The Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Wednesday, February 10
Wednesday dawned sunny and crystal clear. This was somewhat unfortunate, because today we had chosen to explore the underground - away from sun and sky - in the Waitomo cave network, located not far from the North Island's western coastline.
Scenic Highway 30
A particularly beautiful countryside drive of about an hour and a half northwest from Lake Taupo brought us to the Waitomo area, home to an extensive area of karst. Karst topography means soluble rocks, caves, sinkholes, and underground river systems. The Waitomo area has all of this, plus the unique addition of arachnocampa luminosa - the New Zealand Glowworm. Hanging from the ceiling of many of these caves, they apparently contribute to a beautiful and otherwordly cave experience.
Idyllic NZ Countryside
We booked a cave rafting tour with the Blackwater rafting company, on a package known as the "Black Labyrinth". We would be outfitted with wet suits and caving gear, equipped with an inner tube, and then taken down a watery underground course, complete with a couple of small waterfalls.
Ready to cave
The Blackwater Rafting company is a large outfit, with many employees and a large central retail facility. We registered ourselves and waited, along with many others, for our names to be called.
Eventually we were gathered together with a few others into a group of 12. We were led down into a changing area, where we packed away everything but our swimsuits into locked lockers. We were given full wetsuits, boots, helmets, and headlamps. Then, we were loaded into a van and driven to the start of the cave run. Under the hot sun, we were each given a partially-inflated tire innertube, roughly sized according to our body sizes.
Lining up for test
Next up, we were brought over to a nearby stream, placidly flowing through a jungly-looking ravine. On one bank was a small wooden deck/tower that stuck out over the water. Here, we were required to prove our proficiency at jumping off the deck, backwards, while sitting in our inner tubes. We'd be unable to proceed until everyone had proved they could do this.
With our training over, our guides (three or so of them) led us along the riverbank until we reached a narrow cleft in the ground. Scrambling down into this, we soon followed a side passageway that led us to a larger cave where the nearby stream flow flowed underground. From here, we'd be following the course of the water.
After walkiing down the shallow watery streambed a short way, we came to the first of the waterfalls. Although it sounded impressive in the close quarters of the cave, it really wasn't all that much - maybe a five or six feet drop. In fact, it was clear that one could easily downscramble adjacent to the waterfall. But, in the spirit of cave adventuring, we were told to do one of our backward jumps off of the lip. Slightly disconcerting in the dark, but it was all over quickly and without drama.
Ready to enter underworld
The glowworms did not disappoint. Already we were seeing patches of them above us on the ceiling - ghostly star-like pinpricks of blue-green light. They were surprisingly bright. I really missed having my camera (in fact, I had brought my waterproof Outex in case I'd be able to bring it, but they explicitly disallowed it).
Ruakuri Cave Exit
The "Black Labyrinth" tour continued - sometimes floating down placid corridors in our inner tubes, sometimes scrambling over rocks, sometime splashing through shallows. One more (slightly larger) waterfall necessitated another easy backwards jump. Some more floating in a wider, larger and longer stretch of water brought us to the cave exit - a beautiful spot where a bright window of thick jungle-y vegetation was framed by textured cave walls.
Black Labyrinth exit
One by one, we popped out of the cave and warmed up in the sun (the cave and cave water is fairly cool), waiting for our eyes to readjust to daylight. After a final group photo, we walked back out along a trail (we had emerged along the Ruakuri bushwalk) to a nearby trailhead and parking lot, where the company bus was waiting to take us back to the company's main complex.
Back at the company facility, we removed and washed our wetsuit gear, had a quick shower, dried ourselves off, and availed ourselves of the free lunch that came with our tour package. I very much wanted to try and get a few of my own pictures of the cave we'd just been in, so we drove ourselves back to the Ruakuri bushwalk, and we walked back up to our cave exit. With my camera inside my waterproof enclosure, I waded into our cave exit as far as I dared. Although I was unable to get far enough in to photograph glowworms (I would have had to swim and I did not have any sort of wetsuit), I did get some nice cave entrance shots.
It was only mid-afternoon at this point, and since we were already partway in on this bushwalk, we all decided to continue exploring it. The track is considered one of New Zealand's best short bushwalks, and it was indeed quite nice. Nicely tracked with boardwalks, stairs, bridges, and decks, the bushwalk takes you through a forested gorge full of tunnels, sinkholes, and interesting / unique viewpoints.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Ruakuri Bushwalk - click map to view
We took a slightly different highway routing on the way back to Taupo, which led through more amazingly beautiful countryside. Back at home, we had a nice leisurely evening, enjoying a game of Agricola with Jenn, Andy, and Andrea.