We had hoped that we might wake to clearing skies over Tongariro today, but no such luck. We briefly considered waiting out the weather one more day, in the hopes of seeing the summits of the volcanoes. However, the hostel didn’t have another night in a double room for us, so we decided to cut our losses and move on to other sights. As we drove west, the skies cleared and we were treated to blue skies, puffy clouds, green hills, and of course, lots of sheep. We decided to spend one day in Waitomo to see the glowworm caves before pressing on to Mount Taranaki, another one of New Zealand’s volcanoes. The land around Waitomo is an ancient seabed that was lifted up in a period of land formation. The limestone layers of that ancient seabed have now been dissolving for millennia, so the area is a Swiss Cheese of caves and unusual rock formations. In fact, the Maori name Waitomo reflects this as wai (water) and tomo (cave).
We stopped at the visitor center in Waitomo and investigated our tour options. There were lots of choices ranging from huge tours of 50 people each to wet-suited rafting and rappelling expeditions. We opted to tour the Te Ana o Te Atua and Spellbound Caves, as the price was reasonable, we would get to spend ample time seeing glowworms and the tour was small (only 12 people per outing). Our tour guide, Norm, drove the 12 of us in a van over bumpy farm roads out to the cave entrance in the middle of a big sheep station.
The first cave, Te Ana o Te Atua, was a dry cave, full of stalactites, stalagmites and flow stone formations, much like you can see in numerous places in the US. There were also the bones of an extinct Moa that had fallen in to the cave and died. After we exited the cave, we enjoyed a short walk over to a shelter, for tea and cookies fortification before the next cave tour.
Photos from first cave:
The second cave, the Spellbound Cave, was a wet cave, with a stream flowing through it. We were given helmets and headlamps to help us navigate into the cave, where a boat was waiting to take us on a tour. Although there are various stone formations in this cave, the real reason to go in is to see the glowworms. And boy, this cave did not disappoint. After we turned off our headlamps, and boarded the raft, our guide pulled us through the cave in total darkness. As our eyes adjusted, we could see thousands, probably millions of little blue lights glowing from the ceiling of the cave above our heads. Once we were adapted to the darkness, the glow worms actually provided enough light that we could see each other, and the details of the cave in the dark. It was terrific!
Norm told us how the glowworms were actually the larval stage of a fly. Before maturing, the larvae spend their lives on the ceiling of damp caves, tending a network of sticky silk threads they use to capture a meal. To lure other insects to them, the glowworms shed a bioluminescent light from their tails, the beautiful blue light we see in the cave. After some time in the cave, I was astounded at how well I could see by the light of the worms. Alan attempted some photography in the cave, but given the darkness, and not much time, it was hard to come up with a photo that captured what we were seeing. Fortunately the tour company sent us a few photos after the tour for us to use as we like. Back out in the daylight, we enjoyed another short walk around the hills to meet Norm with the van that took us back to town.
Photos from the walk back to the van: