New Zealands Subterranean World of Waitomo

Waitomo area New Zealand By Irene Butler –
Photos by Rick –

Our Waitomo Caves Photo Gallery

Waitomo Caves Visitor CentreWe get up extra early, aim our rental car and head out from Rotorua to the hilly Waitomo region. On the scenic 2 ½ hour drive we drive through verdant valleys, past fields of corn and flocks of grazing sheep and herds of grass mulching cattle. It boggles my mind knowing that underneath the hills of Waitomo region are 300 known limestone caves, and we are excited to see the caves that are open to the public that go by the same name as the region – the Waitomo Caves.

A song pops into my mind, which I share with Rick and we both sing as we breeze along, “Shine little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer…” in anticipation of actually seeing them. “This song sure dates us,” says Rick. “But,” I say in our defence, “when this version of the song became a Mills Brothers hit in 1950, we were mere children.”

Arriving at the Waitomo Visitor’s Centre, we purchase “Triple Cave Combo” tickets to see the works: the Glowworm, Aranui and Ruakui Caves.

The Glowworm Cave is first. Hardie, our guide, explains the lifecycle of the glowworm (arachnocampa luminosa). The female lays approx 120 eggs, which hatch into larvae after about 20 days. The larvae build a nest and put down sticky lines to trap insects for food, emitting a visible light from their tail to attract their prey (this bioluminescence is a reaction between chemicals given off by the glowworm and the oxygen in the air). It is interesting to learn that the ones that are the hungriest glow the brightest; and one mosquito would last the larva for four days. Over the next 9 months they grow and GLOW, but from here on in their existence is short lived. After a pupae stage, they morph into an adult with no mouth, whose only function is mating, egg laying and continuing the cycle.

We climb into a boat with Hardie and 20 other people, and slowly drift into the darkness of the cave. In as much silence as an excited bunch of enthusiasts can muster, a milky way of millions of miniscule lights appear on the cave roof.
(Photography not permitted in the Glowworm Cave)

These magical creatures, unique to New Zealand were known to the Maori people, but the caves were not extensively explored until 1887 when local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace mapped them out. Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti began guided tours though the caves. In 1904 the administration of the caves was taken over by the government, until in 1990 the land and caves were returned to the descendents of the original owners

Aranui Cave
About 500m down the road from the Glowworm Caves is Aranui Cave.Aranui Cave
As we enter the cave, Doreen, our guide shines the light on some large, long-horned insects called “giant wetas”. They are downright creepy. One look at them and I am ready to turn and exit when Doreen follows up with, “They are ONLY in the entrance as further in they do not have the lichen and decayed leaves that are their food source.”

The walk through the cave is breathtaking! An array of delicate limestone formations in white, and shades of pink and brown; stalactites hang en mass from ceilings, stalagmites rise like sentinels from the cave floor, some joining in the middle to form columns. Doreen explains the limestone abundance, which is formed from compressed fossilized marine creatures, accumulated 30 million years ago when Waitomo lay under the sea. These beautiful fragile creations, resulting from water dripping through the limestone from the roof of the cave, leaving behind deposits of crystalline Calcium Carbonate is Nature’s artistry at it finest.

Ruakuri Cave
Sprial Ramp Entrance to Ruakui CaveThe cavernous entrance is likened to an enormous space station. After two metal doors that close with a vacuum suction “thunk” to keep the inner sanctum of the cave in ecologically friendly conditions, we start down a spiral ramp dotted with amber lights like alien orbs taking us 15 metres below ground. Angus, our guide, stops at the bottom beside a large central rock that is being drizzled by water emanating from the cave roof now far above. His voice echoes as he shares the ancient Maori legend of using water to purify oneself to gain the favour of Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) who the Maori believe dwells deep in the bowels of the earth. We all hold our hands under the narrow steam, to cover all bases.

The last heavy metal door opens into the inner sanctum of the caveLimestone Curtains Ruakui Cave where a vast underground world spreads before us. We move along walkways that are suspended to protect the stalagmites forming on the base of the cave, and which are cleverly designed to flow from level to level without stairs to distract one’s attention (and wheelchair accessible). The incredible array of limestone formations is spectacular: stalactites, stalagmites, columns and many other configurations in variegated hues ranging from white, to pale yellow, to soft gold. Gigantic limestone “curtains” become translucent veils when Angus holds his headlamp behind them.

Ruakui Cave North Island New ZealandWe stand mesmerized in a chamber by the sound of a turbulent underground river. Lord of the Rings aficionados, hang onto your hats! Angus says, “Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have both done the Black Labyrinth tour with their daughter. Also actor Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum).” He further relates the sound technicians from “The Hobbit” did the same tour we are doing now, and they recorded soundscapes for underground scenes in the Hobbit movie, like Gollum’s chamber and under the lonely mountain with Smaug the dragon. As we stand for a time in silence listening to the eerie, echoing sound of this subterranean river dashing against rocks in its path, my thought is there could not have been a better background sound than this resounding overture in Mother Nature’s symphony.

With only the railing to guide us we shuffle into a pitch-blackGlowworms in Ruakui Cave section where we are transfixed in silent reverence and awe at an unexpected intimate encounter with glowworms; their soft illuminating light so close above they appear within reach. Along a side wall their threads of “fishing line” are only a few feet away. Suddenly, on the swirling river below our walkway, a group of people (as part of the Legendary Black Water Tour) float by on tubes, softly voicing “oohs” and “ahhs” as their eyes fix on the amazing glowworm display.

Near the end of the 1.6 km walk (out of the 7.5 km in cave system) Angus points out the original cave entrance, not used as it is on the sacred ground of a Maori burial site. Uncannily it is in proximity of a looming natural corridor, where the man-made walkway ends and we move along an ancient stone path sided by rough greyish rock. The intensity of roaring water increases with each step we take towards an underground waterfall. It is said by the Maori that this chamber is haunted and is where spirits travel thru many underground channels to the tip of the north island, where they leap from a cliff to be reunited with Mother Earth.

Another path leads us back to the spiral walkway where we climb from the depths and squint into the bright sunlight, our feelings akin to both a Sci-fi and Indiana Jones experience with lots of added factual tidbits from geologist Angus.

We leave back for Rotorua saturated with the marvels of Waitomo, and combined with the sights and sounds of the geothermal activity in the Rotorua area, we have been duly WOWED! Although we have just covered a small area of the north island, the geographical phenomena is forever etched in our memories. After 80 countries we never cease to be enthralled with our travels around this big blue ball; seeing the natural and man-made wonders, and being touched by the hospitality of people world-wide.

A few more days to mill around Auckland and it is time to bid New Zealand farewell, and embark on our 13 hour flight to Jakarta Indonesia.

For more info :
Waitomo Caves
Glowworm Cave, Aranui Cave, Ruakuri Cave,
Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Tours into a world of ancient caves, rivers, waterfalls & glowworms
– Black Labyrinth Tour – climb, leap and float
– Black Abyss Tour – descend into the black bottomless depths

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