Growing up in Britain, I visited some pretty magical places – the Lake District, Tintagel, Lindisfarne – but there’s one place in New Zealand that out-magics them all: Waitomo Caves.
Waitomo’s in the Waikato Region, south of Auckland. It didn’t look too exciting when we were driving up to it in our campervan – just a lot of moist, green farmland, not dissimilar to views you get driving elsewhere in the North Island – and Waitomo Village isn’t that interesting either, being so small. There is, however, an old hotel on a hill.
As is the rule with old hotels on hills, Waitomo Caves Hotel is said to be haunted. Funny thing is, my house in England was far older – in New Zealand, ‘some parts of it are nearly a hundred years old’ is considered impressive. No. What’s impressive about Waitomo is the geology.
I suppose the Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is worth a mention. There’s an i-SITE in practically every town in New Zealand, but this one is quite good. It has a nice shop, and there’s a sort of museum dedicated to the caves. In this museum, if I remember correctly, there’s a pretend rock tunnel you can crawl through and, let me tell you, it freaked me out
I used the word ‘crawl’ incorrectly. You have to pull your way through on your belly, just like those extreme cavers, and, even though this model cave was quite short, about halfway through I got scared I was stuck. My head started to spin and my heart was suddenly taking up so much room in my chest I couldn’t breathe properly. Plus, someone had stuck some chewing gum to the wall, which wasn’t nice.
Anyway, I got out eventually, but let’s just say that cave crawling isn’t for me. And the caves where you have to do that but underwater, not knowing when you’ll next be able to breathe – that’s the stuff of nightmares.
Luckily, most of the guided tours through various sections of the Waitomo cave system don’t require any crawling. The only safety equipment you need is a hardhat, a head torch and covered shoes (and a jumper, unless you’re from somewhere like Newcastle.)
But you can do the extreme stuff as well, including rafting down an underground river on a rubber ring.
The caves are beautiful – not quite ‘magical,’ I haven’t got to that part yet, but they have a certain otherworldliness to them. There’s something in the cool, damp air. Your breath is hushed. You can hear a powerful waterfall somewhere behind the rock, but the echoing makes it impossible to tell exactly where. The torchlight gives eerie illumination to the stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites, over thousands of years, have formed fascinating structures that ripple like cloaks. They sparkle with minerals and moisture. You want to touch them – to stroke them – but it’s forbidden. You just have to look on in awe. And pay attention so you don’t bang your head.
In one of the caves, you can see the skeleton of a moa that fell through a hole in the forest floor to its death centuries ago, complete with the gizzard stones it had swallowed. I remember wondering if it broke its neck in the fall, or if it wandered around in the darkness, unable to find a way out, and starved to death. The opportunity to see the bones of an extinct animal – not in a museum, but in the place where the creature fell – is fairly awesome, but what makes Waitomo magical is the glowworms.
Something you absolutely have to do if you come for a holiday in New Zealand is go on a Waitomo glowworm tour by boat. It. Is. AMAZING.
You’re taken into a cave, down into a tunnel that has a gentle river flowing through it, and helped onto a boat. You are told to be very, very quiet and to take no flash photos. Then the lights go out.
The boat floats away from the side and into the blackness. For a while, all that accompanies you is the breathing of the tourists in the boat, and the soft sloshing of the water. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Above you, and reflected perfectly in the water below you, are thousands of blue stars. You feel as though you are drifting in space, but you suddenly realise that you can’t be: you are merely in an enclosed passageway that feels as big as the universe. It’s unreal – dreamlike.
Each one of those blue lights is a glowworm. You have to be quiet not just to add to the atmosphere, but so you don’t scare them. If they feel threatened, their lights go out. Seriously, that place was like Lothlorien. I felt my heart swell just being there. It was so inspiring, and I know I have to go there again before I die.
Waitomo Caves are consistently rated among the top tourist attractions in New Zealand and I completely agree. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the world!
Article by Abigail Simpson, author of POMS AWAY! A British Immigrant’s View of New Zealand