But travel has other ways of making you feel a long, long way from home. After all, I can come into contact with Chinese culture - and many others - at home in Newcastle. But I can’t catch a bus to the nearest active volcano or have a day out at a lake of boiling mud or walk through a cave the size of Durham Cathedral to look at the glow-worms in the chancel.
The volcano box had been emphatically ticked. At Tokaanu, I added pools and springs of hissing, boiling water and small, noisy lakes of gurgling mud to the list.
I’d only diverted off the main road to find out if the village bakery had any interesting pie variations on offer. It didn’t, but I immediately forgave Tokaanu this shortcoming when I saw the panel indicating the ‘Thermal Walk’ at the end of the village lane. Stepping through the gate was entering a geographical environment completely outside my experience. Again.
Within a few minutes I was wandering - quite alone - amongst pools of blue, sulphurous boiling water. They bubbled and hissed and smelled like frying socks. They steamed and spat at me and were quite, quite beautiful. The edge of each pool was thick with crusted lime and sulphur; towards the centre, an extraordinary shade of turquoise blue took over. It was a deeply seductive colour, tempting you to risk life and limb, wade into the bubbling water and look down into the vent.
None of the photos I took at Tokaanu do it justice; the hissing, boiling water just looks like ordinary water. The pictures of the mud-pools were even worse.
The path through this ‘thermally active area’ was very pretty, too. It wound and twisted through the low, scrubby woodland so that each new pond and spring came as a surprise; you heard it before you saw it. If it was a wellspring of thick, dark brown, boiling mud - making that comic-strip gloopy/gloppy noise - you heard it a very long time before you saw it.
I had the Thermal Walk to myself the whole time I was there and was able to take my time. I paused at each explanatory panel, thoughtfully erected by New Zealand’s wonderful Department of Conservation to explain to the ignorant what ‘thermal activity’ actually was, why it existed, and why it existed here in particular.
And when I leaned over to look down into the boiling-water vent, I’d been looking into a shortcut to the centre of the Earth.
There was lots of geology here, most of which passed me by - despite the information panels. They weren’t badly written; they were being read by the wrong person.
Someone called Craig, from Brisbane, arrived at the Thermal Walk about two hours after I’d left. I was already many miles away en route to the campsite at Waitomo when Craig arrived at Tokaanu, parked up and began his tour of the pools of boiling mud and water.
He enjoyed it, too. He found it as fascinatingly other-worldly as I had.
I know all this because Craig has a sense of curiosity, a sense of humour - and a very keen eye...
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Over millions of years, many of New Zealand’s birds lost the ability to fly, because they had no predators and it’s easier to walk. Two cheers for evolution.
Other changes and adaptations, though, merit a hat-throwing three cheers all round. Lungfish. Bees. Electric eels. Duck-billed platypuses.
And glow-worms. Eery, magical, luminescent, tiny, shimmering green lanterns that turn total under-earth blackness into a minuscule biological version of Broadway - only green and much much nicer - by gathering together in their thousands where there is no light and switching themselves on.
Actually, ‘shimmering’ isn’t quite right. They don’t really shimmer or sparkle or any of those other things that you’re used to lights doing. What the glow-worms inside the Waitomo Caves reminded me of most - and this is going to sound silly - is Venus.
Someone once told me that, if you can see only one star in the sky, it’s not a star at all - it’s Venus. And, if you look at Venus, it doesn’t exactly twinkle or glisten. The qualities of its shine are more subtle; almost imperceptibly, it pulses a little. Almost alone amongst other, more common-or-garden heavenly bodies, it glows.
So that, I decided, is what I saw deep in the Waitomo Caves. Hundreds of Venuses glowing greenly in the dark. Clustered in glowing groups all over the ceiling or dangling in long strands from it. A mysterious, magical, hidden, shining world beneath our feet. A second sky.
Yes, I knew this was going to sound silly. As soon as I’d visited the Waitomo Caves, I knew that any description I wrote of the experience would fall far short of what it ought to be, and I was right.
Like the boiling, living earth of Tokaanu, nothing can prepare you for it; two experiences in quick succession that were completely outside and beyond anything I’d ever known before.
Give me a decade or so and I might come up with something less inadequate than this...
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I know that a couple of good photos would have helped but I left my camera and my phone in my campervan. And in any case, you’re not allowed to take pictures of the glow-worms.
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Distance travelled from Newcastle so far: 15,441 miles / 24,850 km
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