual question: "So you're off to see the caves and glow worms then?"

Well, no actually. I'm planning a weekend without a stalactite in sight, not even a glimpse of a glow worm and not a moment of darkness until the sun goes down. You see, when it comes to this pretty part of the Waikato a lot of visitors are, quite literally, in the dark. Often wearing a wetsuit.

I skip the black water rafting in search of something different and much drier, heading 4km out of Waitomo Caves village to Altura Park. It's an idyllic spot where magnificent gardens lead into a wildlife park packed with all kinds of creatures, from the exotic to the everyday. An ostrich shares a field with goats, llamas are next door to some emu, miniature horses graze alongside sheep, and Hamish the Highland steer shares his paddock with a ram called Sam. There are donkeys, deer, pigs, parrots, a talking cockatoo and horses.

The wildlife park is part of a 275ha dry stock farm, and tailored horse treks open up some of the best views Waitomo has to offer.

Trek guide and park manager Katie Bryan caters for experienced riders as well as beginners like me, and quickly assures me that my horse, Emma, is "very quiet and happy to plod along".

Plodding is perfect - what better way to soak up the lush valleys and rolling hills of the King Country?

The views are spectacular and our hour-long trek reveals limestone rocks, babbling streams and miles of green fields dotted with cattle. We pause on top of a hill, take a deep breath of mountain air and watch fluffy clouds scudding across a blue sky.

I wouldn't go underground now if you paid me.

It's a far cry from Katie's last job as a restaurant manager in Hamilton. The 26-year-old, who grew up on a dairy farm in Cambridge, swapped city life to manage the gardens and wildlife park when her family took over the farm in 2009. She hasn't looked back since.

"It's a great place to live and I'm doing something I'm really passionate about," she says.

"A lot of our visitors are surprised at how much there is to do in Waitomo."

By the time we loop back to the paddocks, I'm ready to eat. Waitomo offers something for every taste and budget, from pub grub to pizza. Tonight, however, I'm treating myself to a spot of fine dining at the award-winning Huhu Cafe and Restaurant.

Owner and head chef Andy Rawles has developed a mouth-watering menu with a distinct New Zealand flavour. Ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible, wines are carefully matched to each course and the menu, which changes daily, features a handful of simple dishes cooked to perfection. I start with the sublime goat's cheese souffle served with warm honeyed pears and walnuts before moving on to the main event - slow-cooked duck with kumara mash, mandarin puree and deliciously crunchy garlic broccolini. I need a breather before dessert and, thanks to the relaxed atmosphere, I'm content to sit back with a glass of Marlborough pinot noir and admire the work of local artists adorning the walls. I eventually plump for the lemon tart with raspberry coulis and cream and I'm not disappointed.

After my dinner I waddle back to Altura Park and my bed for the night. Their new self-catering unit opened last year and sleeps up to four, with a queen-sized bed and two single bunks. It's an attractive mix of the rustic and contemporary with a heavy stable door opening into a bright and airy room, with pretty views overlooking the garden. The best thing by far is the peace and quiet, and I get a fantastic night's sleep.

And just to make sure every guest has an authentic farmyard experience, Chuck Chuck the rooster is in charge of your wake-up call.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Where to stay: Altura Park, 477 Fullerton Rd, Waitomo, ph (07) 878 5278 or 027 200 0091, www.alturapark.co.nz. $130 per couple per night, $20 each extra person. Guests have free entry to the gardens and wildlife park.

What to do: Altura Wildlife Park and Gardens: open 9am-5pm seven days a week. Adults $12, children $5.

Horse trekking: Altura Park's 30-minute Mountain View trek costs $50 per person, a one-hour Farm Trek is $65pp and a one-and-a-half hour Awesome Scenery trek costs $80pp. A 45-minute led trek for children aged 8 and over costs $60pp.

Where to eat: Huhu Cafe and Restaurant, 10 Waitomo Caves Rd, Waitomo Village, ph (07) 878 6674, open Tues-Sat 11.30am-8.30pm, Sun 9am-8.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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