Suiting up for a trip into the glowworm caves has made me look like a complete doofus. I’m wearing bright-white rubber boots, a pair of curry-brown pants, a wetsuit and a bulbous helmet with a light on top. And my hair is flapping out the sides of the helmet to perfect rodeo clown-effect.
Also, my nads are fighting a two-front war against a pair of encroaching canvas straps connected to my rappelling harness. Yes, I am ready for the cover of GQ magazine.
Bizarre as it sounds, this is one of the days of my New Zealand adventure that I’ve look forward to the most: the tour of one of the glow worm caves near Waitomo, up in the sparsely populated, ridiculously green and unbelievably quiet Waikato region. Sarah and I signed up with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. Don’t let the word “rap” fool you … nobody is going to bust out some rhymes while in the underground. It’s actually short for “rappel,” which nobody else really uses in New Zealand. Kiwis call rappelling “abseiling.” But no matter which word you use, it still means that males are going to spend several hours feeling like they’re wearing Satan’s jockstrap.
Getting Ready for the Glow Worm Caves
We started the day at the Triple R headquarters (my own nickname for the outfit) on Waitomo Caves Road, just a few minutes from town Te Kuiti and Otorohanga. There, we met a trio of sisters who’d share the adventure with us, along with our Welsh tour guide, Nic. At this point, we had all the gear we’d need for the trip – swimsuits, towels and spare socks. Triple R took care of the rest.
Then, we all piled into a van and started on our way, winding into the countryside. We were headed for glow worm caves owned by a local farmer, who essentially rents it to the company.
We eventually parked next to a small series of huts that stored equipment and housed changing rooms and bathrooms. There were rows of gumboots, the local term for the aforementioned boots that looked like refugees from the stormtrooper scenes in Star Wars. We also got out wetsuits, wide-legged pants to protect the wetsuits from the sharp rocks, helmets with headlamps and abseiling harnesses.
Nic gave us a great introduction to using a mini-rack. I’m not going into details about that here: It’s better, if you go, to give your guide your full attention. We trudged in out gumboots into what seemed like a small valley, but was really the fractured roof of a huge cave.
Sure, I’ll Go First
“Who wants to go first?” Nic asked, after we’d practiced our abseiling rope control on dry land. Not wanting to be like the sheep wandering around us, I volunteered.
The funny thing about abseiling: You know in your logical mind that everything will work. But if you rarely do it, there’s a visceral reaction to letting yourself ease off of a safe, stable platform into empty space. Just get over it – it’s way too fun once you let yourself go.
And let myself go I did, descending into the gloom toward an underground river, a shaft of sunlight peeking through the foliage to light my way somewhat. I touched down, unclipped from the mini-rack and hopped into the water.
Of course, it was chilly as it filled my boots … but I wandered straight in to get used to it, getting clear of the landing spot. One by one, the other five joined me. Nic had us grab an inner tube from a selection stashed along the river.
Fear of the Dark
Then we carried them along with our lights off, using the natural light as we slogged upstream. We headed up several hundred feet, and we started seeing tiny pinpoints of fluorescent green light on the cave ceilings. We continued splashing along, and soon the sunlight faded, leaving us only with the pinpricks of light above.
These, my friends, are glowworms. Each point of light was a small larvae.
“They’re maggots, with glowing bums,” Nic said, delicately. That’s right: They don’t poop.
It dangles a strand of web down from the ceiling, hoping to trick insects into thinking they are starlight. The insects, then, fly toward the light as bugs are wont to do. There, they get caught in the web, eaten and digested. The glow worm is the ultimate clean-burning machine – rather than pooping out the waste, they burn it in their butts, turning waste into a lure.
We eventually turned on our lights and got a close look at the slithery little creature, which are much cooler with the lights off. After spending some time milling about, Nic told us to plop our tubes down and hop in … right away, the currents rushed us back toward the entrance. I got a nice spin going for a 360-degree view of the glowworms, plus the Cylon Centurion-like glow of the red lights on top of our helmet lights. We had the main lights turned off for this portion.
Underground Tubing in the Glow Worm Caves
We passed the glow worm cave entrance, continuing downstream. There, the channel narrowed, turning the river into a great theme park ride! I was buzzing along like The Black Pearl before my wide tube got stuck in a channel … and then everyone plowed into the back of me! I had to wedge myself out to get everyone moving again.
We came to a dry spot, and it was time for fun and games. I gamely trotted up to Nic as Sarah and the sisters got out of their tubes. He waited for them to gather round before saying:
“Now, Justin has volunteered to take responsibility for you, so just follow him.”
He knew I’d pick up what he was putting down. He pointed up a narrow upward chasm, which I
slithered through, using my hands, butt, head, feet and practically my ears. We spent the next hour or so wedging our way through increasingly narrow spaces, a few of which made me genuinely nervous but oddly ecstatic.
How to Get Out of a Tight Spot
Nic taught us the best way to get through a cave obstacle: Upper body first, almost like a diver. It worked like a charm, really.
After all that work in the chilly water, Nic stopped us for a snack of some hot fruit-flavored energy drink and a bit of chocolate. Odd as it sounds, it worked great. We were then on our way back to the entrance, and our final obstacle: the climb up.
So if you abseil in, you can bet there’s probably not an elevator, escalator, staircase, dumbwaiter or anything like that.
Now, I don’t really cotton to rock climbing. This time, I went second instead of first (third, if you count Nic). The wall leaned in at an angle, and had lots of good handholds and footholds. But it was a bit wet and slippery. We were roped in by our harnesses, so I knew it couldn’t be too bad. But still!
Eventually, I got my way to the top and unclipped from the rope.
Getting Out of the Wetsuit
After this glow worm cave adventure, nothing feels as good as getting your wetsuit and harness off. Yes, my boys
were free of the encroaching canvass. And Satan’s jockstrap or not, this was a seriously great time. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a longer tour!
Nic ran us back to the headquarters, where they gave us a nice post-adventure cup of homemade soup. Since it’s wet down there, it helps to have a waterproof camera. The tour staff has one, and they’ll sell you a photo CD of your trip plus some stock photos for $25 NZ. It would be cool to take your own photos, but I didn’t want to risk my Pentax and a perfectly good lens.
Out on the Town
That night after some lengthy showers, we headed to The Thirsty Weta for dinner, and a walkabout through the nice rural town of Otorohanga. We had enough energy for a walk through the local Rotary Park, which was a pleasant way to cap the evening.
But enough about that: Let me conclude by saying that, if you don’t do a cave tour in Waitomo, you’re making a big mistake. I can’t tell you which company is best, but I enjoyed our time with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. I don’t recall the price, but I want to say about $135 NZ per person, and it was worth every cent. The only better cave tour I’ve done is the ATM cave tour in Belize – a long, crazy underground voyage complete with the calcified skeletons of people sacrificed by Mayan priest. Super-creepy! But in this case, there’s nothing wrong with being #2.
Fun – 4/5 (I’d give it a 5/5 if it were longer)
Fitness Factor – 3/5 (not that exerting, really)
Guides – 5/5 (great instructions, information and character)
Interested in a reservation? Check ’em out here.
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