Sam Long takes a tubing trip underground to see the rare glow-worms that call Waitomo Caves’ home.
After a quick drive from Rotorua in the Gay Mobile, (my trusted Nissan Sunny with the unfortunate number plate of GAY920), I was in Waitomo ready for a bout of Black Water Rafting. Now, everyone’s heard of white water rafting but I had doubts a raft could fit in an underground cave so I was unsure what to expect.
I had chosen the devilish sounding ‘Black Labyrinth’ which sounds like some sort of punishment rather than a voluntary tour, but I was assured I was in safe hands. When we got to the caves it looked like every other field I’d seen over the past month, very hilly and full of sheep.
As we made our way down to the cave entrance we passed a farmer who looked as smug as Richard Branson does, (constantly). I wondered why he was so chuffed to see us but our guide explained a loophole in the law meant that if you owned the ground above a cave then you legally had claim to what was beneath the ground too. Considering there was well over 100 caves in Waitomo but only a handful were safe to use commercially I reckon he left his days of sheep shearing behind him a long time ago.
The first challenge was squeezing through the tiny crack that was the cave entrance. Although it was only a ladder climb of about 20 feet, it was pitch black after about four steps down. Once the group had assembled and headlights had been switched on we started wading through the underground river. It was about waist deep and very uneven underfoot, with an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites all around us.
This wasn’t one for claustrophobics, believe me. We would reach what can only be described as a hole and somehow go through it. But you couldn’t just crawl through as the width often wouldn’t allow for this well learnt method of movement. Instead, an ungracious slither was the best option.
After a combination of walking, swimming and wading for a while, (it was very hard to gauge how far we had travelled), I had my first glimpse of the glow-worms. Everyone turned their lights off and you could get a sense for how many they were. Thousands and thousands sat nestled above us attached to the roof of the cave. It was like something from another world, looking up at the night sky on a starry night.
Flickr credit: Nick Bramhall
The glow-worms, or arachnocampa luminosa to give them their full name, hang a small silk like thread and trap unsuspecting flies and midges that are attracted to the small light they produce. Funnily enough the worms that are the hungriest glow the brightest, improving their chances of catching a meal. But it turns out they aren’t actually worms but larvae. And the glow is actually created by their excretory organ. I can see why they try to keep this under wraps. I doubt the crowds would be flocking to see the wonderful glowing maggot poo of Waitomo.
Flickr credit: 4nitsirk
Next up was tubing. Made famous by Vang Vieng in Laos, it involves getting into an inner tube and floating along a river. But instead of embracing the tradition of getting totally off my trolley, this was a more relaxed approach. As we drifted downstream the cave opened up above us, reaching heights of about eight metres, giving us a panoramic view of the glow-worms above. We glided along until we met the sunlight beaming through a crack above us.
Flickr credit: Ianz
Having been underground for three hours when we reached the surface the sun was so bright it left me feeling like Gollum, wanting to retreat into the precious darkness, which was fitting as we were in the land of Middle Earth itself. Come on, a whole article on New Zealand without a Lord of the Rings reference, not on my watch.
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