Friday, 6 January 2012

Day trip to the Waitomo Caves

Sometimes it can be fun to become a tourist in your own country so this week when I had the opportunity to travel to the Waitomo Caves I grabbed it.   The Waitomo Caves  are a series of limestone caves  set in New Zealand's King Country about three hours south of Auckland.  Waitomo is a Maori word meaning water hole or deep water, named for the river running through the caves. A major tourist attraction,the caves house magnificent displays of stalagtites, stalacmites and  wondrous glow worm grottoes.

My day began boarding a large tourist coach in downtown Auckland and heading south into the country. There has been a fair bit of rain over the last few weeks so the countryside is lush and green and the rivers are running high.  Having travelled this road many times by car it was a real novelty to be sitting up high in a coach and viewing the scenery from a different perspective through large picture windows.  I didn't even mind the fact that an elderly  man sitting next to me promptly fell asleep, snored loudly, grunted, woke up, rustled cellophane packets of sweets then fell asleep and snored loudly again.  Actually, I kind of did mind but nevertheless it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip through beautiful countryside, affluent dairy farms, fields of grain and pretty, well cared for villages.

The dramatic tourist centre at the entry to the caves
The caves were first explored in 1887 and the tiny settlement of Waitomo has grown up since then, purely around the cave tourism.  Facilities for tourists include a shop, restaurant and various accommodation options including the historic, 1908 Waitomo hotel, slightly faded but friendly and reputed to have a resident ghost.  The entry to the caves is dramatic,with a new, architecturally designed canopy housing the ticket office, shop, restaurant and a small theatre built to replace the original visitors centre burnt down some time back.

Postcard views of The Cathedral (photography is not permitted)

In order to comply with health and safety requirements the main cave, Waitomo, is paved with tiles and heavily railed stairways to take visitors down into the depths.  This rather detracts from the cave's natural features but, I suppose, "needs must" and that aside,  the limestone formations are spectacular and beautiful.  It is rather humbling to realise that it has taken hundreds of thousands of years for these formations to develop in cool undisturbed serenity.  The stalagtites grow by about 1 centimetre every hundred years. The most spectacular part of the Waitomo cave is The Cathedral, a soaring space complete with an organ shaped limestone formation.  The acoustics here are reputed to be near perfect and many famous singers have sung in the cave, including New Zealand's own Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.  Visitors are invited to sing but everyone in my group shuffled their feet and looked at their shoes when offered the chance.  Fortunately someone in a nearby group sang and it was a truly pure sound.

Postcard photo of the glow worm is not lit like this normally.
At the end of the cave we boarded a row boat for a cruise through the glow worm grotto.  It was magical to drift in complete silence and darkness under a canopy of millions of tiny stars.  All too soon, though, we were back out into daylight and the tour was over. 

All smiles as I exit the cave
All up we were in Waitomo about an hour and in the cave a mere 35 minutes then it was back on the bus for the return trip to Auckland.  I enjoyed chatting to a couple from Canada on the way back to Auckland. They felt a little disappointed by the tour, found it too rushed and although they thought the cave spectacular would love to have seen more.  I had to agree with them however I think the tour is designed to fit in with cruise ship passengers arriving in Auckland who need to be back in time for sailing.

 My recommendation if you are going to Waitomo is to either drive there yourself or take a coach but plan to stay overnight.  That way you can get to see all three caves including the Aranui and Ruakuri caves which each have their own special features.  Aranui has some stunning formations and also houses giant wetas.  Wetas are a scary looking but harmless New Zealand insect.  The Aranui cave wetas are about the size of the palm of your hand.  The Ruakuri cave is the one tourists love the most, has the longest underground walk in the dark with a thundering river flowing through....very dramatic. I have visited all three caves on previous occasions and think that visiting all three makes for a much more satisfying experience.

For the adventurous there is a company called Black Water Rafting which takes groups on the river through the dark caves on inflated inner tubes.  Leaping into the river in the dark is surely a leap of faith but I think it would be thrilling and just might do it sometime!