We caught the 5:30pm commuter train out of Wellington into the pastures of the Wairarapa region. We were supposed to meet Jon, our host, for the first time on that train, but soon it was 5:29pm and there still was no sign of him. Then, as the train began to silently pull away from the station, a man tapped Caitlin on the shoulder and asked if by chance we were supposed to be working for him and his family. He was much taller than I had expected and looked different in his suit and tie, but it was Jon all the same. He took a seat across from us and we talked for a good portion of the ride, but then fell into an easy silence. I stared out the window, watching the city fall away to huge hills and fields of yellow flowers. Far below the train tracks, little lambs were hopping around and bunting each other. The train glided through postcard views, and I looked around to see if anyone else was as impressed, but everyone had their head down in books, computers or phones. I suppose they do this commute twice a day, every day.
After an hour of rattling through the countryside, we arrived in Carterton and then had another half-hour drive through hills and valleys to Cavelands, our hosts’ farm. It is truly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by empty green fields that are dotted with lethargic sheep and motionless cows. The long driveway is lined with looming trees that dead-end at a beautiful house with expansive decks and vibrant flowers blooming along porch columns.
We spent a few nights in the extra bedroom at the house, but then we moved to a little cabin at the edge of the property. The one-room hut is called a whare, short for wharenui, the Maori word for a communal building. There was enough space inside for a queen bed, a small table and some chairs. As we walked to the house each morning, the deep blue sky would slowly illuminate the stables and fields. Our shoes would be wet with dew from the long grass by the time we made it to the house.
Our work varied almost every day. Sometimes we would spend the whole morning mucking out the horses’ paddock, which is Kiwi for shoveling horse poo into a wheel barrel and then dumping it in a pile. Another day Caitlin pulled sticky weed all day while I carted manure over to the gardens for spring planting. We also spent a lot of time watching the young children and getting them ready for school. All in all, we were another set of hands to help with housework and gardening for a family that always had a project to work on.
The best part of staying with a Kiwi family was the unplanned education we received about everything from gang life in New Zealand to farming practices to cooking lessons. Georgie brought out her copy of the famous New Zealand cookbook, Edmonds. Every household in New Zealand has their copy of this thin, spiral-bound bible for baked goods, appetizers and full meals.
From its worn pages, Caitlin and I followed the recipes for fluffy, buttery Kiwi scones and fruity butterfly muffins. We also baked what we later learned was a New Zealand staple: the Anzac biscuit. The myth surrounding these biscuits tells of women sending the flat, crunchy cookies in care packages to kiwi soldiers during WWI (Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), however that story was slightly exaggerated. The delicious biscuits were sold at bake sales to raise money for the war effort and now they have become a classic New Zealand treat.
Cavelands derives its name from an intricate set of caves at the edge of the property. In order to get to the caves, we had to work our way over many green hills and valleys. The property lines are divided by modest wire and wood fences, with simple latches, but it is clear that these are more to direct livestock than to keep out human visitors. As we painstakingly unlocked and locked every latch, Maggie, the family dog, would simply slip under the fences and escape into the pastures far ahead of us.
The caves are not easy to find. There is no sign indicating the entrance and the gaping entrance is overgrown with trees and bushes. We had to climb down a slight valley and pull aside some branches before we felt the cool breeze and smell of dampness. We switched on our headlamps and started forward. I immediately hit my head — both on the way in and on the way out in fact. My enthusiasm for the cave combined with the slippery rocks meant that I was moving quickly and staring at my feet when I slammed into a low-hanging part of the cave. I immediately crumbled and grabbed my skull like a little kid. Caitlin was ahead in the darkness, giving me a moment to shake it off and continue on, much slower this time.
After a fork in the path, we took the right one and followed the gradual incline until we reached a dead-end. High above there was a small opening that Georgie said we could shimmy through, but after hitting my head and slipping many times, I had zero confidence in my own cave exploration abilities. We decided to turn back and take the other path, following it until the ceiling suddenly drops to half its original height. High enough not to require crawling, but far too short to stand, our only option was to crouch and awkwardly throw one short step in front of the other. We looked like struggling Russian dancers.
We eventually reached a dried up waterfall and shallow basin. Caitlin tried climbing up a little ways, but the rocks were so slippery that she had little success. After looking around at the jagged rocks for a while, we decided to switch off our headlamps and stand in the dark for a bit. The cave suddenly felt much more open and vast in the heavy darkness. Caitlin sounded further away and my hands waved out in front of me, searching for some sort of security. But then I heard Caitlin whisper, ‘look up.’ I did as she said, and sure enough, high above on the roof of the cave little green specks started flickering to life. One at a time, the glowworms lit up like a crooked row of eery candles. As each second passed without us moving or speaking, more and more green dots appeared. We didn’t see more than thirty total, and they probably were not as stunning as Waitomo Caves is supposed to be, but they felt like our personal discovery. We did not pay a cent to see them and we were not lumped in with a massive tour group.
Part of what made our cave experience special — as well as our entire experience in Wairarapa — was that it was unique. We didn’t plan it from a travel book and we didn’t do the exact same thing as millions of tourists before us. And, as a result, we made memories that are very specific to our own trip.
In fact, a large portion of our education during our two weeks in Wairarapa revolved around a very typical aspect of life in New Zealand: lambs. Feeding them, directing them, training them, and yes, eating them.
Stay tuned for lamb mania.