New Zealand North: Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

NZ: Day 14

Karangahake

Kia Ora! Departing Hot Water Beach, our first stop was Karangahake Scenic Reserve- a walk that took us along the river and through the now abandoned gold mines and a place that I couldn’t say and had to rely on google to spell!

Colour aside, the canyon walk was very reminiscent to the Narrows Trail in Zion National Park, America- with tall anchoring canyon walls dwarfing us eitherside and the gigantic boulder remains scattered throughout the river.

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We ventured up through a series of pitch black tunnels that were carved through the mountain; You literally could not see anything and we were totally reliant on the person in front of us to feel their way through the tunnel. Ghost noises and scare tactics later, we emerged from the tunnel to a series of Gold Mine Tracks that pierced the mountain. After goofing about in the mine karts, we followed the tracks back down to the river and boarded back on the bus, headed for Waitomo.

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Waitomo

We reached Waitomo before midday. With the exception of the cave tours, there is literally nothing else around the area. I think there were about 4 shops- if that! But we kept ourselves suitably entertained…

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We checked into the Hostel- Kiwi Paka- $30 and were briefed at reception how we would have to pay a $10 deposit on plates/cutlery etc- seemed like a pretty strict setup. That said, the hostel was pretty decent and was more like a lodge/ hotel; Most people, us included, had double rooms, those who didn’t had four in a room as a maximum.

After checking in, we jumped back on the bus and headed down to the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave Tour Office- just down the road. Again, this was something that I was particularly looking forward to having seen some pretty amazing pictures online and something you can only do in New Zealand.

At the cave office, there are 3 main tours that are run through the glowworm caves- The Abyss tour, The Labryinth and the Odyssey. Throughout our time meeting people on the Kiwi bus we were advised that we had to do the Abyss tour- a 6 hour combination of both the Labyrinth and Odyssey tours and at $185 , also the most expensive tour: Trust me, the experience is more than worth the price- it is breathtaking!

The tours were exceptionally busy throughout the day- one of the busiest they’ve ever had as we were constantly told by our wacky instructor. This ended up having its advantages, although it was quite frustrating and slow to begin with.
We were suited and booted and given a quick run through how to use the ropes, before our main instructor and his younger compatriot- both equally as ‘edgy’ and typical surfer-cool-esque as eachother drove us to the cave cave opening.
There is absolutely no indication in the landscape that there are caves or any openings in to the Earth from above: so to be transported under the surface to a 300km maze of caves that sweep throughout the region was pretty amazing and hard to understand.
Our first step was to practice rappelling on a dummy set next to the opening. We did this up until the group ahead of us had all exported themselves through the portal to the Earth below- which ended up being about 40 minutes. With activities like these, I often can become skeptical and began to think that our time within the cave might have been compromised by the slower group ahead- but this was not to be the case. To further pass the time, we got quite experimental with our rappel routines.
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Finally, it was our time to rappel 35m down into the pitch black Abyss. It really didn’t matter how much we were taught about rappelling technique, as most of us totally forgot and were washed up with the moment- as a result I still ended up with burning hands after. But, even the rappel was a real experience! We descended through a natural hole that, at a point, squeezed to barely wider than 3 ft, which knocked me about a bit as I pushed through the opening. Once through the whole Earth opened up and we were totally immersed with dangling beads of light- it was a real awe moment and something that no picture will ever be able to replicate. Amazing! We gleefully waited in our new surroundings, for everyone else to come through and then the instructor to jump down himself; All the time each of us were fixed to the caved walls, which were dressed by a natural, animal, milky way of sparkling lights.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce everyone had scaled the rappel, we walked through the cave, still admiring the surrealistic world that we were now a part of. Echoes of the group ahead, singing Hakuna Matata reverberated through the self-illuminated cave- it just added another dimension to the weird, mythical context that we were now a part of.
Ahead, our next task was a flying fox, zip-line through the dark and across to another section of the cave. We watched as the younger guide masterfully attached himself to the pulley and flew into the dark. ‘Comon!’ We were up next: All ready and set, the instructor pulls you back and then turns off his headlamp, so that you are flown through the glowworm milky-way- Stunning!
At this point, one of the Danish lads thought it would be appropriate to have a panic attack and wanted to leave: Not to put anyone off doing this, as its really not that scary, overwhelming or stressful at all- turns out that the lad had panic attacks at pretty much every stop we went on throughout Kiwi tour.
Anyhow, this meant that the older, lead instructor had to take the Dane back up and out of the cave, leaving the remaining 7 of us boys and the younger guide to complete the tour. The younger guide, was pretty much our age and decided that we would have fun and more than makeup for the hiccup.
Our next activity was to jump with a rubber ring into the ice cold river below.

Once we were all in the water we drifted for about a half hour along the river, with all of our headlamps out and guided by the mass extent of glowworms above- It really was as brilliant as I had read about! There are points when you encounter small crevices in which you can touch the dangling, glowworms- not that we did or you should. But it was pretty cool to observe them close up.

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After drifting through the river we then had to get quite hands on and physical, as we bouldered over and through the cave maze. A few more jumps through the pools and climbing over walls led us to a rock slide, which whizzed us to a river taking us under a submerged cave section where the roof was a mere 3 ft above our heads.

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We continued to wade and float along the river, one of which inhabited a small eel, named eric. We pulled up and our guide whacked out the hot chocolate and biscuits to warm us up from the cold water. Re-energised, we then had to crawl and squeeze through a clay tunnel to reach a new section of the cave- I think the guide aptly named this section as the birth of life.

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After we had successfully passed through the birthing tube, we had to climb up a series of levels and once again found ourselves jumping into the river, this time from the top of a small waterfall. At this point, we had been re-joined by the older guide, who had apologized for what had happened and promised to make it up to us. We began to ascend above the river and into the higher reaches of the cave- again- I have no idea how anyone was able to map this or find their way around- there are so many openings and the cave extent is huge!

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After bounding through a series of Stalactites- (hold on tight) and Stalagmites (might hit you in the arse) We came to another large opening and had another hot chocolate break. As a group we decided to get a bit adventurous with the photos and were orchestrated by the guides to spell out a series of words.

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We once again drifted back down the river through the glowworm dungeons and then once again began to climb through the crevices. Here, the guides took us off-road and to the further reaches of the cave as a way to make up for the lost time before. They took us across a 30ft high ledge, which would soon house a new tour attraction that was to be opened up in the near future.
Continuing our deviation through the cave, we once again had to scale walls and squeeze through small tunnels before we came back to the original route once again and to a series of waterfalls.
The waterfalls would make up the finale of the tour as we had to climb through them to reach the top. It was definitely the hardest part of the tour, but the guides helped us overcome the falling water and use footholds to clamber to the top.
At the top, we continued our ascent, leaving the ethereal glowworm world behind and emerged through another small crack in the surface and to the rolling hillside above.

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Together, we reflected on an absolutely stunning experience, that really none of the above pictures really describes (mostly because the camera flash masks the illuminated glowworms)- It really is one of those- you have to see to believe moments. Back at the tour office, we pitched together to buy the one set of the photos taken by the guide, $20.
I don’t think anyone came back in any way disappointing and why would you? It was just an incredible, bewildering experience.

Together back at the hostel, all 50 of us had decided to meet on a farmers field across from the hotel at dark, with alcohol at hand. Having spent a day in a cave lit by thousands of glowworm stars, we sat the rest of the night out bonding, reminiscing and drinking under a more familiar milky way- A great way to end another stunning day! New Zealand is amazing!

Karangahake Reserve: Free                                    ***

Kiwi Paka Hostel: $30 NZ/ £15                               ***

Black Abyss Glowworm tour: $185 NZ/ £95     *****
Set of Photos: $20 NZ/ £10                                      

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