Glowing Underground

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Friday, November 18, 2011

Ok, so we had plans of adventure underground. We would be going into the dark depths and floating along the black underground rivers of Waitomo to explore the Glowworm caves from another angle. We drove to Waitomo and parked up and decided that sounded far too adventurous for us, and considering how cold we were post lonely night in the wilderness didn't want to spend three hours floating around in rubber rings in ice cold water. We opted for the slightly cheaper, yet slightly longer experience of wandering around three different caves as a part of a tour, nicely wrapped in clothing with the luxury of staying dry.

The Waitomo caves are somewhat world famous with our very own Queenie having visited (pre-coronation I would think) in 1953. They are famed as being a haven to glowworms in particular, and those in their thousands. We had already experienced one or two up close but were looking forward to the plethora that would be on offer.

We were led around by a nice Maori lady from the locality. She led us around and explained all the basic scientific stuff that you always hear about stalactites and stalagmites ("Tights hang on tight to the ceiling and the stalagmites might at some time reach the ceiling" is their way of explaining it). I Prefer the slightly more adult version of “you might get up there if the tights come down”. Not sure if they could use that on the tour groups though.

The majority of the Waitomo Glowworm cave tour is uneventful. You get shown around standard cave stuff which you will see at any cave around the world; stalactites, stalagmites, curtain formations, etc- and then come the Glowworms. Remembering that we got close to these little creatures a few days ago imagine our surprise when we learnt that extending from the body hanging down up to 30cm are saliva and mucus strands which are used to capture insects in a spiders web type fashion. We ignored the comments thinking maybe 30cm is the longest they get to – we virtually had our faces in the glowworms just two days ago and didn’t see anything in the dark. But that is the point – you don’t see anything in the dark (as the insects wouldn’t).

When the tour guide shone her torch across the relatively small amount of Glowworms used in this demonstration all you could see were a forest of strands hanging from the ceiling, all of which were about 30cm long. The realization dawned on Kate and I that we both must have got absolutely covered in Glowworm saliva on our trek through the tunnels around the gold mining area. Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

After the introduction to Glowworms we were taken into a dark cave alongside an underground river. There in the pitch black we boarded a boat and the guide slowly pulled us along in the dark across the cavern using overhead ropes. Everyone in the boat was silent, the cave was silent bar the slight noise of trickling water and the movement of the tour guide traversing us along. Across the ceiling the Glowworms stuck in huge numbers and the green bio-lumescence stood out in the darkness as pinpricks of light. The Glowworms lit the ceiling along the route of the river like the thousand night sky did across the campsite just a couple of nights previous.

Nobody spoke, and at this point I understood why cameras were banned for this cave. The experience was calming and beautiful. I can only imagine how angering it would be for hundreds of flashes and clicks from cameras to drown out the stillness, and for that I congratulate the company for maintaining the peace.

Post lunch we visited the Ruakuri cave which is a bit of a southern hemisphere phenomenon being completely wheelchair and pushchair accessable. From a walking and not coochy coochy coo-ing point of view it sounded like it might be a bore.

It’s a big cave, and is the cave explored at a further depth by the blackwater rafting crew which we turned down the opportunity to join. In 2005 the cave was opened up fully for tourists following a mini engineering feat to create access. The clever thing about this cave is that the interest doesn’t just lie in the features of the cave (where once again you can view glowworms in vast numbers) but also in the technical difficulty in opening this up to the general public. The tour guide explained the methods and the difficulties of such a build, including the need to integrate an air lock type tunnel in the cave to prevent the masses of concrete used in creating a spiraling entrance way from affecting the natural moisture balance of the cave, how the guys physically built the place, and how they got their sandwiches down into the cave while they were constructing the access. All very interesting.

We spotted the blackwater rafters on the way out and it looked like a large number of people floating on tire inner tubes down a very dark river wearing spandex. It looked cold and not at all appealing, well not enough for us to want to change places.

Finally we popped along to the Aranui Cave which was little out of the way via a short drive. A very enthusiastic seemingly scatty guide walked us up to the cave which was accessed after a couple of minute walk through the woods.

It wasn’t overly exciting as we had been a little caved in. This felt like an add on because of how we had to visit the caves and so was an anticlimax– it would have been much better doing our caves the other way around finishing in the boat ride through the Glowworms.

There were some excellent displays of Stalactites however and the enthusiasm of the guide was great although a little too much at the end of the day. We did feel sorry for him quite a bit though as we had a German (now based in Australia) as part of the group who was the most annoying keenie in the world. He kept butting in to what the tour guide was saying, adding his own chemical composition knowledge and if anything being a little patronizing. It got to the point where the guide seemed to be looking at this guy just before he would say anything to make sure he hadn’t said anything out of place or incorrect. It would be like me going along to a tour of a famously engineered building and heavily undermining the less in the know tour guide with information about the design code used in build or whether cement replacement was being used in this particular concrete mix. Exactly – it would be beyond what is needed. He was an ass. The poor guide pretended to be pleased to have an expert in the crowd – but we knew what he was thinking. It’s what we were all thinking. Shut up, dickhead.

Kate and I had a quick tet-a -et post caving (we’ll call it that as we visited lots of caves) to discuss our next move. We have decided even though being thoroughly under-clothed to attempt the Tongariro crossing, which is said to be the world’s best one day hike. It is the home to Lord of the Rings’ Mordor and is a landscape of Volcanoes and lakes.

With that in mind I had a 130km drive to our overnight accommodation at the start of the crossing. Except for a little trouble with wind (not the uncomfortable stomach type) in which the Campervan still blows from left to right more than a liberal democrat, the journey was pretty uneventful. We sang along to Now 49 and recalled a time in the mid 90’s where all there was was crap pop, covers and American rock. I was saddened by the fact as I remember loving my 'snowboarding minidisc’ which was just filled with the Offspring, Sum 41, Blink 182 and various others and now we seem to have none of that American Pie soundtrack music left.

 I loved the trip winding our way along the country roads and especially felt excited when overtaking my first vehicle on the roads, a campervan who had to yield to my rock charged assault along route 48. In reality, he pulled over – but I like to think he did because he felt the pressure to pull aside for a better man.
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Alison Wood on

Martin and Kate - I'm reliving my trip to NZ and Oz with you! Waitomo Caves is where Steve and I had our first date! Except we were rafting through the caves - they called it 'black water rafting'. It was beautiful drifting through the caves in wetsuits! I hope you enjoy Tongeriro - I sprained my ankle on the way down, so take care!

martinandkate on

Thanks for your comment Alison. It's nice that people read this garble that I write down. I think we missed a trick not doing the Blackwater rafting, but sadly don't think our budget would stretch to it.
Tongariro was great- really enjoy my hiking so it was one of my highlights. Hope all is well with you!

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