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A journey to Waitomo Caves

It may be called pure laziness on my part that I am writing a travel experience after almost a year of experiencing it!! I have kept this post in draft for a long time and now it’s the right time to publish it; supposedly?? Maybe!! Anytime is a good time to do something constructive, at least for me. 

As usual we were out on a long weekend which was going to end the next day. The previous day was well spent in Waihi and Whangamata (read about it here). We did plan earlier for the Waitomo caves and as a result of that, we were on our schedule which is normally not a characteristic of our outings.

Waitomo caves are one of the most famous tourist attractions in New Zealand. I’d get a proof of this fact later in the day when I’d meet some European tourists on a 7 day tour to New Zealand and visiting Waitomo in their cramped itineraries. They are natural limestone caves which have been formed by thousands of years of geological changes in the earth.

The spiral staircase leading to the floor of Ruakuri cave
This experience would be quite different from others we had till date as they all were outdoors. This one would be outdoors but still a kind of indoors, in the sense that all the caves are underground and there is hardly any natural light coming in the caves. When I read about these caves on the internet, mentioning the enigmatic world they breed in them I instantly got excited.

The distance was about 70 kms from Hamilton and we knew that it wouldn’t be a trouble reaching there in time. After having some light breakfast and cooking some light meal for lunch ahead, we started off for the day. It was a nice 1 hour drive from home to Waitomo. It was reminiscent of the very characteristic New Zealand surroundings which consist of small hills, vast green farms with sheep and cows etc.

Stalactites in the Ruakuri cave
We reached Waitomo at around 9 am and then registered our arrival at the booking office. There we came to know that there were 3 different caves and each had their separate passes to be bought. We decided to buy a combo deal for all the 3 caves and easily put aside any doubt. We were instructed to wait for the tour van to which would take us to the caves.

While waiting we looked around the place and it was a very small village kind of place with scenic surroundings.The booking office had some small shops nearby and there was a huge playground in front of the shops. It was a nice place to chill out and spend a quiet sunny day. We didn’t hesitate from bringing cameras into use the moment we got there.

Ruakuri cave
Meanwhile the tourist van came there and a pretty tour guide welcomed us. We all were instantly motivated to tour with her; typical males huh. We did have other people in the van who were in for the ride. So we jumped into the van and the guide drove us to the entrance of the Ruakuri cave.

It was a 10 minute drive away from the booking office. On the way to the caves, I thought we had missed our way as I couldn’t see any major landmark for the caves, but I realized quickly that they were underground caves and there would be no grand doors or such for welcome; silly me.

The man made walkway in the Ruakuri cave
We reached the cave entrance and got off from the van. The guide then took us all into the cave and stopped us at a door so as to get a quick introduction from all of us. We introduced ourselves and heard others introductions too. We came to know that there were 2 Canadian travelers and the rest were European tourists.

The guide asked us what we expected to see in the caves, so everyone had their funny answers ready which ranged from mummies to Dracula and what not. She then took us to the entrance of the caves and instructed us that we were not supposed to touch any cave formations as they were highly delicate.

Glowworms in the Glowworm cave
She emphasized that touching them would not only attract a huge fine but also impair their further formation as they had been formed by years and years of slow process of water dripping from the ceilings. Later we were startled to learn that an inch of formation would take around 50 years to form. Anyway, we continued and moved ahead in the door.

We then reached a point where she stopped us all and told us to wait. Then slowly the lights turned on and we saw that we were on the verge of walking down a man-made spiral ramp into the abyss. It seemed quite stylish and reminded me of some Hollywood horror movies. We started walking down the ramp and it was around 2-3 storeys down that we found the floor of the cave.

The guide returns into the Glowworm cave
after dropping us at the exit of the cave
We them got into the actual cave and started noticing the stalactites, stalagmites, pillars and wings. I was quite curious as I had read them in class 9-10 geography lessons but was seeing them for the first time. Only I know how I resisted a strong urge to touch them by hand. The walkway was constructed using wooden planks and had railings on the side so that we could stay in between the guided path.

The guide was telling some interesting facts about the caves as we were walking ahead. She told about the geological origins of the caves, how they were discovered, how they were named and many such interesting things. She also told that quite a large part of the caves had been destroyed while constructing the walkway and now every precaution was being taken to conserve the caves.

The entrance of Glowworm cave
We did click a lot of pictures as we were walking into them. The other tourists also shared their experiences of the other such cave formations in the world. It was nice to hear their experiences. At some places there would be some information displayed on printed boards in the caves.

We were following the guide and having a chat with her about the locales and other related stuff. After an hour of walking underground, we came out from an exit while following the guide. We wondered that the exit was different from the entry point. So she told that the walkway was constructed in such a way that we would automatically see the complete cave and come out on the other side.
Inside the Aranui cave

After assembling at the exit we took a picture of us with the guide and started towards the booking office in the van. After reaching there we got into our car and drove towards the next cave which was named Glowworm cave. This cave had a flashy entrance and a huge arrival area. It had been well commercialized and there were small cafes and a souvenir shop inside.

We got our tickets verified and got into the queue for entering the caves. This time the guide was an experienced old man who looked like a native kiwi. Also he seemed quite disciplined too. Anyway, we got into the cave entrance and the guide started telling us about the history and specialty of this cave.

Inside the Aranui cave
The most unusual thing about this cave was the name itself. He then told us that there were some creatures living in the caves which were called Glowworms. They were luminous creatures and would glow in the dark, hence their name. He showed us a glimpse of the creatures on the ceiling of the cave when we went to the completely dark areas of the caves.

He then told us that the name glowworm was a misnomer as those creatures where actually mites and ate other insects to keep alive. Since the name ‘mite’ wouldn’t be so appealing, it was decided that the name ‘Glowworm’ would be used to market the caves and attract tourists.

We were t. It was a nice 1 hour drive frloat in the small still water streams in the caves. The guide seated some 19-20 people in one boat and the lights were turned off after we sat. We then set off to see glowworms. He stood on one end of the boat and started guiding the boat using the oar he held and also the ropes which were tied with the walls. We were actually amazed to see how he was rowing the boat in pitch black dark.

So we reached a completely dark part of the cave and looked up. The glowworms were up there on the cave’s ceiling and were glowing brightly. Interestingly and sound being produced by our talking or any other reason made them glow brighter. The guide confirmed this behavior of the glowworms and told us that they anticipated a prey whenever any sound was there in the caves. He then told us about the way the glowworms hunted their prey.

The glowworms looked like bright stars on a dark sky on a clear night. It was an amazing experience to see them. The guide had seriously instructed that no cameras are to be used. But out of curiosity I thought I would turn off the flash of my camera, click a quick pic and no one would know. So I clicked, without realizing that the camera flash was not switched off. The guide was quite frustrated on seeing that and reprimanded everyone. But he couldn’t determine who clicked the camera.

I told our gang later that it was me and everyone got fits of laughter as they didn’t expect me to do such a thing. We came out after a 20-25 minute boat round in the cave and as in the previous cave the exit was different from the entry point. We had to climb a small staircase to reach the main entry point of the cave.

Me with the limestone club
After getting some rest there, we started towards the next available guided tour of the Aranui cave. It was again some 10 minutes’ drive from the glowworm cave. We reached the Aranui cave just before the guided tour was going to start. This cave was not underground instead it was in the slope of a hill.

We parked our car in the assembling area and then after seeing around for 5-10 minutes, we were called by the guide who told that we had to walk some 10-15 minutes to reach the cave. So it was a bush walk cum cave adventure. The walk was nothing different from the usual bush walks amidst the native forests in New Zealand.

The terrain was not very rough and we reached the actual entrance of the cave easily. The entrance had a rusty iron door installed which had to be opened by a key. It reminded of a haunted house. The guide opened the cave and switched on the lights of the cave after we all were inside.

This shape was unique and was called Wings
This cave was really majestic in the way that it had such high ceilings and huge formations. Water was dripping out of most of them so it was quite an experience in itself to have entered this one. We started walking and as we moved ahead, the ceiling narrowed down and then after some time we were on the same kind of track as we had seen in the ruakuri caves.

Some beautiful formations were shown to us by the guide. These formations even had different names coined in by the explorers and locals. I felt that all the formations were like clouds in which one can easily see whatever one wants to see.

There was one huge formation which looked like a king’s crown. We went ahead and climbed a staircase to see the whole cave from a high located vantage point. We were constantly told not to touch anything for the reasons mentioned above. Then the guide took a broken formation and showed us. I guess that one was especially kept for that purpose. We took it in our hands and it was quite heavy unlike we had thought.

It resembled a prehistoric weapon like a club. I saw tiny streams made on it by flowing water. After touching it I understood how they had been created. It was a nice experience to see a thing in my hands which I had only seen in pictures or read about in books. Even here we didn’t lose a chance to click some pictures; typical shutterbugs.

After spending around an hour inside the cave looking around at the natural artifacts, we got out of the cave with everyone. We walked down to the car park, got our car and started to drive away from the caves. It was a nice experience for me as it was a fascinating world in itself and that too naturally created. We discussed that no one could even guess that such a beautiful world existed under the large green meadows which we were driving past.

In fact we liked the place so much that we would go there again to experience black water rafting in those underground caves. I will write about it later.

Read about our journey ahead to Marokopa falls and beach, here.

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