On the Road: Waitomo Glowworm Caves / by Heather

On my 5th day in NZ, I took the Intercity bus from Rotorua to Waitomo, where I would be staying the night and taking part in the only thing I actually booked ahead of time…the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The caves are internationally famous for housing huge populations of glowworms….little maggots that attach themselves to dark, wet surfaces and hang threads of sticky silk down from their bodies to catch other insects for food. They attract their prey to their silk threads with iridescent blue lights on their butts, making a spectacular sight in a perpetually dark place, such as a cave, where millions of them may gather together and look all for the world like a miniature galaxy of stars, shining down from above.

Photo by Thorsten Boeckel

Photo by Thorsten Boeckel

The tour I booked had somewhat special meaning to me, as it was something I have wanted to do for a long time. I had first heard of the Glowworm Caves in an episode of Planet Earth, one of my most favourite travel lust-inducing shows. Later, I bought a traveler’s guide companion book for Planet Earth that outlined how one could get to and experience many of the spectacular places featured on the show. I turned to the page about the Waitomo Caves and read with fervor how one could abseil (rappel) into the caves, go blackwaterrafting (rafting on an underground river) and see the glowworms up close in person. I said firmly to myself, “I will do this.” That was a little over a year ago and today, I have done it. Being able to point at some fantastical place, some amazing adventure you’ve only read or heard about and vow to yourself that you will go there, that you will experience it for yourself, and then…actually do it…..to me, that is the passion that drives travel and when you can actually fulfill your vow to yourself, the feeling is so unbelievably rewarding. So Waitomo was for me.

I booked The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co.’s longest and most expensive tour because it had everything I wanted to do and I felt that it would be well worth the money. The tour I took is called The Black Abyss and is 5 hours long. I had arrived in Waitomo a few hours before my tour started and checked into my hostel, Juno Hall, which was right across the road from the tour company, yet was very peaceful and beautiful, surrounded by the rolling pasture hills of Waitomo’s King Country. To kill some time, I hiked through the cultivated land and bits of native rainforest that had not been cleared away, finding a deserted trail that led to a historical Maori pa stronghold (a pa is a Maori village) on top of a hill. I was also thrilled to find that the hostel had a number of farm animals wandering around its grounds, all of which I happily patted and gave chin rubs to. Eventually I grabbed my swimsuit and towel and headed down to meet up with my tour.

There were only 8 people on our tour, the maximum allowed, and our two guides, named Logan and Anne. They were friendly, helpful, funny, and informative, without being overbearing or too peppy. I tend to avoid tours and their accompanying guides and crowds like the plague, but very small adventure tours, like this one, I can appreciate more because you get close to the people you’re with….you can exchange fears and excitement with each other, help each other through difficult parts, cheer one another through each obstacle. Our little group was a good one too, with healthy spirits and humour.

At the tour base, we all got changed into wetsuits, complete with jackets, socks, and little booties. Then we were suited up into harnesses and helmets and driven several km down the road to the site of the cave entrance. There, they had posts with ropes attached running down a hill, so we could practice attaching our harnesses to the rope, learn how to change our speed and stop, and fake-abseil down the hill. Once we felt somewhat comfortable, we lined up at what I would describe as a dock. Except instead of being out over water, it jutted out over a large hole in ground that led down into the pitch-black darkness of the earth.

One by one, assisted by Logan and Anne, we got buckled into the rope, then had to lean over the dock and sit in our harness, suspended over the hole. Then we got to watch as each person slowly descended down the rope into darkness. For my part, I was extremely excited to go down into the hole, my only concern being that I would give myself rope burn clutching on the rope to stop if I started falling too fast. But I didn’t need to worry about that as Logan actually warned me that because of my smaller size, I would actually have to work harder to go down the rope.

Once I was hanging beside the dock, in mid-air over the cave abyss, I was exhilarated. My descent down the rope was a little slow because, as Logan predicted, it was challenging for me to get any speed going and I never once had to try to stop myself from falling too quickly. It was incredible though, especially once I got through the cavern opening and everything was dark. All I could see looking down was the rope and the side of the cave (that I would occasionally bounce against) and darkness. The descent itself was 35 meters, or about 11 stories. When I reached the bottom, Anne was there to help get free of the rope. Once everyone made it down into the cave, we started walking through the darkness, with only our headlamps illuminating our path.

After a short walk through some limestone formations and seas life fossils that had been etched into the rocks for millions of years, we came to a flying fox, or as we call them in the States, a zip line, running through a narrow tunnel before opening up into a large cavern with a river running through it below. Logan told us that we each had to give our best scream as we went down it, and though I’m not usually much of a screamer, I do have an ear-splitting horror movie scream that I let loose when I went down last. As I reached the bottom, I could just barely see the shocked faces of my tour mates before I felt myself being pulled up backwards on the zip line, by Logan who shouted, “Do it again!” So back down I went, screaming and whizzing through the darkness. As Logan came down himself, he explained that the scream was worth repeating….I was just pleased that I got to do the zip line twice.

From there, we all sat on the edge of a rock ledge, with our feet dangling over the river, as Logan and Anne gave us coffee and tea from a thermos and these amazing treacle/oats/mystery deliciousness bars. We rested and chatted and enjoyed the sight of glowworms twinkling down from the roof of the cave. But our break didn’t last long until we were handed intertubes and made to jump off the ledge (which was not exactly short) into the river. The hard impact and cold of the water was quite the shock and woke us all up as we started to wade upstream into the cave.

Now I should mention, that when I was reading reviews online about the different tours, I found one from a milder tour (one of the many that just took people in a boat for a half hour through the cave) that described how their guide hung some raw meat off the side of the boat and a couple huge eels jumped up and ate the meat.

Wait…what the hell??

That’s what I was thinking as we were getting ready to descend into the cave…we were going to be swimming in meat-eating eel infested waters? Logan confirmed that there were in fact eels in the river, but the water would be so cloudy that they would see us but we wouldn’t see them. Thanks Logan, that was reassuring. I mentioned some of my eel concerns to one of the guys on the tour, but he started going on enthusiastically about how he once fed enormous alligators from the side of a boat and then I remembered that he was Australian, from a place where everything wants to kill and eat you, and talking to him about a few little eels was not going to make much of an impression. So I sucked it up waded, floated, and swam through the dark murky waters, trying not to picture all the little eels around me. Luckily, I never felt one brush against me, though truth be told, I would have been excited to see one.

(though now that I see a picture of one...they are kinda cute. Photo credit here)

So onward we waded upstream, pushing our tubes in front of us and occasionally jumping up and down and shuffling our feet to stay warm. We finally made our way to a spot where the cavern narrowed and Logan explained this was as far as the group of us could go this direction. We then all got on our tubes and rafted up, each of us with someone’s feet on our tube and our own feet on a tube in front of us, and so in that way, we all floated back down the river together. We floated in silence, with our headlamps off and our eyes turned up to the roof of the cave, where all the glowworms shined down on us. That was a very magical and beautiful part of the tour, reverent in its silence and awe-inspiring for everyone.

Once we floated through the glowworm-lit cavern, we ditched the intertubes and went hiking for the next hour through the river. We clambered over underwater rocks, went sliding through rapids, squeezed through tiny cave formations, and climbed up the sides of the cave to jump off into deeper parts of the river. We even got another little break, where we were fed warm, sugary cider and chocolate. When we finally were nearing the end of our adventure, Anne gathered us all up for a huddle and gave us a pep talk for the last obstacle ahead of us…. “The Twin Waterfalls of Death, Despair, and Doom!!” Or something like that. We weren’t going to be jumping off them, but rather even more surprising, we were going to be climbing up them. After squeezing through another tight opening in the rocks, we faced the first underground waterfall. Now to be fair, this wasn’t an enormous waterfall, but it was perhaps a good 30 feet high….perhaps…I am a terrible judge of height….and depth…and width. But it was a good size. Anne and Logan would point out handholds and ledges to put our feet on and then we would each haul our way through the roaring water that threatened to push us back into the cave depths.

It was an exhilarating experience to reach the top of the falls, crawling over the edge on my hands and knees through a dark tunnel that I followed until I saw the light of the one guy who had gone before me. We rested in a little cove at the top, pulling our fellows tour mates in as they each reached the top and all of us just looking around at each other with huge grins on our faces, just saying over and over again how amazing this all was.

Once the guides followed behind us, they led the way the way to the next and final waterfall, that once we climbed up, we were greeted by the light of day and the beautiful rainforest all around us. We gathered at the cave opening, in a very inconspicuous stream that hardly hinted at the incredible treasures it led to. From there, we hiked a trail back to the van, feeling like very awkward ducks as we tried to lift our feet with our boots heavy and full with water. By the van, we all collapsed into the grass, peeling off soaked layers of our wetsuits, exhausted from our adventure, and still incredulous from all we had done and seen.

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were one of the best nature adventures I’ve had and an experience I’m not likely to ever forget. The Blackwater Rafting Company put on a fantastic tour that left me feeling like I have been incredibly lucky to experience what I did, not like I’ve just been cycled through a tourist mechanism. I highly recommend the Black Abyss tour to anyone who is reasonably fit, confident of their own physical ability, and not afraid of heights, numb toes, or wee eels.