Sunday, January 27, 2019

New Zealand Adventure - Day 4

[Composed 1/10/2019]

Goodbye, Auckland, hello, open road! Can I just say how amazed I am that Shira can confidently drive on the left hand side of the road?

Our destination today is the town of Rotorua, with two planned stops along the way.

The first stop was at the Zealong Tea plantation. Think fine wine, but with tea as the beverage of choice. We got a history lesson and description of the process used to make the tea, and of course a tea tasting. If a time traveler from hundreds of years ago were dropped into Zealong, they would find the process of making tea eerily familiar. The fields of tea plants are still hand picked by individuals wearing the same large brimmed hats and oversized bandanas that were used back in the day. The oolong tea leaves are still put in bags and wound tightly to create the signature curled look, and the leaves are still oxidized on bamboo trays. The packaging is modern, but the process remains traditional.

We tasted a number of teas, from green to black. What was perhaps most surprising was that after drinking the oolong tea our hostess was able to unwind one of leaves and there were was an intact tea leaf, rehydrated. I guess I'm so used to cheap bags of tea I never stopped to imagine how high quality tea looks, smells and tastes. I'm not ready to give up on Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast tea, but I certainly enjoyed playing the tea snob if, only for a couple of hours.

After our tour and tasting we were served high tea; the first Shira and I have ever had. Wow, this is living! There was a variety of savory vegetarian friendly treats and then some incredibly delicious pastries. Yum!

A couple hours later we found ourselves at the entrance of a cave in Waitomo. Our guide took us 6+ stories down into the Earth, where we toured one of the area's caves. In many respects, the cave was much like Luray or Skyline Caverns. The path we walked along was packed with amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations. The big difference, as far as I can tell, is scale. My sense is that the cave we were in was quite a bit larger than Skyline or Luray. But of course, that may just be my memory playing tricks on me.

One unique aspect of the caves is the presence of glowworms. This is the second new form of bioluminescence we've see in as many months. The first was a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico which left us underwhelmed. The glowworms were definitely more impressive, as they were brighter and larger. Like the bioluminescence of Puerto Rico, what makes the glowworms remarkable is their life cycle. Glowworms aren't worms at all, but maggots, and each one has a fishing-line type device that it deploys to catch food. The adults apparently only live a couple of days, and because their only role is to mate and lay eggs, they don't have mouths to eat. The whole cycle is baffling and leaves you marveling at how diverse nature can be.

Bringing along a tripod wasn't an option in the cave, so I had to improvise to get any sort of pictures of the glowworms. My work around was to shoot 10 second exposures and just accept that there would be some camera movement. The photos below of the blue squiggly lines are the results of this. Instead of blue streaks, imagine fixed blue points, and that's what you can expect glowworms to look like in person.

One of the most impressive features of the cave was a limestone pillar placed near the entrance by the owners of the cave. It's positioned below a dripping stream of water. Looking at the pillar, it's not much to see: it's oddly shaped, but not nearly as elegant as the features nature created within the cave. What is special about the pillar is that 13 years ago it was a flat, evenly formed piece of stone. In just 13 years, the water has cut noticeably into the rock. I think of the geologic formations taking millennia to form, but dripping water made a noticeable impact in just over a decade.

The New Zealand countryside has made for a beautiful backdrop as we covered the distance between Auckland and Rotorua. The cave and tea plantation were wonderful examples of the magnificent natural wonders New Zealand has to offer. Fun times all around!

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