There are few things in this world that I would describe as “magical”. Cinderella Castle at Disney World. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But when it comes to natural phenomenon, I have seen nothing more magical than Arachnocampa Luminosa. And no, that is not the mumblings of a fairy godmother or a spell cast by Hermoine- that is a glowworm, native only to New Zealand, that I was able to visit during my stop at Waitomo.
The caves where they offer glowworm tours were a little bit out of our way, but we knew we wanted to stop to see them so we built the detour into our daily itinerary. The visitor center was very crowded and we were very lucky that we got onto the next available tour. The tour itself began right outside the entrance to the cave, and while the guide was telling great stories I felt that the group was way too big. Luckily I still got a lot of the information. The caves were first explored by a Maori chief and an English explorer, who together found the water route into the cave and were mesmerized by the strange glowing dots on the ceiling. They continued to search, eventually finding a land route into the cave which is actually the same entrance that modern visitors use. It was opened up to tourists before 1900, and in 1989 ownership was returned from the government to the descendants of the original owners.
After entering the cave, we were marveling at the stalagmites and stalactites, which were huge and absolutely gorgeous. An area of the lower level, called the Cathedral, was a big open space that seemed not unlike a huge church. The guide asked our group to partake in a sing-along so that we could appreciate the amazing acoustics in the space. Luckily there were a few children present who happily led us all in a Christmas carol. Apparently choirs and famous singers often come to this spot for that specific reason.
Soon we reached the stream and it was time for the boat ride, which is what would take us to the glowworms. The worms themselves are actually more like flies or maggots, with their glow serving to attract both prey (in the larvae stage) and mates (especially for adult females). They only thrive in dark, wet areas, as lights scare them and cause them to stop glowing. Because of this, there was no photography of any kind allowed on the tour- one accidental flash could send the worms dark for minutes at a time, ruining the experience for everyone.
It was so dark as we were loading onto the little wooden boats that I was actually concerned. The ground was wet, not to mention rocky and uneven, the boats weren’t exactly steady, and there were lots of kids and a few older folks in our group. There were even too many of us to fit into one boat and nearly a third of the group had to wait behind for the second ride. A stroke of good luck got us onto the first boat, where we were told to be completely still and completely quiet. And that was where the magic happened. As we pulled farther and farther away from the launch, guided by a standing staff member steering the boat with a hand-over-hand method along a cable on the ceiling, it got darker and darker and the blueish-white dots got brighter and brighter. They were surrounding us, on the walls and ceilings, like nothing I had ever seen before. It was kind of like a planetarium, or the clearest night sky you could ever image, with a powder blue glow. Absolutely breathtaking.
The boat ride was short, but wonderful, and we disembarked in a beautiful lush area immediately outside of the cave. A pretty trail through the trees led us to the end of the tour (read: the gift shop). There were a few other caves in the area that we didn’t have time to see, but we were very pleased with our experience. Even though it is on the way to nowhere, it is a must for a New Zealand itinerary. Go to their website http://www.waitomo.com/Waitomo-Glowworm-Caves/ for photos of the caves as well as great visitor information.