For some reason, New Zealand businesses haven’t caught on to the “bring customers in with clean bathrooms and free wifi” ploy. So, despite our hesitance to patronize fast food joints, we recently found ourselves at a McDonald’s restaurant outside of Taupo. Somehow we avoided the siren song of freedom fries and lamb burgers – though the latter is particularly tempting. Lambs are even cuter when sandwiched between two greasy buns and a quarter-inch of mayo. Trust me.
Anyway, it had been about a week since we’d checked our email – practically an eternity for two former members of the smart-phone set, and we were starting to twitch and scratch ourselves raw with withdrawal. Finally, the golden arches answered our call. I slid past a massive man knuckle-deep in an aforementioned lamb burger and glued to his appropriately massive laptop as I sat down in front of Christina, anxious to see what junk mail I’d accumulated in such a long period of disregard. There was a blonde German woman fussing with her connection behind us, swearing under her breath in a way only Germans can.
“Must be the computer club,” I said.
The large man at our table smiled and laughed. “You guys in town long?”
“No, unfortunately, we’re leaving early tomorrow.” I asked him about a free place to camp nearby.
“Go back up the hill out of town and follow the signs for Huka Falls.”
“Yeah. The campground is on the way. And you should go to the falls tomorrow morning before you go. The gates will open around 7:30 or 8. It’s just an immense amount of water. Oh, and–,” he looked at the ceiling and thought to himself in careful consideration. “You got a pen?”
Nope, I had no pen. But I was curious as to what this kind local would tell me. Was this an offer for free accommodation? Maybe a secret watering hole with cheap booze and hot showers? I could use lots of both after a week sleeping in the back of our van. Kiwi hospitality was legendary, so with dreams of silk sheets I eagerly found a pen. He tore his receipt in half and started scrawling on the back. He was a lefty, just like me. This is what he produced:
“Ok, so when you get to the falls, there’s this big parking lot. I put a P here, for parking lot. You can go over on this side where everyone else stands – but – if you want to see something cool, follow this.” And he described a secret trail that led down to the river after the falls and ultimately, underneath them.
“At the end of this metal fence,” he pointed to the map, “there’s a trail, you can’t miss it. After about ten meters you’ll see a rope tied to a tree. Last time I was there it was an electrical cord,” he said with a toothy grin. “But yeah – use that to get down. It can be pretty slippery so be careful. Then you’ve got to follow the trail along the river until you get to the falls. There’s a part where the ledge is really narrow. I’m only telling you this because it looks like you’re solid on your feet, just be careful.”
A huge smile crept across my face. This was going to be an adventure.
“When you get near the falls the rocks get really wet so it’s slippery. Creep up to the falls and reach in, there’s a really good handhold just inside.” He latched his hand onto an imaginary hole above the McDonald’s table. “Water will just be pounding down on your back. You’ll get fucking drenched, but you can go inside. It’s a really cool spot. Climb in on your hands and knees if you have to. There’s room for about seven or eight people in there.” I went from excited to a bit scared. I get nervous around open water, forget about immense waterfalls pounding on my back. But it was too tempting to pass up a genuine local adventure.
The next morning, we set out for Huka Falls. After checking out the scenic lookouts with all the tourists and being bowled over by the volume of water that was headed over the falls, our nervous energy turned to real worry. Was this guy messing with us? Was he a crazed local sending travelers out to their death? The whole thing seemed a bit insane.
We walked down the path he described, to the left of the falls, and noticed several potential trails. Doubting my ability to recollect what he instructed, I examined each one before deciding they weren’t trails at all and moving on. My apprehension grew stronger. But soon we reached the end of the metal fence and an obvious trail emerged, exactly as he’d said. No more than a few feet into the woods we came to the rope tied to the tree that he described, and gingerly lowered ourselves down. This was definitely the way.
“How are we going to get back up?” Christina said after we’d both descended. I scratched my head, examining the sheer wet rocks and soaking wet rope. It didn’t look easy.
“Hmm. Well, we’ll deal with that later.”
Pushing on, we followed the trail back upstream, closer and closer to water level and the pounding of the falls. There were long-fallen trees in places over the trail, but also signs of life – beer bottles and snack wrappers half-buried in mud. Yep, we were on the right track. My confidence grew. Descending on the rope proved to be no problem, maybe he was exaggerating the difficulty of this detour.
And then we came upon the narrow ledge he described. Tiny and covered with wet moss, stepping on it was akin to ballet on a hockey rink. We’re both experienced rock climbers that would have no trouble with such an obstacle if we were wearing our climbing shoes instead of hiking boots, and if it weren’t just after dawn and barely above freezing.
But we’d come too far to turn back. After carefully traversing the ledge with icy fingers and clumsy feet, the path leveled out and tucked into some very interesting caves. The acoustics of these structures gave the river a intense bass that rattled the ground better than any sub-woofer in an Escalade. It was the kind of noise that wasn’t even heard by your ears, but deep within your stomach. As if our stomachs weren’t already unsettled enough.
We continued on through a few more shallow caves and over some more fallen trees, and found the secret room just as he’d described, underneath Huka Falls. Sorry, pictures don’t begin to do it justice. The morning sun shone through the thundering water, sending delicate rainbows into the sky. The sound of millions of gallons tumbling overhead was surreal. Mother Nature, you are one powerful lady.
Thanks, stranger in the McDonald’s in Taupo. It turns out you didn’t want us to die a soggy death, you were just being accommodating and picked us for hearty adventurers. I’m flattered.
We hiked out a little damp but unscathed and saddled up for a four-hour drive south. And it was a great drive. Adrenaline is the real breakfast of champions.