Lights out. Our senses raced to process while our eyes recover. We inhaled the dampness of the air as its coolness tightened our skin, while the roar of a distant waterfall grew closer. One-by-one, then cluster-by-cluster, the watery corridor was illuminated by tiny blue lights. We'd entered a literal wormhole to a galaxy inside the earth.
After our heart-pounding abseiling adventure, and a bit of lunch, we reserved the rest of the afternoon to explore more of the expansive Waitomo cave system. Having been on cave tours before, we'd learned not to expect much outside of leisurely strolls between 'tites and 'mites with a few facts thrown in. Perfect. We were exhausted and this would be a nice mental break. By now though, New Zealand taught us not to expect the norm.
After piling into the tour van and setting off on our gravel-coated path to the underworld, our guide donned his amplified headset and said:
"My name is Norm. I'll be your guide through the caves today."
From the moment we entered that van, we knew Norm would be one of the better guides we'd have for any experience. After a round of get-to-knows with our tour-mates, he explained he'd spent most of his adult life exploring, mapping and guiding the cave system we'd be entering. Norm was a living encyclopedia when it came to the region, its geology and flora/fauna. We're a couple of sponges when it comes to cool facts, so we loved nerding-out with a guide whose passion for what we were about to explore showed every step of the way.
We meandered through rolling hills dotted with spectacular limestone formations, while the clouds scattered sunlight, amplifying the picturesque views. It was one of those New Zealand days where all was right. As we arrived at our first destination, the glowworm cave, we were allowed to choose our own adventure: continue the ride down or take a five minute scenic walk down.
We hope by now you know which we chose:
Listen up, Maggots
One of the perks of choosing the Spellbound tour, and thus Norm's services, was exclusive rights to the glowworm-populated cave we were entering. Norm made it clear that other tour companies and the glowworm caves they explore were much less intimate, and spend less time with the namesake of their tours. We initially chalked this comment up to the competitive nature of tours in the area, but we'd soon appreciate how unique the Spellbound experience was over the others. Helmets on heads and some ground-rules in place, Norm shepherded us into the cave while the local sheep population bleated their support.
After some geological support of the cave's formation: sea, limestone, rain, rivers, etc., Norm explained that the main event, the "glowworms", are actually maggots of the Fungus Gnat Fly. This was explained with a chuckle and clarification that "glowmaggots" didn't have the same ring, so they were lent a new moniker for better marketability. These little guys have a better PR team than some startups back home.
As we wandered through the cave, we observed different stages of the fly's lifecycle, including how they hunt. Using dew-coated silk threads that hang from the cave's ceiling, prey is guided into the sticky trap by the larva's bioluminescence (a.k.a. ass-lights), the only natural source of light in the cave. In this way they're akin, but unrelated to spiders. Ain't evolution grand?
We boarded a rubber raft, just large enough to fit our party, and Norm gave us a quick rundown of what to expect. Like the abseiling tour a few hours before, everyone's first instinct is rightly to photograph the sh*t out of it. Norm explained, also rightly, that our photographic efforts would be no good here. To truly value the experience, and to protect the sensitive nature of glowworms being outshone by flashy competition, we were to refrain from photography or video. We sneakily attempted to get the GoPro set for low light, but Josh couldn't hide the device's LEDs from Norm. Busted, but with a knowing smile.
We were encouraged to lean back and remain as silent as possible as the raft was guided by hand, using ropes overhead. A breathtaking amount of blue lights in varying intensity came into view as our pupils widened in the darkness. We stared at the earthly stars, with underground rapids as our soundtrack, and time seemed to stop for us alone.
The amount of time we spent moving through the glowworm portion was quite generous, and it was especially beautiful to experience it in a meditative way. Far too often we forget to be present in a moment like this, and a guide worth their salt communicates this in a way that resonates and elicits the respect of the group.
Moved By the Spirit
After some tea, biscuits and light conversation with our tour group, we strolled to the nearby "Cave of the Spirit". You could say the "spirits" of previous explorers, both man and animal, live on in this cave in the form of "graffiti" and bones. As for Its modern spirit, Norm and a small team spent more than a year building an eco-friendly pathway through the cave, complete with lighting, which helps to protect and preserve formations closer to the ground from the impact of multiple tours a week.
Among the caves we've visited, CotS is the most well-rounded in its visible attributes considering time spent touring. In geologic terms, it features: stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, columns, cathedrals, boxwork, pearls and cave holes with shafts of light.
After spending a bit of time in a "cathedral", where Norm would later sing for us to demonstrate acoustics, we passed through a seemingly nondescript formation. Above ground on the drive in, Norm pointed out a fault line that runs through the area. Below ground we had just met this fault line face to face. It's not often you get this close to something of such geological significance.
A bit further in, our attention was brought to various sets of bones which had found their way into the cave. The cave's "holey spirit" had brought them there, as a set of Moa bones clearly showed a shattered pelvis after a fall through the cave's ceiling. This giant, flightless bird species is now extinct which makes this a rare close encounter with any extinct species outside of a museum exhibit. Another set of bones was an ancestor of the local cow which had likely washed in after a heavy rain. These discoveries were among the most unique historical elements we encountered in our travels to New Zealand.
Get Ready to be Spellbound
Norm rocked, and that's a testament to Spellbound's awesome service and knowledgeable guides. The cave was alright too... *wink*. We highly recommend booking with Spellbound and spending at least a full day in the Waitomo district.
Company: Spellbound Glowworm and Cave Tour
Tour: Shuttle + 2 Cave Tour
Cost: $75 NZD per adult / $26 NZD per child or infant
- It can be a bit damp and chilly, definitely bring a jacket or sweater.
- Taking pictures of caves can be tricky. If you're looking for these moody shots, practice shooting in low light before you arrive.
- The Spellbound office is on the south side of Waitomo Village Road across from HUHU Cafe, which has a nice lunch. Don't be confused by the image in Google Maps.
- Tell Norm hello from us!