Waitomo Glowworm Caves adventure

22nd Feb 2019 by

It was a frigidly cold New Zealand winters morning. We’d left the eerily mist-covered Lake Taupo pre-dawn and were now whistling our way 200 miles north. Colm, my travel-buddy was asleep in the double-bed above my head and I was humming ‘The Fields of Athenry’ whilst driving our RV in the direction of the Waitomo Caves.

On the road in New Zealand

There is something about early starts in an RV. Getting the day moving with purpose, getting on the road, up and at it without delay – it’s invigorating. Sometimes I make the time for a coffee before the off but usually, like this day, I just roll out of bed, throw some clothes on and jump straight into the drivers seat. Coffee could be garnered en route.

New Zealand might be my favourite country, and this trip had been organised for one specific reason – to follow the British and Irish Lions rugby team. The journey had already extended over 6 weeks and 6,000kms of New Zealand’s most scenic routes. The matches, well more accurately, the post match celebrations and the tough travel schedule had taken their toll. I was exhausted, my body was breaking down and I was harbouring an oncoming cold. My physical and mental state required hot pools rather than being underground in frigid waters and complete darkness.

Waitomo Caves

Waitomo Caves are an extensive collection of caves and underground passageways in King Country of New Zealand’s north island. They are a popular tourist attraction, in no small part, due to having options available for all different levels of adventurer. Some of the caves can be explored via metal walkways, you can drift through others on a small boat, or you could choose one of the more extreme options like Colm and I did.

The Black Water Rafting trip was a cross between caving, canyoning and underground rafting and it promised to be far more thrilling than the cave exploration or boat trips.

Big men on tour

Colm and I became friends when we packed down in the same Esher RFC front-row for a couple of years in the early 2010’s. My playing weight was around 120kg and Colm probably tipped the scales a bag of sugar or so more, meaning we were both heavy men. Since retirement from playing, I have started running marathons and thereby dropped some weight, Colm has started eating Marathons and maybe put on a pound or two.

This is only relevant as in most tour groups I am the biggest/heaviest person. I vividly recall being slain by a tour guide whilst attempting to parasail off the back of a catamaran in Mexico. Having watched around a dozen other people soar effortlessly into the sky under the wind filled sail, it was now my turn. I sat on the wooden seat that was attached to the sail, waited as they hoisted the rig above sea-level and then… nothing. I proceeded to dangle my feet in the water for what felt like a lifetime, barely ever lifting off, let alone soaring. As the entire group watched me flounder from the back of the catamaran, sipping cocktails and tanning, the tour guide shouted “Too many tacos, amigo!” That wouldn’t be me, not today…

Arriving in Waitomo

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world to enjoy from behind the wheel and the 2hr drive had flown by. Morning light had crept over the horizon and Colm awoke to join me in the cab around Whakamaru. The freezing pre-dawn car park by the lake in Taupo had been replaced by an equally freezing car park at the Waitomo Caves – it hadn’t warmed up at all!

We were early so got ourselves registered and signed the requisite waivers. We didn’t read them, as I’m certain no other human in the history of the world has done. Safe in the knowledge that they could now ask us to do anything, with complete absolution of liability (should we die or get horribly injured), we grabbed coffee and a bacon roll and sat down to watch our co-victims arrive.

The tour group takes shape

The skills of the tour leader are critical in group tours, shaping the enjoyment of the random selection of people thrown together on that particular day. A young kiwi lad came and introduced himself as our tour guide – with long, surf strangled hair and baggy shorts, he was way too cool for school. I liked his ‘am I hungover or do I just not care’ attitude and I felt entirely satisfied that this surfer dude would be leading our tour.

The group slowly grew in numbers and it appeared to be a friendly outgoing gang – a lot of Brits, also here to see the rugby – and a few other small groups. We boarded a dilapidated old minibus in the freezing rain and proceeded down a muddy pot-holed trail towards the river. The female version of Surfer Dude introduced herself as our co-tour guide and started to generate some bonding within the group via a series of ice-breakers.

She suggested we introduce ourselves, saying where we’re from and naming one thing that we were afraid of. Sitting in the front row of seats meant that I got nominated to go first. Betraying my inner introvert nervousness, I turned to face the rest of the bus and said “Hi, I’m Tim from England and I’m deathly afraid of caves”. Honestly, I make myself laugh sometimes.

Getting ready for the Waitomo Caves adventure

The next part of the day, I’m sure, wasn’t supposed to be part of the official entertainment, but getting dressed in wetsuits and rubber boots provided a laugh a minute. Due to the frigid conditions and to protect our skin from the gnarly rocks, the wetsuits used were very thick. Everyone struggled to get them on but dressing Colm was like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube.

Waitomo Caves wetsuits on

Any hopes I had at avoiding all ridicule were short-lived as the miners helmets got passed around. Asking for “The biggest you have, please” I was given the ’special’ red helmet for people with ginormous melons. Having extended all straps and loosened all settings, it still only just perched on top of my giant head.

Waitomo Caves red helmet

White rubber boots completed ‘the look’ and we were on our way to the river. Oh, there was one more thing we would need – a rubber ring for floatation. As we filed past Surfer Dude, he handed each of us the equivalent of a standard car inner tube. We were busy comparing tubes for size and firmness when Surfer Dude came back, looked Colm up and down, took his tube off him and said he’d be right back. We looked at each other quizzically until he returned with a tube that’s former life was most likely spent on a farm. “There, that’ll see you right” he said.

Waitomo Caves group before

Surfer Chick tagged in for the next round of entertainment as she talked us through how to sit on the ring, and most importantly how to enter the water safely. Outlining the need to hold the ring close to your bum and the necessity of landing flat on the ring with your feet up when you jump in, she walked us up to a wooden platform which had a 10ft drop to the tiny stream below. People looked around nervously and muttered under their breath, as frankly, it didn’t look at all safe. The hastily signed waiver was fresh in my mind as I mentally prepared to jump in if everyone else did.

One of the girls was closest to the front so got volunteered to go first and she moved towards the front of the platform like a vegan approaching a steak. Surfer Chick started a countdown as the rest of us looked on with mixed feelings of relief and concern. “Three, Two, Only kidding, you’re going in down there” as she pointed to a piece of riverbank which was much lower and had plenty of space to jump in. The colour returned to the volunteered girls face and everyone else breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Entering the Waitomo water

Feeling relaxed, the first person jumped, holding the ring close to his bum and lifting his feet as instructed. In retrospect, he probably lifted his feet too high as he hit the water, bounced, did a backflip and went head first into the icy brown river. Surfacing like a cat that had just fallen through broken ice; he left us in no doubt about just how cold the water was. We’d gotten toasty warm walking about in our super-thick wetsuits on dry land – that was about to change.

One by one we entered the water and despite no ‘cat’-astrophe’s like the first entrant, everyone squealed a little as the icy flow entered their wetsuits warmth. Colm went last, which was fortunate, as afterwards there wasn’t much water left in the river.

Waitomo Caves group

With everyone now comfortable on their rubber ring, it was safe for us to enter the cave system. Surfer Girl led the group, indian file, into the darkness with Surfer Dude bringing up the rear. We walked through water, deep and shallow, made some jumps into pools on our rings like we’d practiced outside and stopped to look at stalactites, stalagmites and various kinds of creepy crawlies via the light from our helmet-torches.

Witnessing the Waitomo glow worms

Up until this point, we’d floated on our rings in a haphazard fashion, freely exploring the wide waterways. However, the Surfer Twins had specific instructions for the much narrower glowworm section. Sitting in our rings, we were to make a single file line and shove our feet under the armpits of the person in front, clamping our own armpits down on the feet of the person behind. Writing this now, it sounds terribly awkward, and it was tricky to get everyone linked up, but once connected we were a stable, comfy, daisy-chain of floating donuts. What a team!

Waitomo Caves floating

The gentle flow of the river moved us along the underground passage. With our head torches extinguished we were plunged into complete darkness, just the sensation of someone else’s feet under our armpits for comfort. As is law in this kind of situation, people started making silly noises. First, the ‘Mwah-hah-hah-ha’ evil cackle, which was followed up by a few monkey noises and a passing elephant. People laughed, then people stopped laughing and started making sounds common to any fireworks display as the roof of the cave sparkled into life.

Surfer Dude explained to us that the glowworms, a larvae found only in New Zealand, react to sound by glowing. This luminance attracts their prey; all types of small flies, which are caught on mucus covered threads of silk. The glowworm then ingests the thread of silk and the doomed prey alive. Delightful.

Singing to the glow worms

He suggested that the glowworms particularly enjoy singing and asked if we knew any songs? Did we know any songs?! Our singing had been a point of pride to all the Lions supporters over the last 6 weeks as we had out-sung the local support up and down the country.

So, full of gusto we launched into the British repertoire of rugby songs. “Land of my Fathers” (Wales), “Flower of Scotland” (Scotland), and “Swing low” (England) were followed by a certain Irish song. The memory of floating along an underground river on a rubber ring in complete darkness, feet-to-armpit with my fellow adventurers, blasting out “The Fields of Athenry” as the glowworms glittered like a desert night sky will live with me forever.

Hours later, as the evening light dimmed and we approached the outskirts of Hamilton, I caught myself humming “Fields of Athenry” once more. Songs can become associated with time and place. I don’t suppose many people will have the same memories that I do of that famous Irish rugby song.

What’s nearby?

If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, the Hobbiton movie set is about 100kms away. Lake Taupo, home to many exciting sports and activities is around 2hrs south. Or to the west, there are amazing beach towns, my favourite being the laid-back surf spot, Raglan.

Here’s what The Ultimate Travelist said:

“Proving you don’t have to rocket into space to discover alien landscapes, Waitomo Caves are all the more surprising for their location under workaday New Zealand farmland. There are various portals into this underworld. At Ruakuri Cave, a futuristic stairway corkscrews down into labyrinthine passageways and huge caverns. Nearby is Glowworm Cave, with its acoustically sweet chamber and underground boat ride beneath a ’sky’ twinkling with a galaxy of glow-worms. The most geologically striking cave is Aranui, with its array of limestone formations and thousands of ’straw’ stalactites resembling dragon’s teeth. For the ultimate deep-space exploration, embark on a Black Water Rafting trip where you don a wetsuit and inner-tube to clamber through cavities and float through subterranean waterways.”

Get your copy of Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist here.

Tunnocks World Tour sum up

Without reaching the extremes of my ATM Cave adventure, this was a highly enjoyable experience. It’s really difficult to put into words how spectacular the glowworms are in complete, utter blackness. I 100% concur that this natural wonder should make the Ultimate Travelist Top 500.

Have you been to the Waitomo Caves? Did you go to one of the other caves or have a different experience? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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