A Cave Lit Up Like a Starry Night Sky by Bugs
New Zealand has many natural wonders on its two ecologically complex islands, some of which are rarely found anywhere else in the world. One of those is in the form of worms that crawl across the ceiling of caves on the North Island near the town of Waitomo. They are not just any ordinary worms as they emit an LED type greenish blue glow inside the darkest depths of the caves. To see these up close is a fantastic experience and should be on any itinerary while in New Zealand.
There are a few different caves and tours located in Waitomo in which someone can view the glow worms. When I went with my wife we did our homework and went with a tour called Spellbound. The reason we chose this group was based on reviews we had read about on Trip Advisor. This tour gave us about half an hour in the cave with the glow worms, whereas some of the others we had read about only gave 5 to 10 minutes. We also had a very small group of 10 of us with the tour guide so we had the opportunity to ask any questions we wanted to.
As my wife and I seem to regularly do, we waited until the last minute to book our tour. I had to email the company to see if there were any tours available the next morning because their online booking indicated all the tours were full. Luckily they responded and indicated there were some openings for a 9 am tour, which led to an early morning as it was about a 45 minute drive from the bed and breakfast we were staying at.
The morning of the tour we left our sleeping quarters bright and early in search of some breakfast. This turned out to not be such an easy task to accomplish as there were only a few small towns we drove through on the way to Waitomo. We did end up finding a bakery that was open that had some pastries so we grabbed a quick bite to eat. After the trouble we had finding some breakfast we decided that it was important to bring plenty of snacks when traveling though New Zealand. New Zealand is a very rural country with long distances between towns that have any significant options for food, gas or other conveniences.
We arrived at the tour company headquarters just as they were opening up shop for the day. They checked us in and introduced us to our tour guide who had just pulled up in a van that would transport us to the cave. All of us in the tour group piled into the van, some who I think were still waking up. Our tour guide, however, was certainly awake as he was chatting and giving us information from the minute the van was put in drive.
It was about a 25 minute drive up some winding dirt roads through the hilly countryside. Most of it was farmland used for sheep and goat grazing. It really did feel like we were riding through parts of Lord of the Rings. The tour guide explained to us that the cave we were going to was actually on farm land owned by a private person that allowed the tour company to use it. As we neared the cave the guide stopped the van at the peak of one of the hills to give us a view in which we could see for miles. There were also some goats nearby grazing on the side of the hill.
From where we got out of the van we took a short walk on a trail downhill to the cave entrance. It was evident that the goats nearby had been on the trail recently as it was filled with their droppings. As we neared the end of the trail we reached a small streamed that flowed into the cave. The tour company had a small wooden stand setup that stored helmets. Each of us fitted ourselves with a helmet that was equipped with LED lights on top so we could see where we were walking once we were in the darkness of the cave.
Before we went in the guide stopped us by the stream. In it was a large eel looking aquatic animal. It was quite long, probably 3-4 feet and was just slithering in the water. The guide had some food there that he threw in and the sea creature ate it right up. Apparently it was fairly common for this particular eel to be swimming in the stream.
After feeding the eel we trekked our way into the cave. The guide instructed everyone in the group to turn their helmet light on to be able to see the walking path in the cave. It wasn’t too far in that we could start to see the faint glow of the cave dwelling crawlers on the ceiling and walls. However with our helmet lights on most of the worms looked similar to any other grub worm.
The air became more damp and cooler as we ventured further back into the cavern. It had the musty smell to it that one would expect in this type of environment. At one point the tour guide stopped the group to point out some of the worms along with the stringy substance that is associated with them that hung down from the ceiling of the cave. Since we were not moving at that moment the guide asked us to turn off our helmet lights so we could better see the glow of the worms. We were still only about halfway into the cave and the worms were not as prevalent, yet there were still hundreds of glowing lights all around us.
We then turned our helmet lights back on and continued our way further into the cave, walking along with the sound of the stream flowing nearby the entire way. Eventually we came upon an inflatable raft, the kind you think of when white water rafting. The entire tour group hopped in while the guide untied us so we could float down the stream. Once everyone was settled into the boat we all turned our helmet lights off once again. It was so dark I couldn’t even see my wife sitting next to me. However, what I could see was the thousands of little tails of the glow worms lighting up the ceiling above.
We spent about 20 minutes on the raft as we were moved up and down the stream by the tour guide. After the first few minutes my eyes slowly got more used to the darkness of the cave, which only made the glow worms appear brighter. The tour guide was silent for most of the time on the raft so we could enjoy the moment. The only sound that could be heard was that of the water flowing through the floor of the cave.
Up until this point we had been asked to not use our cameras to take photos during most of our trip through the cave due to the flash hurting our eye’s ability to view the glow worms. But as it neared time to get off the raft the guide gave the go ahead to try to take photos. There were a couple of those in our group that had high end cameras that probably got some very good photos. I generally have good success with photos with just my IPhone. However with the lack of light in the cave it was not very conducive to taking photos of the glow worms. After everyone had taken some time to get their photos it was then time to turn our helmet lights back on, get off the boat and make our way back out of the cave.
Outside of the cave the light seemed bright and I had to squint even though the sky was overcast. We removed our helmets, said goodbye to the glow worms and moved along to a picnic area where we had snacks of cookies, tea and coffee. The tour guide was inquisitive during this time, asking everyone in the group where they were from and talked a little more about things to see and do in New Zealand.
The tour we went with also had another cave that we explored. We went to this cave because there were the remains of an ancient bird here that an archeologist had found. The bird was supposedly thousands of years old. This cave was not as large as the other one and we did not spend as much time in here. There were a couple of glow worms here as well, but it was nothing into comparison to the previous cave.
After leaving this cave it was time to head back to the tour headquarters. We again took the winding road back to the tour headquarters. The whole tour had taken about 3 and a half hours, which seemed to be just about the right amount of time. This also gave us the afternoon to explore another area of the New Zealand terrain.