Posted by: dammer145 | October 27, 2008

Glow in the dark

We got up at about 8 o’clock and had breakfast in our camper. The night before we had booked ourselves a trip to the caves with a company called Spellbound, who run small-scale personal visits to the glowworm caves. After having showered etc. we were ready for our little trip into darkness!

At 11 o’clock we had to be at the Huhu cafe, just outside the camping. We were awaited there by Pete, a 45-year-old bald fellow who was to be our guide for the afternoon. Soon enough we were in the minivan on our way to the caves along with six other people. As we drove through the countryside, Pete told us about the area and how it was formed over millions of years. Waitomo translates as “water-hole” and driving along it became clear why: the ground there was made up primarily of layer upon layer of soft limestone and had been eroded away over millions of years. This had caused large sinkholes to form – Pete said that some sinkholes were over 250 metres deep and were a major tourist attraction for absailing.

The Spellbound Tour Bus

We made our way through fields with cows and sheep, and soon we were on a small country road going up and down over hills. We passed a large field with a set of toilets next to it, where Pete told us we would return later on.

We would visit two caves that day and our first cave was to be one without glowworms. We made our way into the long winding passage (the entrance to the cave was large and had been formed naturally). The cave had been formed by water streaming through it and eating away at the soft stone. Also, the wind seemed to be howling through the cave at all times. We saw stalactites, stalagmites and even the remains of an unfortunate moa that had got stuck in the cave (moa were giant flightless birds that were hunted to extinction by the original settlers of New Zealand). Due to the fact that the wind blowed through this cave at all times, it was also a lot dryer than any caves we had previously visited in countries such as France or Belgium. At some spots the ceiling had caved in and light shone down in iridescent beams.

We made our way back the way we came and had tea and biscuits (provided by Pete) in the field where we passed earlier. After a quick sanitary stop we donned a safety helmet with an attached lamp and headed in a different direction. Our first stop was at a small river where Pete said river eels lived. He took a little bit of goat meat out of a bag he had with him and went down to the river bank. Almost immediately a large, wriggly head popped out of the water and snapped at the meat in Pete’s fingers. We all had a go – there were about two or three eels in the water there that seemed to have learnt that the presence of humans almost always meant lunch.

All geared up and ready to go!

We crossed the stream on a thick wooden plank and entered the second cave. A steel walkway had been built there which we followed for about fifty metres, until we were alone in the darkness with the lamps on our head. Above our heads we noticed one or two little blue-green dots – the glowworms! Pete explained that in fact they were not worms at all, but rather larvae. Glowworms live for about 300 days, most of which is spent as a larvae. They dangle transparent silky threads from the ceiling of the cave and use their bioluminescence to attract flying insects, which then get stuck in the threads. Only during the last four to five days of their life to they turn into a fully-fledged flying adult and have to frantically find a mate before their time is up.

A little further down the walkway we met the river again. An inflatable boat was waiting for us in the water and we all climbed in (Pete asked Anouk and myself to sit in the middle of the boat for obvious reasons). We floated down the river (there was a rope that had been attached in the cave overhead so Pete could lead us down the windy passage). Pete asked us to turn our lamps off. Very soon our eyes adjusted to the light and we were met by the most incredible sight: thousands upon thousands of tiny marine blue lights shone overhead. The cave was about 5-6 metres wide and the entire ceiling was covered in tiny little blue dots.

Threads of glow worm silk.

Without seeing it, it is hard to describe, but it felt like sitting under a starry sky in the middle of France without any other lights around. Note that the Maori name for the glowworms is “titiwai”, literally “light over water”. Soon we could see the outlines of the cave and each other, lit only by the little worms. For those of you who have ever been in the Droomvlucht in the Efteling – it was like that, only a million times better. We spent about twenty to thirty minutes floating along, staring upwards at something that truly did have us spellbound.

Anouk being stalked by a duck.

With regret we headed back out of the cave and after a short walk up the hill we were back in the minivan, on our way to the Huhu cafe. We hopped into the camper and set off in the direction of Rotorua, about 150 km south. Along the way we stopped at the bird sanctuary in Otorohanga. It was a bit of a sad place, it looked as if it was in urgent need of either renovation or closure.

We did however see our first kiwis there – intriguing creatures that were actually a lot bigger than I thought – more or less the size of a chicken or a duck. Entirely wingless, they forage around the forest floor with their long beaks, at the end of which the birds have noses to smell what’s wriggling around. For the first twenty minutes in the park we were followed by a white-headed duck, that seemed intent on keeping us for itself as it chased away any other birds that came near us.

After having bought a NZ map of the stars, we set off again towards Rotorua. We arrived at the camping at about 7 o’clock, checked in and found our spot. The camping was not as nice as the one we had been the night before. We went back into town for a bit of shopping (supermarkets here are open quite late – this one was open till midnight), then went back to get some well-earned dinner and sleep ( however only after Anouk got a chicken burger from KFC).

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