29-31 January 2020 – Glow worms, ostriches and the New Zeland wrap up!

29 January

It was the final few days of our New Zealand adventure, but we still had plenty of fun before heading back to hot and smokey Canberra. After a fabulous few days in Taupo, Miss Zinnia decided to have us up early, she probably overheard us mentioning the afternoon of glow worms!

After breakfast in our Airbnb and almost our last round of tidying and car repacking we were in the car, bidding farewell to Taupo and heading for Waitomo. After a fabulous run of weather, our luck was about to run out, with some intermittent showers as we drove through the countryside. We still had plenty of rolling hills, green grass and farm animals to keep us amused, with the landscape very much like the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

A few storm clouds and showers made for some scenic driving, but given we had the morning in the car, with no stops planned, we weren’t too fussed. The big kids were happy to have a quiet morning, although talked non-stop as usual! The anticipation of glow worms was high. Miss Zinnia just resisted sleep as long as possible and made the drive feel long!

We reached the small town of Te Kuiti before 11am for a quick bathroom break and a supermarket trip to pick up supplies for our last few days. It was well and truly raining, so without any exploring we were back in the car for the 10km down the road to Waitomo. As we had been quite efficient with our mornings driving it wasn’t even 11.30am but we needed an early lunch before the afternoon’s activities.

We selected a cafe for lunch, and for once the kids were not complaining of being hungry…. but food was consumed. The lunch was rather uninspiring but none of the local cafes had rated well, so our choices had been limited. As always Zinnia was happy to graze from everyone’s plates and with lunch done the kids spied the park across the road.

Zinnia is now a firm fan of swings so we easily filled in the time before our glow worm tour with a park visit, having to drag the kids away under protest.

Waitomo is world famous for it’s glow worms. Both Anto and I had been on tours of the glow worm caves, many, many years earlier, well before we knew each other. I last visited Waitomo in 1999 and had enjoyed the glow worm caves and particularly the black water rafting through the caves. Lets just say the experiences has gotten way more touristy since I was last here. The glow worms were the same but not much else was!

There were now several companies offering all manner of glow worm tours. We had decided to book 2 different experiences for the afternoon. It turns out we were very glad we did. First was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves 1 hour tour. This was essentially the same as one of the tours I did 20 years earlier, and I remembered enjoying the short boat ride through the caves with the glowworms twinkling overhead.

Since the late 90’s the facilities had undergone a significant upgrade. No more mud paths, there were shiny buildings, stairs, railings and a much more up market experience. Probably a little too much so as as there were bus loads of tourists flowing through and it was one of those tours where you were herded like sheep in a big group.

We’d booked a 1pm tour, and us and about 50 of our new best friends were shuffled off into the caves in a slow moving blob (yes, this was before social distancing). No photos were allowed on this tour and unlike other tour participants we respected this and kept the camera gear in the car. Our guide was interesting, although we were very much getting the standard spiel that every group 20m in front and behind was also getting. Nonetheless the kids were interested to hear about stalactites and stalagmites; glowworm feeding lines and glow worm ‘maggots’. There were also some lovely cathedral and rock formations.

The down side was lots of stairs and waiting around for groups to move (shuffle) along and a lot of other group members pushing and shoving to get into the next area. We had Zinnia in the ergo but she got rather bored of being shuffled around in the dark and started voicing her objections, meaning our guide allowed us to give her a snack against the usual no eating policy. That did seem to keep her quiet and we finally made it to the boat.

After waiting around in the dark for a long time and having a lot of people push in front of us to get their turn on the boats earlier, rather infuriating when you all are going to get a turn, and they’d asked for people with another tour booked (us) and small children (us again) to be allowed to go first. Once on the boat though, we did drift along with all the glowworms twinkling above us. It was indeed amazing and worth putting up with the other tedium for, even if it did only last 5 minutes!

Finally out and we high tailed it to our car, now running short of time before our next tour. We’d also booked a tour at Ruakuri Caves. At this point of the afternoon I was feeling a little unenthusiastic after the tedium of the first tour, and a now grumpy Zinnia. It turns out the experiences couldn’t have been more different so the afternoon was about to improve.

Ruakuri Caves were only a short drive down the road, and immediately it was obvious that the car park was less full of tour buses. We checked in for our tour and only had a 5 minute wait before we met our guide for the next couple of hours, Holly. Photography was allowed on the Ruakuri tour, so the camera gear did come along. As usual no flash is allowed but that wasn’t an issue.

This tour was a much smaller group and we were taken over to the entrance to the caves. The tour started with walk down the giant man-made spiral that takes you from the entrance into the caves. The Ruakuri Caves were opened in 2005, meaning none of us had visited before.

As we descended down the spiral staircase and into the caves, we were grateful for a much smaller group (approximately 20 people) and an engaging guide. Our kids were the only kids on the tour but were made feel welcome. In fact our guide Holly gave Astrid and Soren the job of pushing the light buttons on and off for each of the tunnel sections as we moved through.

Again there were plenty of stalactites and stalagmites and lovely rock formations. Sections of the caves were separated by doors and the kids also got to help with those buttons, keeping them amused, while Zinnia quickly fell asleep in the ergo.

Again we learnt about the different rock formations and the history of the area. It was easy walking through the caves on the ramps and the lighting being turned on and off in each area made it easy to move around. While the lighting wasn’t bright it was enough to see where we were going and enhance the caves.

Soon we were upon the glow worms and again learnt about their feeding lines and were able to photograph them (the glowing threads above and below that look like spider webs) and see the glowworms gently lighting up the caves as all the lights were turned out.

Even with some light you can see the blue glowing dots of the glowworms. The kids had renamed them ‘twinkle twinkle worms’ for Zinnia as she is quite a fan of the song ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’.

We wandered through several areas of the caves over the 1.5 hours and often heard the water from the river and then the voices of the blackwater rafters. When we came upon rafters we had to turn lights and phones off as the rafters went past so as not to disturb them. The kids were pretty impressed with watching them float past and were keen to give the black water rafting a go when they were old enough.

All too soon we were approaching the final tunnels and button pushes for the kids. We’d all learnt plenty and had a great time. Zinnia was extremely well behaved and happy to wave at everyone and point out her twinkle worms.

Back up the giant spiral and we bid farewell to Holly and our fellow tour participants. Astrid and Soren immediately commented on how good that tour was and how much more they enjoyed it than the first one. While the boat ride from the first one was great we were happy that we’d booked both and had a great afternoon.

The fun wasn’t over yet. It was now just after 4pm and we had a 10 minute drive to our accommodation, the Big Bird B&B. A small farm with plenty of animals for the kids to play with. They had been excited all holiday about visiting the animals, despite having our own backyard alpacas at home!

After settling into our room, I took the kids out for a quick explore while Anto got started on dinner. We were doing a tour of the farm with other guests at 6pm but were free to visit the animals whenever we liked. It wasn’t hard as there were animals at our front and back door!

The kids made friends with the dog who followed us around as we checked out the emus, ostriches and ponies. We also found a few cats to pat before I dragged them back inside for dinner.

After at least some food was consumed it was time for our tour. It had been a warm day so we were happy that the sun was now slightly lower in the sky. We met up with the other family (an American family with one child a little older than ours).

First up were the alpacas and llamas. We may have our own at home but the kids were thrilled to pat a few more. They had slightly less attitude than our Inti and Chimu though!

Next it was the ostriches. They are huge and we started out with the baby ostriches, which are still very sizable….. They were used to being patted but we figured out after awhile they didn’t like the external GPS on my camera as they kept trying to attack it. Luckily they were quite good with the kids but I wasn’t a big fan of their small brains and giant beaks!

If we thought the baby and teenage ostriches were big, then the paddock of adults were huge! The kids were shown how to walk with them. Astrid and Soren loved it!

They did seem to enjoy pats, although they weren’t a big fan of Zinnia. After I got a couple of nips on my arm due to the camera GPS, Zinnia’s feet got a couple of pecks. We eventually figured out that their small brains thought her blue shoes were the same as their blue food container. This meant keeping Zinnia’s feet at a safe distance from their big beaks.

Astrid and Soren weren’t the least bit worried and were more than happy with their new friends.

After plenty of ostrich time we found some highland cattle, taking us back to our visit to the Scottish Highlands in 2018. There were also mini cows (they are tiny), and plenty of sheep and goats.

The kids were told they could ride a couple of the cows. They thought this was a fabulous idea, and seemingly the cows didn’t mind.

Zinnia thought it was the best thing ever!!! Look at those grins….

Soren was also a bit of a mini-cow riding fan too. You can see how small they are, given Soren isn’t exactly huge!

We found plenty of animals happy for pats. A couple of the ponies were also happy for the kids to ride them. Zinnia, who was rapidly tiring was getting a little bit over the whole experience until she figured out she could ride yet another animal.

Both Astrid and Soren had last ridden a horse when in Scotland (Laddie, who was about 5 times the size) but they weren’t complaining about their pony rides tonight.

The sun was setting and the kids were all rather tired so with promises of more animals in the morning we bundled them off for showers and bed. Once they were asleep I went out for a walk around the farm to see what the animals were up to without the noisy children around. There was plenty of relaxing and munching on grass going on and the emus were definitely keeping a beady eye on me!

I saw plenty of the farm cats and kittens while I was out and a few of the kittens followed me back. They are obviously are used to wandering wherever they liked and made themselves at home in our room, giving the kids a pat as they slept!

30 January

The next morning we had breakfast in the main farm house and visits with the resident munchkin kittens. Munchkin kittens are characterised by their very short legs and are rather cute. I didn’t get any photos as they were happily playing with their mum, but the kids did get quite a few cuddles. They are very cute but a little strange looking……


After breakfast and our kitten playtime was over we went for a wander around the farm again on, this time without other guests. The kids were keen to give their pony friends a morning brush, which the ponies certainly enjoyed.

The emus also came out to say hello and were happy to follow us around. We did convince the kids that they probably didn’t want a brush!

On the other hand the donkeys and cows were quite willing to be groomed by Astrid and Soren. Zinnia was also keen on giving them pats from the ergo.

We of course had to wander down and visit all the ostriches again. They had not managed to get any less huge overnight and were happy for attention, although a little annoyed we hadn’t bought them treats……

The kids were again happy to pat the ostriches and go for walks up and down the paddock with them. Zinnia was a little safer from their attraction to her shoes from Anto’s back, but they still had to check whether her feet were actually food.

We then had to make sure the other animals didn’t feel left out, with more visits and pats to the highland cows and the llamas and alpacas. With our own alpacas we know which spot they like scratched on their backs, and they weren’t complaining when we gave it a try!

The kids would have played with the animals all day…….. but we did a final goodbye to the ostriches, and the pigs, and the kids played with the kittens and dogs while we did a final pack of the car.

We finally extracted the kids about 10am for our journey back to Auckland. The kids had voted for staying another day at the farm, but unfortunately our flights were later that afternoon.

We had planned a stop for a hike mid-way back to Auckland. As we were driving towards Hamilton it started raining on and off and the storm clouds in the distance were not inspiring us with confidence for our planned outdoor adventure. With a tired Astrid and Zinnia in the car who had both been napping most of the morning, we decided to give the weather a little more time to make up it’s mind and stopped in Taupiri, at a cafe, for lunch, before making a decision on hiking.

It cleared a little while we were eating lunch so we drove the 10 minutes back to where our hike was to start. All got out of the car, applied sunscreen, and the heavens opened. Given we were going to be walking through rainforest, it didn’t bode well so we bundled back in the car and resigned ourselves to another hour and a half in the car through to Auckland airport. The run around and leg stretch would have done us all good as all 3 kids were a bit feral and restless in the car for remaining drive. We’d been pretty lucky with the weather on this trip but alas it wasn’t to be for our final day.

Our altered plans meant arriving at Auckland airport and reaching our car hire drop off by 2.30pm, way ahead of schedule. It did take an inordinate amount of time to get all our bits and pieces out of the car and find all the ‘lost’ clothing, toys and sunglasses. Nonetheless, even after a lengthy check in and immigration experience we still reached the airport lounge with several hours to kill…..

Zinnia made the most of the time eating her body weight in food, and Astrid and Soren hung out in the kids area watching movies and napping on the bean bags, while liberating the lounge of dessert items. We were all wishing we’d had that time out hiking and running around.

Finally it was time to board our flight. We were leaving Auckland at 6pm local, bound for Brisbane. A tired Zinnia was a little over the whole day, the memory of animal pats feeling like an eternity ago. The older kids at least slept an hour at the end of the flight, Zinnia less than that!

With New Zealand to Brisbane being a short international flight by our standards, it went past pretty quickly but it was 9.30pm New Zealand time when we landed in Brisbane. By the time we retrieved bags, the car seats, and went through immigration and declared our boots for washing at quarantine, it was even later.

Despite having a connecting flight with the same airline (Virgin) very early the next morning, our luggage couldn’t be checked in yet….. so we had to haul it (and the giant pile of car seats) over to the domestic terminal. It always seems like when you get to the last part of the trip everything starts taking forever and going wrong. Now with a giant pile of luggage and 3 exhausted kids we couldn’t find any Aussie coins for the luggage trolleys and they weren’t taking credit cards. This made for an interesting transit with the adults wheeling multiple suitcases stacked with seats and dragging tired kids, on the short but arduous journey, via the airport transfer bus, multiple car parks and lifts over to the airport hotel.

We finally get to the hotel that we’d booked several weeks prior, with kids that are ready to drop, and they can’t find our booking. Luckily we had an email confirmation so the staff set about trying to find us rooms, but getting interconnecting rooms and a baby cot at that time of night seemed to be nigh on impossible. We did eventually get there and the kids collapsed into some kind of hotel bed by 11pm on their body clock time.

Of course Anto and I were now wide awake and regretting not eating that fourth plate of food back in the Auckland airport lounge, while amusing ourselves watching planes take off from our hotel window. What day was it now anyway? Who knows, it was that point of the trip where you just want to get home…….

31 January

Zinnia, being a typical 14 month old, wasn’t letting her body clock be defeated by time zone changes, and was awake at 4am Brisbane time as it would have been 7am in New Zealand.

In parenting 101, after she’d had a bottle, she was dressed and strapped into the ergo with Anto to ‘help’ take the bags over to the domestic terminal while the other kids had a little more sleep. The little was a very little as we still all ended up dressed and over at the airport at 5.30am.

Not to worry, we were soon up in the Virgin domestic lounge, ready for food and coffee and run into our friends the Batterhams on their way back from the US. They looked about how we felt jet lag wise but the time passed quickly as we chatted about our respective holidays and had enough coffee, croissants and pancakes to get us through the morning.

Astrid and Catherine are classmates and had a wonderful impromptu play date. It turns out with similar levels of status credits we were also seated in adjacent rows so the play date continued on the plane as we were all together. It also happened to be Astrid’s 100th flight. A pretty fair effort for 8.5 years old! She is rather lucky she reached that milestone then as it was only a matter of weeks before Covid hit and with travel bans in place and she hasn’t been on a plane since!

An exhausted Zinnia was pretty good on the flight back to Canberra and slept most of the way.

We were back in Canberra by 11.30am, happy to be home but again greeted by scorching Summer temperatures and a city covered in bush fire smoke. We had been so pleased to land to blue skies and not the choking hazardous haze of earlier in the month…… but it didn’t take long to see the smoke from the surrounding out-of-control blazes billowing over the city. Back in January we thought the Summer of extreme temperatures, choking smoke, dust and hail storms and never-ending bush fires was our low point of the year done and dusted. We’d been very glad to have 2.5 weeks in New Zealand in mostly amazing weather and pleasant temperatures (and with breathable air) to break up what felt like a long Summer. Little did we know what the rest of 2020 still had in store for us!

While that brings us to the end of the New Zealand tale, here are the daily statistics for the last few days of the trip and a bit of trip wrap-up. All the New Zealand posts are here, with all the photos and fun from our January adventure.

Daily statistics – 29 – 31 January 2020

29 January – we started out the morning in Taupo with a pleasant 16 degrees but had some on and off rain on our drive to Waitomo, where the temperature reached a lovely 22 degrees.

Our total walking for the day was 6.8km (mostly in glow worm caves!). We did do a reasonable amount of driving – around 170km and 2.5 hours in the car as we travelled from Taupo to Waitomo

30 January – we started our morning in Waitomo at a warm 19 degrees, before a rainy drive to Auckland where it was a warmer (and not raining) 26 degrees. It was of course humid and a even warmer again 28 degrees by the time we made it to Brisbane that night!

Our total walking for the day was 6.2km, most of it dragging luggage around airports! Our driving for the day was around 180km and 2.5 hours as we made it back to Auckland for our flights back to Australia.

31 January – It was already 25 degrees by the time Zinnia had us up at 4am and got to a very warm 30 before we even departed Brisbane (yep, back in Aus!!). That was nothing compared to the 36 degrees when we landed in Canberra, peaking at 41 degrees later that afternoon. We missed New Zealand Summer already…….. Our total walking for our final day of the trip was 7.2km.

New Zealand trip wrap – up

Number of flights: 4

Total kilometres driven: approximately 1030km between cities and towns plus some incidental driving.

Total kilometres ridden: 140km (over 4 days) on the Hauraki Rail Trail. Astrid rode the whole thing solo at 8 years old!

Total kilometres walked: 156km – lots of walking for little legs!

Highlights and memories

So many! In some ways it was a more sedate trip than many of our European jaunts which involve multiple countries and many, many cities over several weeks. This time it was just New Zealand and just the North Island at that.

It was again great to do a cycling tour, having cycle toured in the Netherlands, France and Italy in 2017 with the kids, this was the first solo riding for the older kids. We hope to do more cycling tours in years to come and explore more of New Zealand’s great rail trails. This was our first cycle tour with Zinnia on board, and despite being a wee 14 months she had a wonderful time and spent many hours a day happily in the trailer, eating, drinking and enjoying our stops.

We were all pretty proud of finishing the 140km with 3 kids. Lots of fun and lots of great scenery.

Anto and I had both been to New Zealand before (separately and many years ago) and we had lots of areas we were keen to revisit, and areas we had not yet explored. We toyed with the idea of doing some time in both the North and South Islands but ultimately decided to reduce our driving and flights and spend more time in one area. Sticking to only part of the North Island achieved this, although as always, there wasn’t quite enough time in some places and we had plenty of additional places we would have liked to visit.

The weather was close to perfect in the North Island in January (more pleasant than a hot Aussie Summer) and we made the most of it for walking, swimming and exploring……

I particularly enjoyed the Coromandel region. Neither of us had been to this area before and we could have spent much more time here, and there were plenty of hikes and beaches we didn’t get through. We made the best of the New Zealand Summer enjoying this region, and oh that scenery!

Soren’s highlights

Soren’s favourite memory was sailing on Sail fearless (who can beat pizza and ducks, sailing in the sunshine).

Soren loved starting and taking his bike on the train from Waihi to Waikino ……. and he was pretty proud of his riding too – over 50km solo and he peddled non-stop being towed.

He was particularly fond of those giant New Zealand icecreams. He also loved the animals at the Waitomo B&B and the glow worms.

The beautiful beaches also got a mention. The water is never too cold for the kids.

Soren was also a fan of all the mud pits – boys and mud!

Astrid’s highlights

Astrid loved Hahei, she could have stayed there forever. She adored the Hot Water Beach and the resort we stayed in at Hahei.

She was extremely proud of her cycling on the rail trail. 140km for an 8 year old is impressive and she fondly remembers those giant icecreams as she rode around.

Astrid’s other highlights were similar to Soren’s. Sailing on Lake Taupo, the mud baths at Rotorua and swimming and walks at all the beautiful beaches like Cathedral Cove.

We all agree we had a great trip and will happily return to New Zealand when travel restrictions lift and we can again leave our own state and country. Maybe next time we’ll head to the South Island, I have many fond memories of the stunning scenery that I can’t wait to experience again and my camera will get a workout.

I hope you enjoyed our New Zealand adventure……. I’m looking forward to planning more adventures when we can once again travel again.

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