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Waikato and Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
"manicured farmlands and an inner-world Milky Way. And Hobbit holes."
The Waikato region is one of the richest farming areas in the country. Dairy cows, racing studs and grazing sheep mingle with corn fields and even vineyards in one of the locomotives of NZ primary industry.
Undoubtedly the tourist highlight is the Waitomo Caves, and especially the Glow-worm Grotto where millions of tiny lights create an inner-world Milky Way.
At Ngaruawahia, about 20km north of Hamilton on SH1, turn a few metres off the main road to Turangawaewae marae, the only royal residence in NZ - the home of the Maori King, Tuheitia Paki, who assumed the kingship recently on the death of his widely revered mother, te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu. Entry to the marae itself is prohibited but you can peer over the fence.
Hamilton is one of those places without much attraction to the international visitor but if you have an hour or two to kill then worth a look is the National Agricultural Heritage exhibition. Agriculture is one of the premier driving engines of the New Zealand economy and this is an insight into its history.
Hamilton Zoo, which is, let's be brutally francis here, just yer average mass-production provincial zoo, but it does have something quite unique: The largest free-flight aviary in the Southern Hemisphere. It's an attempt to recreate a fern forest valley 500 years before mankind set foot on the soil here with 10 species of endangered native birds in residence.
If you're into gardens, the Hamilton Gardens are evolving as one of the city's hidden treasures. A series of themed gardens - Japanese, Chinese, Modernist, English etc - tell the story of gardening.
A very "English " village - well, what an English village would have looked like if it were built a hundred or so years ago in the middle of New Zealand.
I guess it's the trees that give it that look plus the fact that the old buildings in the town were never upgraded with a bulldozer.
If you are into antiques the several shops along the main street are a happy fossicking ground. There are also a number of craftspeople and artisans working in the area.
The town is also famous - as is the whole of the district - for its thoroughbred racing studs. Here, many a future Melbourne Cup winner has been bred and raised, grazing on lush green pastures, building the strong-boned frames that make great stayers.
Until Peter Jackson came wandering around looking for a site for Hobbiton, this quintessentially New Zealand rural community was not even a blip on the tourist radar.
But Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have changed that - now there is a steady stream of Rings fans wanting to see "Hobbiton". Now, with filming of The Hobbit on the same site, the set has been more permanently built and looks exactly as you saw it in the movies.
Matamata aerodrome, a few km north of the township, is one of the best gliding bases in the country. After aero or cable rocket launch you can soar on the updrafts created when the prevailing westerlies get driven high by the Kaimai Ranges. You can also get parachute jumps, either tandem or solo as well as gliding.
Big attraction in this small-town slice of NZ is hot mineral water at the Te Aroha Mineral Pools Domain. "Taking the waters" was, in Edwardian times, considered so beneficial that doctors could prescribe a Health Department paid-for "cure". The bathhouse has now been restored to its original condition. It's the only natural hot soda mineral geyser in the world.
Along the road between Matamata and Te Aroha, on the eastern side, is the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park. There are a couple of excellent walking tracks in the area.
If you really are here for the long slow look then take a day or two (great place to decompress after the madness of just getting here) at Raglan, out on the west coast. Little snippet of bygone New Zealand snuggled away from Looneyville Central where the rest of us live. On the way there an easy 10minute walk gets you to Bridal Veil Falls, a 55m cascade set in a native bush reserve.
If you are a surfer then you'll not need to be told about the Raglan coast - you will almost certainly have heard of the world class surfing at Manu Bay's left hand break.
On your way to Waitomo you'll probably pass through Otorohanga. The Otorohanga Kiwi House is worth a look if you have spare time - or spare kids. Apart from kiwis (feathered variety) and tuatara lizards, it has a large walk through aviary populated with all manner of native birds.
The caves here are world famous but they're not the only reason to visit the Waitomo region. This is a vast block of limestone country, bored, tunnelled and shaped by aeons of water whether single drops or torrents. There is thus not just "The" Waitomo Cave, but many such. You can raft through them, abseil down into them or just punt along gawping at the Milky Way within the earth.
Pride of place goes of course to The Waitomo Caves - a complex of caves that has become famous over the years. The most popular is the Glow-worm Grotto where thousands of tiny phosphors light up the black dome of the cave roof above you as you drift silently along the underground river in a boat. Tours leave every half hour from 9am to 5pm.
Glow-worms are, of course not confined to the Waitomo Glow-worm Grotto, nor even to the Waitomo region. There are plenty of them in caves and holes from one end of the country to the other.
A New Zealand Travel Guide is written by David Morris and published by
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12 March 2012