I’ve been an idiot.. Yes truly, a big fat idiot. I’ve been moaning, “I’ve got nothing to write about” while one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to goes totally undocumented. *Facepalm* Anyway, no time like the present. And without further ado, let me speak about the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in Waitomo, New Zealand.
We visited New Zealand for our honeymoon in 2011. I’ve been a huge a huge fan of the Peter Jackson films and visiting the places where the shooting actually took place was a big dream of mine. We were supposed to visit Auckland, Waitomo, Rotorua, Queenstown, the glaciers and Christchurch, but weather played havoc and our entire South Island plans except for Christchurch were cancelled. It is my most fervent wish to go back there again.
While we were making our travel plans, we came across a stumbling block, we couldn’t figure out how to get from Auckland to Rotorua. We knew it was a drive, but how to exactly we could get there was the mystery. Some fervent Googling gave us the answer. We had to take a bus that would also show us the wonders of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave. We quickly booked the tickets.
The night before our departure I was a little anxious about missing the bus so I kept on waking up throughout the night and saying, “Let’s go! We’re late!” to Mr. D, who would then sleepily show me the time and go right back to sleep. Finally, 6.30 rolled around and it was time to wake up for real. We quickly got dressed and left the hotel, (More on the hotel later) and waited on the sidewalk for the bus to pick us up and take us to the depot. The feeder bus was supposed to arrive at 7 and by 7.02 I was already wailing that we had missed the bus, I guess I was a mix of jetlagged, anxious and excited. While I nagged Mr. D about the merits of walking to the depot ourselves, a shortish walk, uphill with a pretty heavy suitcase and getting an understandable opposition from him, the bus arrived, only 5 minutes late. We quickly got on and went on to the depot. We showed our tickets, waited a while for our bus to arrive and when it finally did, we hopped on.
The drive from Auckland to Waitomo takes 3 hours and is breathtaking to say the least. It meanders through the countryside of New Zealand, hugging the Waikato River in places. The driver was rather jolly and gave us a running commentary about the places we were passing through and general facts about New Zealand. We passed tiny little cottages surrounded by profusions of vibrantly coloured flowers and for a moment I could just imagine myself in Hobbiton, waiting for Gandalf to take me on an adventure. All too soon we found ourselves at Waitomo and we clambered off the bus and hurried into the complex.
Now for a little history and science. The caves were discovered in the late 1800s by local Māori chief Tane Tinorau, who owned the land on which they were located. Tinorau and surveyor Fred Mace explored the caves together in 1887, floating in on a raft of flax flower stalks. The caves were opened to tourists in 1889, with local Māori acting as guides. The cave and its surrounding areas are still owned by the Maoris and many of the guides are direct descendants of Tane Tinorau.
The caves are made of limestone, carved by the Waitomo River and feature a rich collection of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations. These are not the only points of attractions in these caves though. The chief attraction in these caves are the glowworms. They are the larvae of a species of gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa, which is unique to New Zealand. These insects spend a large portion of their life as larvaes and spend most of this time eating as the adult insect does not have a mouth. The glow from the glowworms comes from the tails of the larvae and attracts other insects which get entangled in the sticky threads and consecutively eaten by the larvae. These insects thrive in the cool and damp environment of the cave as the river winds blow in the insects it feeds on and the damp environment does not dry out the sticky threads.
We were led down a small trail and into the caves proper. Mr. D was a little apprehensive about going into the caves as he has a mild case of claustrophobia and caves are pretty much not his thing per se. His fears were unfounded as the caves did not turn out be the dark, claustrophobic and bat poo smelling affair he feared but rather a pretty comfortable experience with very good lighting. Something to keep in mind when you visit your next cave, do not touch anything. Sure, the rock formations may seem awesome and touch-worthy but leaving your body residue on them messes them up and the natural environment of the cave, so leave them be and admire them from afar.
The 45 minute tour took us through the various formations in the cave like the Pipe Organ, Catacombs, Banquet Hall and a huge room called the Cathedral. We were also given information about the glowworms and how the caves meant to be. We were shown the various stages of the insect and shown the silky sticky threads up close. Photographs are not allowed inside so I am relying on stock images here.
There was a palpable eagerness and restlessness in us ever since we entered the cave, what we really wanted to see were the worms and their glow. We were given a small demo of the real thing and I had actually thought that that was it and that would be the only glowworms we’d actually see in action. I was thoroughly disappointed and felt really dejected as the tour wound to an end. My fears were unfounded as the guide led us to a landing on the underground river and guided us onto boats. We were advised to make as little noise as possible and refrain from all photography as we entered the famed Glowworm Grotto.
The boat pushed away from the landing and slowly as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, a hushed murmur arose as the true glory of the caves were finally in front of us. Hundreds, nay thousands of tiny pinpoints of light covered the ceiling of the cave making it seem as if we were underneath the night sky but only the stars were a lot closer. The rush of the water and the murmurs of awe were the only sounds in the grotto giving it the feel of a fairytale world or a dream from which one never wished to wake. What seemed like only minutes but was actually a good 15 minutes later, we emerged out into the sunlight, and found ourselves in a lush jungle with a pathway leading up. Slowly we shook off the reverie, entered reality and trudged up the pathway to the bus and onto Rotorua, leaving the cavern and its dreamlike setting behind.