Kayaking in the magical Karāpiro Glowworm Canyon

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Sally Hastie discovered it as a teenager. Years later, she revealed it to her dodgy boyfriend and now, as husband and wife, it’s the highlight of their guided kayaking tours. Sally laughs as she remembers trying to convince Steve that a bush-covered gorge lit at night by thousands of glowworms existed an easy paddle from her parents’ house.

“Steve was like ‘Whatever! What you’re describing can’t be true’, but then he saw it and agreed yes, it’s pretty amazing.

A group explores the canyon.

Provided

A group explores the canyon.

They have been organizing kayak tours on Lake Karāpiro for almost 10 years now. Each group departs from the Riverside Adventures base before sunset and first learns how the lake was formed and local history.

“We paddle above the village of Horahora which was home to the workers who built the power station that powered the Waihī gold mine. Later they built Arapuni and Karāpiro. When they no longer needed Horahora, it was flooded and now lies underwater. We also recognize Maori history and honor local iwi,” says Sally.

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Riverside Adventures owners Steve and Sally Hastie.

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Riverside Adventures owners Steve and Sally Hastie.

The sun falls behind the hills on the other side of the lake as our group travels up a stream and through the lush, soft green of the canyon dripping with ferns and moss. Native trees rise above the rock faces and it is here that we can test the acoustics.

“I had a guest who told me that hearing his child sing in the canyon was up there like one of the best times of his life. People sang the most beautiful waiata. It’s beautiful and it gives goosebumps. Or just hear people whisper “whoa”. It’s pure excitement and joy,” says Sally.

Sally (right) and Steve (center) lead a group on Lake Karāpiro.

Provided

Sally (right) and Steve (center) lead a group on Lake Karāpiro.

The gorge recedes and a few meanders in the river bring us to a clearing on the bank, ideal for climbing and stopping for supper: hot drinks and crackers. As dusk turns to darkness, the kayaks are relaunched for the return trip and reality takes on a sort of dreamlike quality.

Our words are muffled. Only the light lapping of the paddles breaks through the cold, still air as the current carries the kayaks back through the gorge. Titiwai – New Zealand glowworms – shimmer in blue-green clusters on each bank with the silver stars directly above. Sometimes glowworms are just inches from our noses.

Sally is always delighted with the reactions of her guests.

“We’re asking everyone to be quiet – not because it affects the glowworms, but because it’s so peaceful and so much nicer. It’s such a beautiful moment in time. You hear the water sink and trickle down the banks and you lay back on the kayak as you float downstream.There’s no technology, it’s just you and nature.

The Hasties have even been asked to run tours in complete silence from start to finish for wellness retreat groups. For families with children, winter is actually the ideal season for the experience.

Guide a group through the canyon.

Provided

Guide a group through the canyon.

“People say ‘oh it’s going to be cold’ but that’s not really a factor. We remind customers to bring hats and thermal clothing and we also provide plenty of warm clothing, but the big plus is that ‘with the early sunset, you arrive around 3:30 p.m. and leave four hours later. You still have time for supper and be in bed by 9 p.m. When you have small children, it’s huge. Even when it’s raining, it’s quite nice. In fact, glow worms glow more when it’s wet, as their food source becomes scarce.”

It is proudly a small family business and due to staff shortages Sally and Steve have been guiding more than usual.

“It’s really good for us to come back there. I’m always excited again. I have hundreds of photos of the same thing, but sometimes I remember to just put the phone down and enjoy the moment. Yeah, it’s still as good as when we started ten years ago.

“It’s beautiful, and you can read about it and look at pictures, but until you see it you don’t realize how special it is. People always tell us ‘Wow, I was expecting something great, but it was so much better than I imagined’.”

Riverside Adventures has come through the worst of the pandemic even stronger than before.

Sally Hastie (front) leads a group of kayakers.

Provided

Sally Hastie (front) leads a group of kayakers.

“We are working on offering accommodation in the future and packages with other local operators. The Covid allowed us to refine, and we hired new permanent staff. With us, our location is great for the domestic market. We are almost three quarters of the population. Auckland is without a doubt our biggest market. People come down to experience the Waikato and how awesome it is and all there is to do.

It’s also an easy drive for visitors to Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupō.

“I like to share it with other people. You float there, in the dark and it’s silent except for the mini waterfalls in the canyon. You don’t see anyone, but you hear breaths and little voices that can’t help but react. It’s special to us in a whole different way than when we first discovered it. Love that we can share this little piece of hidden New Zealand. We have even had some locals – people who live ten minutes down the street – saying, “I didn’t know it was here! which is very cool. After dark, you can’t no taking pictures. All you can do is be in the moment and soak it all in. I love it.

Clusters of glow worms on the canyon walls.

Provided

Clusters of glow worms on the canyon walls.

Information folder

Riverside Adventures’ glow-worm kayaking experience begins in the late afternoon or early evening with tours starting at $125 per person (adults and children 8-14). See: riversideadventures.co.nz/kayak-tours

Getting There : Riverside Adventures is a two-hour drive from Auckland or an hour from Rotorua and Taupō.

Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Follow the instructions on covid19.govt.nz.

The writer has previously been hosted by Riverside Adventures (formerly Lake District Adventures).

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