New Zealand is exhaustingly beautiful. Even its Maori name ‘Aotearoa’ is romantic. It translates to Land of the Long, White Cloud.
You fall in love with the Maori language and if you speak Hindi, the enunciation becomes easy. You sit with the phrasebook over a cup of tea and toast and savour the phrases, and sigh over gyan like ‘the potato doesn’t say i’m sweet’...
So you criss-cross the land in a rental car (this is not a three day two night tours and travel package deal), and discover why
Lord Of the Rings was shot here. The countryside is simply spectacular.
Craggy mountains that look like they’ve been made by Godzilla rather than god. Green plains dotted by rocks that look like they belong to some alien giant stoning ritual.
And smooth white pebble beaches with clear, emerald green waters. Cliffs, they remind you of Fjords up in Norway and surf that makes your jaw drop to the sands, when you watch men and women cleave through water as if it were butter.
Speaking of butter, eating toast became a religious experience because the butter was divine. Apples that are so juicy, even the most fastidious eaters would choose to stick a napkin in the neck.
I had just turned sort of vegetarian upon seeing the size of the burgers. At Fergburger (in Queenstown), the gigantic burgers are not just the best tasting, but they managed to break my heart because there’s a burger called Bambi.
So after climbing and walking and climbing and walking and climbing some more, when we drive into Waitomo, I am exhausted.
Waitomo literally means water (‘wai’) hole (‘tomo’ which is shaft, really), and I just want to sit down at the airy visitors centre and do nothing. But I am persuaded to step down into the catacombs and my feet drag less. The stalactites and stalagmites are magnificent. The limestone caves are easy to navigate. They slope downwards and you are duped into believing that all is okay.
Then comes the test: It’s a 16 metre shaft you have to climb down into. Oh no! I’m going to have to climb back up! That thought is enough to make me offer to carry everyone’s jackets and bags and wait there. Then the guide says, ‘This is one way. You can’t go back.’
Sixteen meters is 52.4934 feet. Straight down into darkness. It’s a ladder! Just like those you’ve seen construction workers climb.
‘Wear your jacket, ma’am!’
I do and climb down the ladder. I can hear water lapping at the sides of boats. And there are like two zero watt bulbs illuminating the platform.
The numbers of tourists are limited and everyone has been told to maintain the silence. My brain works overtime. Maintain silence or what? Great white cave sharks will wake up? I step into the boat and like everyone else shiver a little as the wooden oars help propel the boats silently.
Nothing. Nothing in your life prepares you for the scene that suddenly changes the darkness into magic. The boats have come to stop. It is the biggest cavern with cathedral type dome.
In front of us, above us, around us are thousands and thousands of glowworms. Little blue lights being emitted by the derrieres of tiny worms resting in the limestone. And in spite of the science, it is the most romantic thing one has ever seen.
You have just heard a collective audible sigh of people in boats, too amazed and awed by the spectacle in front of them to say anything or take pictures.
Soon it is time to leave. The boats don’t turn around. We just go along with the underground river and emerge a short walk away from the visitor centre.
I am too overwhelmed to say a childish, ‘Cheating!’ I walk to the car in a daze. I’m in love with life again. I have to whisper to the millions of stars in the Southern sky, ‘New Zealand, Kei Runga Noa Atu Koe! You are the best!’
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.