Rappelling into the Dark – The Glow Worm Caves of Waitomo

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.

Check out the fashion!
Check out the fashion!

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.

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Sarah can’t wait to descend the rope!

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.

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The glow worm caves are aglow with light-bummed maggots.

“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.

The glow worm webs ... revealed!
The glow worm webs … revealed!

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

glow worm caves
Slithering Justin leads the way.

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.

See Sarah wiggle.
See Sarah wiggle.

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

Looking up at the cave entrance.
Looking up at the cave entrance.

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.

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A big ol’ wetta!

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.

Ratings:
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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Our caving group, with a backdrop of glow worms.

New Zealand Travel Itinerary – My Ideas

New Zealand travel itinerary
Tongariro – a must for your New Zealand travel itinerary.

If you need some ideas for a New Zealand travel itinerary, I have you covered. Here are some suggestions for 14 full days in New Zealand that can help you put your own adventures together.

First off, visiting New Zealand involves a lengthy flight (unless you’re from Australia). That means spending at least two weeks is the only way to go. These ideas include some highlights from my trip and a few ideas of what I would’ve changed in my New Zealand travel itinerary with my newfound knowledge.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Our caving group, with a backdrop of glow worms.

Day One: Arrive from Los Angeles at 6 a.m. local time. Drop bags off at hotel in Parnell near the downtown area. Grab a few flat whites at Ben’s. Ogle crazy foods at local Asian markets. Take a ferry to Rangitoto Island and hike to the top of the volcano. Return to hotel … check in and shower. Then off to dinner and wandering the streets of Auckland. Hindsight is 20/20 … and mine says I should’ve rented a car after the flat whites and driven the easy two hours to Rotorua, thus affording some time in the fun capitol, or extra time in Wellington. I was planning to feel far more jet-lagged, but the symptons never came.

Day 2: Bus from Auckland to Rotorua. Arrive around 2:30 p.m., check into hotel. Visit Kairua Park, walk around Lake Rotorua. Watch for the sulfury lagoon where the lake turns color. Eerie! Indian dinner at Ambiance. General hanging around the town.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Heading up Franz Josef Glacier.

Day 3: Breakfast, drive out to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s an amazing but low-key addition to anyone’s New Zealand travel itinerary. After lunch, off to Agroventures. Zorbing is the highlight. Try the Schweeb, too. We followed this with driving around the countryside at dinner at Fat Dog. An extra day here would’ve been nice. Too much fun stuff to do here! I posted about our time there, with more photos.

Day 4: Drive to Tongariro National Park. Stop whenever we feel like it, especially at the Honey Hive. Continue on to Tongariro through Taupo. If you’re a hiker, get provisions in Taupo. Quick two-hour hike on Taranaki Falls Track. Dinner at Skotel. Arrange bus service for tomorrow’s hike.

Day 5: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a side trip up Mt Ngauruhoe. An epic journey requiring a post of its own … or two (coming soon). Drive to Waitomo, stopping in National Park at Eiven’s for a quick dinner. Then on through Te Kuiti into Waitomo. Fall DEAD ASLEEP!

New Zealand travel itinerary
Me overlooking Queenstown, The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu.

Day 6:  Start with breakfast at Bosco Cafe. Then onto Rap, Raft & Rock for our Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour. Post about that coming soon. Shower, followed by dinner at The Thirsty Weta. A late snack at Curly’s Bar & Grill. Fall dead asleep … again! Read all about it in my glowworm cave post.

Day 7: On the road by 8 a.m. for the drive to Wellington. You can do it in six hours without speeding, but more stops equal more time! We made an extended stop at Paraparamu Beach. Hang out on Cuba Street, have a great Indonesian dinner at Rasa.

Day 8: A quick visit to Te Papa Museum, followed by grabbing a few Wellington Phoenix shirts (Wellington’s soccer team in the A League). Then, we catch a flight to Nelson. It’s only about 20 minutes. Arrive, check into hotel, wander the streets and have a late lunch at Falafel Gourmet.

Day 9: Bus to Abel Tasman National Park (this will get its own entry soon). Walk for a few hours. Late lunch at The Park Cafe. Brews at The Sprig and Fern. Dinner at Little India. This may sound like blasphemy, but in retrospect I’d skip Abel Tasman and head straight to Franz Josef today to make up for an extra day in Rotorua.

Day 10: Bus to Franz Josef Glacier. Stop at the Sandfly Cafe … ate a possum pie! By the way, New Zealand likes weird food. You might want to make room in your New Zealand travel itinerary for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival. Various other stops – a very nice drive. Best 8-hour bus ride ever. Arrive, check out the town. Hang out a bit.

Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier tour. Unbelievable! That was pretty much the whole day, except for showers and cooking dinner at the backpackers’ lodge. It’s not physically that strenuous, but the experience of being on a glacier is amazing. This should be part of any outdoor-related New Zealand travel itinerary.

Day 12: Bus to Queenstown. Stop in Wanaka – beautiful town on the lake! Continue to Queenstown through the heart of NZ’s grape and fruit basket. Lots of vineyards and vintners. Scenery turns more dry and stark. Clearly more commerce and mining, despite the isolation. Arrive in Q-town … we ate some fresh green-lipped muscles at the Aggys Shack chased by gelato from Patagonia – try the banana split flavor. It’s not what you’d expect! Then, off to the cinema to see Slumdog Millionaire where it’s still in a theater!

Day 13: Parasailing and street luge, followed by a nice run around town. We followed the lake’s edge for a few miles. Then to Aggys Shack, Fish & Chips for smoked eel and some sort of raw fish concoction. Took a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw. Fun, and beautiful views. Great to see a bird’s-eye of the crew working the boilers. Finally, a a nightcap at Dux De Lux following a nice pad thai at one of the local Thai restaurants.

Day 14: Breakfast at Halo. Go to Queenstown Airport. Say good-by to Q-Town. Catch a flight in Auckland. And this brings my New Zealand travel itinerary to and end.