New Zealand

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

As we made our way across the North Island, and counted down the days until our flight out of Auckland, I had a little think back to all the things I had wanted to do when I first arrived in New Zealand.

I’d bungee jumped in Queenstown, skydived in the Abel Tasman, made wine in Napier, skied in the Southern Hemisphere, but the ONE thing that I was yet to tick off my list was a visit to the Waitomo Caves. The caves are one of the few places in New Zealand that enable you to get up close and see the incredible glow worms that live there, with many tourists eager to see their beauty for themselves; so it was time to head on over and take a look at these little glowing bad boys for myself.

The problem with Waitomo is that apart from the caves there isn’t really much else to do there. This main tourist destination is surrounded by fields and fields and, well, more fields, meaning that it’s not really worth driving off the beaten track to get to. However, our route up north had been planned under the assumption that the sun would be shining and we’d be living in shorts and pretty summer dresses, meaning that we had aimed to go up to the Coromandel and spend two days beaching it up; but with the weather throwing a spanner in the works it meant that we had to fill this two day gap with something a little more indoor.

We drove the two hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo the night before, camping at a gorgeous (and free!) campsite not far from the caves, before getting up early to join the 8:30am tour. I booked through bookme, meaning that I only paid $99 for a three hour tour, but I didn’t really know quite what I was getting myself in for. Despite having both ‘glow worm’ and ‘caves’ in the title, smartarse over here didn’t actually realise that what I’d booked to do was classified as caving. Caving: crawling through small spaces in the ground, in the dark. I hate small spaces, and I hate the dark. Lolz. There’s not many things in life that I would say I would never want to try but caving was one of them, so had I not accidentally booked onto the tour then there’s a good chance that I would never have given it a go. Some may say this is stupidity, others would say it’s fate…

Dave decided to give this activity a miss due to funds, meaning that I was left to tackle this challenge on my own. I walked into the office of ‘Glowing Adventures’ feeling a little nervous at how I would cope with what was to come, but rest assured, as the others in my group arrived my nerves were beginning to settle. There were five of us, two Americans and two Germans, and we were all exchanging words of support as we headed into the changing rooms.

All clothing and equipment was provided – thermal base layers, shorts, a fleece, socks, a helmet and wellies – meaning that I wouldn’t have to worry about dirtying my own clothes. We dressed, had our briefing, and began the walk down to the caves.

Unlike the well known Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, the main company that people book their tours with, Glowing Adventures is a small family run business with the caves situated in their back garden. I could hardly believe that their garden was home to such an incredible sight, and as we reached the caves opening I noted how vast the entrance was, with stalagmites forming on either side of the river running through its middle. Our tour guide, Heath, took us for a walk through the river, to help us to get used to wading through it in our wellies whilst also sharing stories of his childhood where he first began exploring the cave. Already I had begun slipping on the stones beneath, wobbling as the gentle current knocked me off balance, but everyone felt the same so we laughed at our clumsiness.

We headed inside the cave and began our journey to the glow worms. There was a lot of climbing over rocks, shuffling through the water and squealing as the water filled our wellies (although it wasn’t overly cold, and the water never went above our knees). The rocks were mostly damp, and the walls were covered in what I can only describe as looking like cauliflower – it was actually just calcified water, which is how stalagmites and stalactites are created – but made the cave look even more impressive. And a little mouldy. Our group took their time clambering through the cave, which is great as I was dreading feeling like I was struggling to keep up with the others, but we all kept together and brought out the inner Mountain Goat within us all.

Some sections of the cave were narrow. Very narrow. But my group were great at talking to one another to keep those less confident (myself) calm. I could feel my heart rate increase, beginning to panic at the prospect of crawling through the tiny space in front of me; I feared getting stuck and having to live in the cave forever and turning into a deformed creature referred to as the Taniwha (river monster) like those ugly creatures from the film The Descent (do not watch this if you’re going caving). But, funnily enough, that never happened, and every time I would feel my body relax slightly as each obstacle was overcome. I also noticed as the tour went on that I hardly even acknowledged the darkness. Apart from the few occasions where we turned off our headlights, to see the glow worms, you would almost forget that you were in an area of without any natural light whatsoever.

Now to discuss the glow worms – what is a glow worm? In my head I had painted an image of a pretty little fluorescent caterpillar but they actually look a lot like, um, well, worms. Funny that? They remain glow worms for 9 months before turning into flies, which when you think about them like that it sort’ve ruins the magical-ness of the whole experience. But, and I mean this, they are beautiful. We switched off our headlamps and sat and waited as thousands of glow worms appeared before our very eyes all across the cave’s walls. Tiny green glows filled the room, opening up in front of us like stars in the night sky. Time after time we would each attempt to photograph this incredible spectacle, and time after time we would fail; it seems these tiny bugs are a little camera shy, as it’s nearly impossible to get a photograph of them. The best way to see these tiny creatures is to do just that – go and see them.

The feeling of accomplishment as we walked out of the cave and back up to the house was phenomenal. I had done it. I had been caving! And I had lived to tell the tale. And what’s more I was rewarded with a free shower and a biccy afterwards. Marvellous.

But was the tour worth even the discounted price of $99? Yes and no. Yes, I overcame fears and saw beautiful sights that I’ll probably never see again, and learnt about the variation in cave formations, and saw the incredible NZ glow worm. But also no, because you can actually see the glow worms, for free, in a lot of other places around New Zealand (which I learnt on the tour, not beforehand), without fearing for your life in a deep dark cave. But would I have learnt so much, and faced a fear, if I hadn’t done this tour? Probably not, no.

Check out these embarrassing pictures of my adventure below:

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Thank you Glowing Adventures for pushing me out of my comfort zone and for the great experience!

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