Waitomo Glowworm Caves: New Zealand’s Most Mind-Blowing Attraction

Certain travel experiences invite hyperbolic re-telling, or at least they come across as hyperbolic to the listener. For me, jumping out of an airplane is an example. I have never done it, so I cannot imagine how an act that resembles suicide has the ability to cut the line in front of nearly every other event in someone’s life to become cause of their best day ever.

My theory is that the hyperbole comes from a mismatch between the experience’s affect on the teller and the more or less apathetic attitude of the listener. If a traveler is simply describing a foreign locale, there’s a tendency to put excess importance on details that locals there would consider mundane or even annoying. Details that to the listener might not rise above the curious. The Times Square that my twelve year old eyes saw for the first time was a blue-lit sparkling wonder amped with polyglot energies that my many years later, exhausted with work twenty-nine year old eyes would never see and could never appreciate. If a Utah native waxed poetic about how Times Square inspired them into abandoning their starched and ecclesial upbringing then I’d likely roll my eyes. Yet if I had never seen Times Square and I listened to a description about a place that altered night into a shadowless wedge of electricity where walked all manner of people garbed in all manner of fashions and who posed next to string-stummers exposed in underwear, and that you could choose between enlisting in any U.S. military branch or buying tickets to any Broadway play, it all depended on which booth you stood in front of, then I’d quietly wonder if the speaker’s fascination had outpaced plausible reality.

What travel experiences have in common is that they alter something in us that we want to share. The external works its way through our gadgetry and upsets our stiff ideologies about what the world is and is not, what geological forms tectonic and water movements are capable of producing, what cultural creations are possible from whatever array of rare and splendid or terrible impetuses. Whether the experiences alter our perspectives entirely or simply tinker with them, in all cases they become an indelible part of us, yet we often falter in sharing a narrative that can successfully impart how that shift occurs. It’s not possible to manufacture in another person through film or literature or at cocktail parties a response that’s near to the response we had. If it were, then travel would be a rarer Tinder interest as stories would be sufficient sustenance to ward off the travel bug. If anything, all travel stories do is excite in us the desire to find such an experience for ourselves. This is travel’s greatest allure—to uniquely capture for our own such an enviable alteration. And this, I think, is the main reason why so many of us loathe the tourist attraction. Beyond the typical complaints about them—their cost, their crowds, their commercialization, i.e. when you’re burped into a knick knack store that you must walk through to exit—the tourist attraction is unappealing because it wipes the unique aspect from our desired experience. But tourist attractions are famous and popular because of the ease with which they can alter basic paradigms. The Grand Canyon is magnificent and frequently visited not only because the scale of its striations are impossible to accurately represent on film, but because standing in front of it creates a sublime belittlement; it’s Earth’s answer to the stars.

In my mind it’s not hyperbolic to say that New Zealand offers an exhibition and high concentration of places that can stun you into a cognitive shift. The land itself is a tourist attraction. You can drive for a day, and over the slow burn of petrol have crammed into your mind a lifetime’s worth of geological splendor. America offers similar sights: there is no shortage of photogenic grass hills, and cliffs shaved at their ends by sea, and glacially carved limestone valleys; yet to see an alpine lake and then a semi-tropic conifer forest and then a splendid surf point break, you would need airfare, hotel accommodations, and transport. In New Zealand, you need only walk one more hour.

There is one sight that is uniquely New Zealand’s however. It’s a brochure made marvel and a tourist attraction of the most typical kind. It is the light spectacle created by the hanging lumens of arachnocampa luminous, the New Zealand glowworm. And it is hands down one of the more mind blowing things I’ve seen.

Glow worms are ubiquitous in New Zealand. The distribution of known colonies is clustered enough that the online maps that mark their places are so chock full of names that they overlap. Many other fine but smaller glow worm colonies are not noted on travel maps or road signs at all, and knowledge of their existence is passed down locally via word of mouth. The colony that is advertised to an international audience is the one found underneath Waitomo, a minuscule town in central North Island, about three hours south of Auckland.

Waitomo’s landscape is an amiable undulating coat of emerald grass with spots of grazing sheep and cattle. It’s underground is a labyrinthian complex of limestone that’s been carved by the moving lathe of black water, and open slits in the rock at the base of hills allow entrance. Some are barely wide enough for a man to fit through and all require an excess of will power and a satisfactory sum to the mental arithmetic you will inevitably calculate to determine the probability of being stuck under rubble following one of New Zealand’s infamous seismic events. The descent into dark, even with an intense headlight, doesn’t hint at the complex turns and vaulted rooms the water has made. Water is always underfoot, but more constant is the sound of its moving. Near or far and sourced from whatever amount, water is each room’s acoustics. Water rushes. It trickles. Drops drip from round stone bulbs on the ceiling and into puddles that have cut rudely formed bowls into cave ledges and that overflow only when the puddle tension breaks.

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There seemed to be a single river, though small streams branched from it here and there and branded the stones of their own paths before returning to the main channel. The river did not cut a uniform grade for its fall or a single angle for its sides. There are times when the flat stone ceiling is an arm raise above you and the sides slant inwards and there are times when you drift through cavernous, mines of Moria type hallways where the sides are flat and you can prop yourself onto them and rest and lay gear safely next to you. The bottom could be a submerged ankle away and then be untouchable steps later. Eels and blind bugs make their homes here.

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Also plenty of spaces for a game of chubby bunny.

There are three ways to experience the Waitomo caves, and they get incrementally more expensive. The cheapest and driest is on the walkways, which is where they herd the bus loads of tourists. Then you can take a boat, and finally there is the ability to go caving. Caving has three sub-options. The most expensive is the true caving experience complete with ropes, rappelling, and a possible surprise immersion into the plot line of the Descent. I (and Manya) chose the caving tour that had us fitting on damp wet suits and tying rubber boots and testing the buoyancy of rubber inner tubes that were the size of small tractor tires.

Our guide was Katrina, a tall, blonde farm girl from the Hawkes Bay region who appeared to have been reared exclusively on protein. Her ward was Manya and myself, a German couple, and two Indian tourists. One of the Indian tourists (I’ll call him Bob Gupta Balasubramanian) revealed he couldn’t swim. In my experience, people who cannot swim have also developed steel feet that are magnetized to the bottom of bodies of water. Bob was no exception. One of the maneuvers we’d have to perform in the near dark of the cave was a backwards cliff dive. To accomplish this we’d need to stick our bottoms into the hole part of the inner tube, turn away from where we intended to dive, bring our feet as close to the edge as possible, and push back. To practice, Katrina brought us to a small wharf built over a slow moving but deep creek and had us jump off one by one.

Bob jumped off the wharf. As soon as the tube with his wet-suited ass stuck through the center like a prairie doggin’ terd-end hit the water, he rolled right off of it. His doggy paddling could scarcely keep his canary yellow hard hat above water and his face submerged entirely. If Katrina hesitated before jumping after him then it happened during my blink, because she was off her wharf perch and freestyling in the water and wrapping her arms around Bob to bring him and his panicked breaths back to shore.

“Can you swim?” Bob asked me. I nodded. “Good, I will hold onto you from now on.”

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Bob, the Michael Phelps of drowning.

Our entrance to the caves was the same gap a farmer had used over a century ago when his dog ran after a pig. After a short descent we came to our first glowworms, which was a cluster of six patched to a below eye level curve of rock. I leaned to come nearly nose to light with them.

The glowworm looks like a slug that’s at the end of a very successful diet. It’s about the length of a human pinkie and is cemented to rock sides by use of a glassy, mucous, salivary type substance. Dangling from one end is a long tether. If you’ve ever had stringy spit that you’re able to dangle from your mouth and then yo-yo back in, then you’ve seen what this tether looks like. When thousands of these tethers are together it’s like a strange vertical web that’s taught from gravity, but unless you’re standing near the worms or there’s a strong artificial light on them, it’s tough to tell the tether is there. This illuminates a telling fact about the glowworm’s light, which is small and only at one of the worm’s ends: it is a radiant but not revealing light. The light doesn’t reflect. It’s as if the lumens are swallowed in vacuity, so even hundreds of lights together will not emit enough to glow off rock contours.

Katrina ushered us through the cave. We bobbed through slow moving channels while the current rotated us in our floats like screws. We shivered handling the cold wet rock sides, and we waded through shallow pools and jumped off rock ledges as white water raged at our ankles. The tallest rock ledge we had to jump off of was between ten or fifteen feet high. We’d be jumping into a small mouth of water that was swollen like a black pearl. It drained through a narrow channel where rock rose vertical on both sides. Katrina instructed each person that once they had landed, they were to quickly swim to the left side, hold onto the rope that was pulled through the iron eye bolts screwed into the cave side, and shuffle down as each subsequent group member joined behind them.

Bob jumped and I followed shortly after him. I dragged him to the cliff side and together we held onto the rope while the current titled our feet downstream, our legs angled from off the rock side like parallel parking lines. Katrina was the last to jump and she waded to the front of the line. She had the first person lie flat on their back with the inner tube underneath, and had the person behind do the same while she threaded each of that person’s legs under each of the arms of the person in front. She did this down the line until we were an interlocked tube train. We turned off our head lamps, and Katrina pushed us down the canal.

We floated around a bend and then down a long straight away. Our eyes were up. The narrow ceiling widened. The slope pitch flattened to form an obtuse angle with the river top. Above started to appear the minuscule glow of worms. Handfuls here and there, and then in greater abundance. There were thousands. They were in the highest vault of the ceiling and along the curved sides that turned into it. They were in front of us and behind us and on approaching walls, on ceilings to caves that we could see slices of and on the ceiling of the cave we were in. The stone caves had a varied topography where stones jutted out like shelves, and there were small rock gables and hundreds of glowworms were fit into each dark notch. The width and breadth of each light was fantastically small, similar to the blue glow of a zippo lighter at the moment before its gas is expunged, and the worm light failed to illuminate the enormity of the rock backdrop, but what this did was give the impression that you were looking at an ink soaked sky with only pearl bits of blue. The many blips constructed the room’s geometry and for whole moments the geometry altered from a subterranean cave into the type of space wormhole that we might see in cinema. It was a worm’s answer to the stars.

When we emerged shivering from the caves, fingers gone numb, Manya said through a smile, “That was a top five life moment.”

And to think, all of this over what were essentially glowing worm assholes.

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