Dropping in on the Waitomo Caves

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100 metres really isn’t very far.  Just ask Usain Bolt.

It’s funny, though.  When you’re standing on the edge of a cliff in a pair of sexy blue overalls, with a metal safety apparatus cinched uncomfortably at your groin, and you lean back and look down into the void … well, then those same one hundred metres suddenly seem like a very long way indeed.

Perspective is everything.

—–

The small village of Waitomo, in the central North Island of New Zealand. is most famous for one fortunate natural quirk.

Glowworms.

Limestone caves are everywhere in this part of New Zealand (the name Wai-tomo in Maori literally means water sinkhole, or water running through rock), and in many of these caves live the larvae of a species of tiny gnats with brightly-glowing rear ends.  Evolved for the purpose of attracting prey such as moths and mosquitos, those luminescent butts now attract an entirely new kind of animal: tourists, in their millions.

You don’t have to do a tour to see glowworms at Waitomo, though. Just wait until nightfall, head down to Ruakuri Scenic Reserve (about four kilometres out of town) and go for a walk along the nature trail.  We took a torch, but ended up turning it off and letting the full moon guide us – less light equals more glowworm goodness.  Hundreds of tiny lights glowed gently amongst the tree and overhanging rocks, and we didn’t have to share them with anybody else.  Perfect.

Of course, without a tripod all of my glowworm photos ended up being of faint blurry lights, so here’s a picture of the moon instead.  You’re welcome.

Full moon, Ruakuri Scenic Reserve

One thing you can’t easily do by yourself, however, is abseil a hundred metres or so into a large sinkhole.  For that, you need a guide, the right equipment and at least a little bravery. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Waitomo Adventures was kind enough to a discounted rate on the four hour “Lost World” tour to Dustin and myself, and so it was that we found ourselves about to step backwards into empty space on that bright summer’s afternoon.  I’ve abseiled in the past, but only down a cliff face and for far shorter distances.  This was a straight drop to the rocky floor that I could barely make out in the gloom below.  The equipment apparently had all sorts of fail-safe mechanisms that, unsurprisingly, provided very little comfort when it came time to actually leave terra firma for a while.

Still, leave it we did as adrenaline coursed through our veins, and after the initial thoughts of “oh my god I’m suspended from a wire one hundred metres in the air” and “wow, that harness between my legs is seriously uncomfortable”, we were slowly making our descent.  It seemed downright odd to be casually having a conversation with the people beside me as we dropped, pointing out interesting rock formations as we quietly turned circles in the void.

The entire process was straightforward, even when we sped up as we got closer to the cave floor and the remaining wire acted as less of a brake.  Everyone remembered how to slow things down – handy, really, as broken ankles do make it harder to walk back out again.  It probably took ten minutes or so to reach the bottom, which is much better than the three seconds it could have taken.

Unhooking ourselves from the wires, our small group paused for a round of high-fives before starting the slow climb back out again.  After a few minutes of walking a roughly-hewn track through the rocks, our guide Scott quietly suggested that we looked behind us.  It was an excellent idea.

Caves and headlamps, Lost World tour

Sunlight streamed down from the entrance to the sinkhole, the vibrant green of the native bush in stark contrast to the surrounding darkness.  Reflected in the still pool at our feet, it was a truly magical moment … which we celebrated by taking plenty of silhouetted photos with silly poses.  As you do.

Continuing up the narrow path, clipping and unclipping from the safety line every few seconds, it soon became apparent that the climb out was not going to be quite as fast as the descent in.  The walk wasn’t particularly tough, however, and we kept up a good pace – leaving plenty of time for spotting small clusters of glowworms tucked into gaps in the rock.

Finally, maybe 90 minutes after first touching the cave floor, we came to the end of the path.  We were all a little tired and dirty after our time underground, but felt justifiably proud of having made it this far.  That was about the point when Scott mentioned exactly how we were going to be exiting the cave system.

“See that metal ladder in the rock there?  That goes up thirty metres.  It’s a bit of a climb.”

And, indeed, it was.  The wet, rusty rungs soon started to bite into my hands as I climbed, and as I got to somewhere around the half way mark my arms and legs started to tire as well.  Even though I was attached to a safety rope I wasn’t keen to spend any longer on the ladder than I had to, so onwards and upwards was the only choice.  The climb seemed to take forever, but it was probably only about five minutes later that I swung myself over the top of the ladder and onto solid ground once more.

Shoulders screaming, hands rubbed raw, rust-coloured mud stains everywhere.  Now that was more like it.

Emerging from the cave a few minutes later, the bright daylight and singing birds seemed strangely at odds with the quiet darkness we had left behind.  Stripping out of our dirty clothes and washing off the worst of the mud, Scott smiled and asked us if we would all do it again.

“Yes, absolutely” came the unanimous reply.

—–

Trampoline, Juno Hall

Where I stayed:  Thanks to Hostelbookers I spent two nights in a four-bed dorm at Juno Hall, a smallish YHA-affiliated hostel on the outskirts of Waitomo village.  The room, though small, was clean and tidy, and there was plenty of hot water in the showers to get the last of the cave dirt off.  The standard Global Gossip internet worked well, and there were plenty of tables and sofas for socialising in the common area.  Oh, and most important of all, there was a trampoline outside beside the camping sites.  Just saying…..

As always, thanks to Hostelbookers and Tourism New Zealand for helping with accommodation and activities on this New Zealand trip!

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