Thank You Mr. Tinorau

Our first home is dictated by water. Damián has been rolling on “Raglan” since we got off the plane and there is only one way to silence him. So we go there, one of New Zealand’s best known surf towns. Damián runs a direct line to the lookout point; the drug is clearly more powerful than his own mind. I follow him curiously, wondering if anyone could actually overdose on surfing. What would that look like? Would I be held responsible?

Police Officer: Did you give him that Raglan?

Me: Well…I mean…yeah, I drove him there, but I didn’t think it was going to…I didn’t realize the consequences of….He’s always taken loads of surf before and comes out of the water OK.

Police Officer: This young man had three times the amount of surf in his body than a normal human being can handle. Were you trying to kill him or something?!

Me: No, Officer. I didn’t…I would never…

Police Officer: Shut up. You’re coming with me, kid.

On Raglan or not, Damián is another breed. He belongs to those born with salt in their blood and the constant crash of waves in their ears. He falls asleep counting sets instead of sheep and wakes up at the tiniest sound of a swell. Now, from the lookout point, he meticulously surveys the coastline for breaks and checks the winds. He clocks the tides, does a head count, and makes note of any rocky outcroppings. He will stand on the edge for quite some time before suiting up, as he always does, even at his local beach that he knows so well. I wait for him.

Perhaps he is building his stoke, savoring his privilege, or getting his mind into the water first…Whatever it is, I try to give him space, to let his choice words with the ocean flow uninterrupted. This moment is his. Unless it’s cold. When it’s cold, I nestle my chin in the crook of his shoulder and ask for an analysis of the winds, the tides, the surfers, and the rocks. His eyes are much better and faster than mine and when it’s cold, I’m a rather recalcitrant surfer; I need him to build my stoke. I’ve always been one to take drugs with a reasonable degree of hesitation.

Raglan offers different surf spots for different levels, but its prized point is Manu Bay, home to a left hand point break that was featured in the 1966 surfer classic, The Endless Summer. It’s an upper intermediate to advanced surf point that will throw you into the rocks if you’re not quick enough. This was mostly Damián’s stomping ground, but I did try my luck on a smaller day when there weren’t as many surfers out and I found it to be smooth, enjoyable ride.

Most of the time, however, I spent my mornings at Ngaranui Beach. This long, sandy bottom beach offers ample space to polish your surf skills, although you have to compete with a lot of flotsam beginners and a few kite surfers. While it doesn’t consistently offer good waves, there is usually always some small waves or whitewater to keep you busy.

Raglan also boasts Whale Bay and Indicators, two surf spots exclusively for the charmed and daring. Whale Bay is a left hand point break that has been rumored to connect with Manu Bay on big swell days while Indicators is a long-walled fast wave of Hawaiian proportions. Both points sit along a rocky shoreline with tricky access and should only be attempted by expert surfers (a.k.a. Ashley go home).

The town of Raglan, on the other hand, is for all ages and skill levels. It’s delightfully low-key and has a lot of what you would expect from a small surf town: campervan parking, a few bars, coffee shops, surf shops, a Mexican burrito place, an organic grocery store, and Sunday night jam sessions in summer.

We wanted to plant ourselves in Raglan, right up there on the shore, but we quickly learned that the soil was near impossible. Our choices for housing were overpriced campervans parked out back of someone’s house or holiday homes in the hundreds of dollars. So, Plan B. We spread our map out across the hood of our car and set our finger on Hamilton, a non-descript town thirty minutes outside of Raglan, strategically centered around the many points of interest in the Waikato region.

The best part about Hamilton was the live-in landlords, Shelley and Steve. They were a semi-retired Kiwi couple who had decided to open up their spacious suburban home to travelers and other tenants since most of their kids had grown up and moved out.

“It got so quiet with just the two of us,” Steve explained. “So we thought, why not? Let’s have everybody over.”

At an age when most people like to lead a private life, they are keen on inviting the world into their home in order to share new ideas and experiences. They immediately felt like old friends.

From there, each week we launched a tourist assault on a different area of the North Island, interspersed with surf breaks and a few days of working online in order to pay the bills. Our first stop was the Waitomo glowworm caves where we had another abrupt encounter with “the price” of New Zealand.

To the tune of $89 NZD ($62 USD) per person, we were given access to the glowworm caves and the famous Ruakuri cave. This was one of the cheaper options. If you wanted to indulge in the cave tubing experience, you would need $138 NZD ($96 USD). We can accept and understand the importance of charging an entrance fee to natural wonders for their maintenance and upkeep and even a bit more when an adventure activity is involved, but still. The prices were disproportionately high for the average tourist and thoroughly depressing for the backpacker budget.

Furthermore, at the end of the tour we learned that the caves are privately owned and the majority of the money goes to one individual family. Our seemingly oblivious tour guide actually ended the tour by saying, “So we should all thank Mr. Tinorau for letting us see his caves” as if she expected a children’s muttered chorus of “Thank you Mr. Tinorau” to follow. I think we all left there feeling like a bunch of idiots.

Yet – and it hurts me to say it – the glowworm caves were truly spectacular and many would part with a great deal of money to see such an otherworldly planetarium. Glowworms are actually bioluminescent larvae that glow in the dark in order to attract food and burn off waste. A chemical reaction between the oxygen in the air and the chemicals produced by the larvae give off the glow. As we know, flies are attracted to light and good food for many insects. Once they fly close to the glowworm, they find themselves covered in sticky “fishing lines” that the glowworms hang out in order to catch them. (We were not allowed to take photos so I apologize for the lack of a visual).

Glowworms can be found anywhere with rock walls, humid conditions, and a steady food supply, but they are most spectacular to see inside of a cave. In a cave, they become the protagonists of their own night sky and anyone who lucky enough to stumble upon a glowworm cave must certainly feel like they have walked into an undiscovered miniature galaxy.

That must have been the case for the Maori Mr. Tinorou and English surveyor, Fred Mace when they did an extensive exploration in 1887. For the rest of us, we must content ourselves with seeing them accompanied by approximately twenty other coughing, shuffling, camera-snapping tourists. There is a short boat ride through a dark grotto, however, where visitors are asked to maintain complete silence and in those precious five minutes, one can really feel overcome by the beauty of the glittering glowworm constellations.

For a moment, I fell headfirst back into my childhood, when we used to put glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceilings of our bedrooms, turn off the lights, and make up the names of our own constellations. My seven-year-old self never imagined a place like this existed and even though I’m now thirty, the feeling of awe still felt youthfully pure. Now I finally understand why a fifty-year-old still insists on going to Disneyland. Some places are just always magical, no matter what age.

The good news is that there are many places in New Zealand to see glowworms, not just the Waitomo Caves. We chose the Waitomo Caves because of their proximity and the boat tour through the grotto that we found to be unique. However, for much less money and with a good pair of shoes and a headlamp, one can find glowworms in numerous caves on the North Island. We recommend the Waipu Caves near Whangarei.

Next, we moved on to another fairytale location in the Waikato region: the Te Waihou Walkway and the Blue Spring. The Blue Spring is so pure that it supplies approximately 70% of New Zealand’s bottled water, and apart from just being inviting to drink, it’s a paradise that invites you never to leave. The incredible blue color of the water comes from its high optical purity. Pure natural waters are blue to blue green because their light absorbing particles disappear during the extended time that the spring water spends in underground aquifers.

Meandering along the Te Waihou track, you are embraced by leafy ferns and silky silence that plays tricks on your mind. You know that the water is moving languidly alongside you, but as you cannot hear it, not even a small trickle, you begin to wonder if this place really exists or if you will wake up soon. After awhile, you stop worrying about it. You stop wondering why your mother never told you about the wonders of Waikato and you are content with just having the privilege to be here at all, whether it be real or fake, too soon or too late…these places invade and impress every fiber of our beings. Until tomorrow.



New Zealand is a country that is meant to explored on foot and often requires a fair amount of physical exertion. For this reason, it’s important you always keep a supply of granola bars or in our case, GlucUp 15 sticks in your daypack in case of an emergency. We also prepared our food in advance so we didn’t have to look for appropriate options when traveling through towns. This made it easier to avoid any hiccups or hypoglycemias.

As we always mention, it’s also extremely important to travel with an insurance company that will support your needs. We use Correduría Barchilon, a Spain-based travel insurance designed especially for diabetics.


For working-holiday travelers, Raglan is a prime rental location so if you’re looking to summer in this surf town, it’s best to come early (November), before the high season starts. In Hamilton, just thirty minutes inland from Raglan’s coast, we were able to find housing for $180 NZD/week. However, for the most part, rent is from $200/week and up. Finding a “home base” was practical for us as we knew Damián’s insulin would always be stored in a safe place. We didn’t have to worry about keeping it refrigerated during our excursions.

For more short term options, Raglan has a reasonably priced campground and Airbnb places can usually be found for approximately $40 NZD/night.

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