The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are the world-renowned natural cave structures we can walk through today, formed around 30 million years ago from the bones and shells of marine fossils, hardened into sedimentary rock, lifted out of the sea and over the centuries water flowed through cracks widening them into the channels and caverns we see today!
No doubt we’ve all seen the image of the wee dingy gliding through the dark Glowworm Grotto, illuminated by the ceiling of blue lights twinkling above like stars in the night. This magical image sticks in our minds and whether you’re a local or an overseas traveller the trip to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves gets jotted on our “must see” list. Happily over the Easter break the kids and I had the chance to tick it off!
What makes up the Waitomo Caves?
Waitomo is about 2.5 hours south of Auckland and 2 hours west of Rotorua. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are situated along the Waitomo Caves Road, off State Highway 3. Here you’ll find a cafe, restaurant, exhibition space, theatre, gift shop and the Visitors Centre where you can purchase tickets to the number of different cave tours available. The Ruakuri Cave is Waitomo’s longest underground guided walking tour and is also the only wheelchair-accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere, so you can bring the pushchair for the little ones to manage the approximate 2 hour long walk. The Aranui Cave is the smallest and most delicate of Waitomo’s three main caves. As a dry cave without a river running through it, there’s very little life past its entrance apart from a colony of native NZ cave wetas and a beautiful collection of decorative limestone formations. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves has two levels 16 metres apart. The upper level is dry and includes the entrance to the cave, and formations known as the Catacombs, the Pipe Organ and the Banquet Chamber. The lower level consists of stream passages and the Cathedral, as well as the boat ride through the grotto. The tours touted as the “most fun you can have in the dark” are the Black Abyss and Black Labyrinth – they’re caving and rafting tours you can sink your adventurous teeth into through the Ruakuri Cave.
The Waitomo Glowworm Cave tour
Glowworms can be seen in the Ruakuri Cave (photos permitted), and of course the Waitomo Glowworm Cave (photos not permitted). We embarked on the latter, a 45 minute guided tour taking us underground through the Catacomb formations and down to the Cathedral where the magnificence of underground caves is unveiled. Imagine it, stepping underground into the channels of bright white limestone carved by water thousands of years ago into smooth and jutting shapes forming the gently lit corridors we wander through… it’s quite romantic in a way and no wonder there’s been a few couples who’ve exchanged vowels inside, had wedding portraits taken, opera singers have performed, and even a Christmas choir has sung carols in the perfect acoustics of the Cathedral cavern.
Our humorous guide lead the way to this Cathedral cavern where the light drops away and your eyes need a chance to adjust, the ground is meters below at one point and the cave ceiling meters above, the cavern is huge and once those eyes have adjusted it really is beautiful. Stalactites, stalagmites, pillars and other cave decorations formed over hundreds of years are limestone crystal deposits, created by water as it drips from the roof or down walls. It’s those intriguing decorations, scalloped walls and the impressive cavern that maketh the picture, and all those years it takes to form them keeps us from touching the rock as it can be damaged and discoloured.
During our tour we hear the story of the Maori Chief Tane Tinorau who discovered the caves in late 1800s, we learn the geological magic behind the caves, how they were formed so so long ago and how they are maintained and monitored today. Cave “points of reference” are pointed out to us – an elephants face, a stalagmit family, even Bob Marley’s hair. A brave member of our group sang a song at the point in the Cathedral where the acoustics are best, followed by a brave person every group thereafter, and of course we learn about the glowworms themselves – a larvae of a species of gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa, unique to New Zealand. Their tails are bioluminescent, the chemicals they produce react with the oxygen in the air to generate light. They spin sticky threads from the roof of the cave, and use the light from their tails to attract other insects and trap them in the threads to eat! Or as they’re also known – cute little glow bugs with smiling faces and little lit up backsides illuminating these historic caves and leading us through a wondrous wonderland.
There’s many groups travelling through this wonderland with us and in some way it detracts slightly from the fantasy that you’re discovering this sight for yourself by yourself, but the silence of the small boat trip through the dark Glowworm Grotto creates that romantic sense of adventure through this wondrous wonderland by boat, illuminated by some bugs beautiful blue bums.
What we thought…
There’s talk of an Indiana Jones re-make with a female lead – Indiana Joans, and that’s where my imagination took me! Indiana Joans… and the kids, of course, wearing matching jodhpurs and khaki hats, adventuring through caves filled with natural history and discovering an underground wonderland of limestone crystal and caverns, and night skies filled with the stars of the galaxy. The little Indies matched the storyline perfectly, wide-eyed and enthralled by their venture underground, most of the information going over their heads didn’t matter much as it left them to their own imaginative world, stepping through the dimly lit cave and into the very dark glowworm grotto to take the boat, with each step holding tight, both excited and scared but thoroughly captivated by their real life adventure.
Then, you get off the boat and enter the harsh light of day, and get back to reality, but you feel inspired that you’ve just seen something quite special and have been reminded of the brilliance of nature, which we are all eager to experience again!
Written for Kidspot by Ronnie Swainston