I set off early from Auckland on Tuesday morning for my first real solo travelling adventure. Unfortunately I hit rush hour in Auckland so it took me a while to escape the city. However, as soon as I hit highway 1 heading south things sped up and by the time I hit Highway 39 it was really just me and the road ahead. Driving in New Zealand certainly is a much more joyful experience than driving in the U.K. I took a leisurely drive, stopping occasionally to take pictures and arrived at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves after about 2 and a half hours feeling very refreshed and keen to explore.
I parked up in the car park opposite the main entrance (no extra charges for parking!.. bonus) and headed through the underpass to the ticketing booths. There are three caves and a variety of options available for seeing them. I would have loved to have seen them all but that would have taken four hours, and a large chunk of my budget, so I opted to just see the main glowworm caves themselves and the Aranui Cave for a package price of NZ$74 (about £42).
The glowworm caves were up first with the next tour starting at 11:30am. As I headed for the entrance I had the obligatory photo taken by an official photographer where I knew there would be the option to buy later. Our very friendly and animated tour guide Denise led us through the rules and safety guidance, which were essentially, no photos, don’t touch anything, mind your head and step, and keep quiet so as not to stress the gloworms.
We headed into the caves where we were greeted by stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations. Denise explained to us how they were formed by water soaking through the limestone over millions of years. We saw how some had formed into pillars and our guide told us it was considered lucky to be dripped on. I must be very lucky as I immediately received a huge cold wet drip to the forehead just as she told us this.
We travelled through various areas of the caves and saw the occasional light of a glowworm above us. We descended into one area and you could see the glowworms hanging from the ceiling with the thin threads they produce to catch prey hanging down below them. This sticky substance reflects the light of the glowworm and attracts passing insects, who quickly become dinner when they get too stuck in the gel.
After this part of the tour it was time for the boat ride. We were asked to maintain silence on the boat ride (some people were not very good at this!), and we descended the stairs into the dark glowworm chambers. Stepping onto the boat which seat around 30-40 people, we took our seats and silently moved off. The boats are powered by our guides pulling us through the caves by a series of ropes. It was quite impressive and I was amazed they didn’t fall in… I would!
Then we arrived in the chamber where the glowworm were nesting and you could have heard a pin drop other than the occasional gasp of a muttered “wow!”. This truly was one of the most stunning scenes I had experienced in all my life and really took my breathe away. The stunning blue green lights from the glowworms hanging over our heads like a sea of stars. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Avatar. We drifted eerily through the abyss, mesmerised by the glowworms for around 10 minutes, before emerging gently back out into the sunshine where we disembarked our boat and the tour ended. This was a truly magical and rather surreal experience.
After a quick once around the gift shop and a look at my photos (which would have made a nice souvenir but in my opinion were very overpriced), I headed back to my car for the five minute drive down to Aranui Cave. Aranui Cave was discovered by Ruruku Aranui whilst out hunting a pig in 1910 and it was named after him. I found the car park here easily and waited by the wooden shelter as instructed.
Our guides arrived at spot on 1pm for our tour and we ascended the long flight of stairs to the cave entrance. Again we were taken through to safety rules… don’t touch anything! Touching the limestones passes over the oils in our skin which can overtime discolour the rock and turn it black. We were also warned that in some areas we would be very close to formations. In the most narrow spaces sensors have been set up which sounds alarms warning you you have got too close to the rocks, slowly back away!
We spent around 45 minutes, exploring the various caves including the cathedral, with its high ceilings and large rock formations, and the “fairy walk” with its smaller, more delicate formations. Our guide explained to us that during an earthquake these caves are one of the safest places to be, due to the porous nature of limestone, and the layers in which they are formed, they experience no movement during an earthquake. The layers simply slide upon each other and all the motion is absorbed completely. For the same reason these caves make an excellent performance venue for singing as any echoes are absorbed. Our guides encouraged us to try it out, but there were no takers. We were told that at Christmas the main Glowworm cave is used as a venue by the local choir who hold a Christmas carol concert there. I can imagine this would be a stunning event to be a part of.
We blinkingly emerged back out into the heat of the daylight and descended back down the stairs to the car park. Then I was back in the car for the two hour (plus photo stops) drive to Taupo.
You can pre-purchase your tickets online at: http://www.waitomo.com/Waitomo-Glowworm-Caves/Pages/default.aspx. I didn’t bother doing this as I wasn’t entirely sure what time I would be arriving there, and I didn’t think it would be as busy as it was. I was lucky, but it might well benefit you to pre-book if you know your arrival time or if it’s a weekend.
Take a layer even if the weather is very hot. It is quite cool in the caves and you will probably appreciate something a bit warmer to wear after a little while.
You can’t take photos inside the main glowworm caves as the lights can upset and confuse the glowworms. You can however take photos inside Aranui Cave. Try and get to the front of the group… you’ll get less people in your photos! And have your flash ready, the caves are quite dark.