Today was our last full day in New Zealand and we planned yet another adventure. When Pete and I were here 14 years ago, one thing we did was visit a glowworm cave in Te Anau, which is on the southern end of the South Island. It was a lot of fun, so we thought we’d take the girls to the Waitomo Caves on the North Island so that they could see glowworms there.
Let me stop the story here to tell you two relevant pieces of information:
- While I am not necessarily afraid of the dark, I am unnerved by anything involving darkness and an enclosed space, such as caving. You will never catch me doing any sort of activity that involves going through tiny, cramped spaces, especially so if there’s also darkness involved. It’s simply too claustrophobic and scary.
- Virginia is absolutely loaded with caves, all up and down the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I have been to most of the major ones, a few within the past half decade or thereabouts. I have also been to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and liked it, as well as the aforementioned outing the last time we were in New Zealand.
Now back to our story, which is a long one, so I’m just warning you now…
In the U.S., when you go to a cave, you go to a specific cave, such as Luray Caverns or Mammoth Caves. When you get there, you park your car in the parking lot outside, buy your tickets, and then enter the caverns from some point within the same building where you bought your tickets. The tour will be led by someone who was hired to do the job and not by someone who is all that invested in the cave itself. They will then relate the same spiel that they tell every tour group, including the rather silly and/or grandiose names given to different cave features or rooms. It’s all canned and not at all genuine.
The Waitomo Caves, however, are different. There is no one cave that you visit; instead, there are a variety of caves that you could visit, as there are over 100 known caves in the area, including one particular cave that takes large groups of people through rapidly. (And, in fact, when we drove by, there were two large tour buses disgorging tourists into the parking lot.) When we checked into our campground last night, Pete asked the manager if she had a recommendation for which tour we should go on and she suggested one that’s a bit smaller than the larger outfit down the road. She said that the tours were cozier and that the overall effect was simply more personal and interesting.
We got up this morning (Monday) and got our tour tickets. We were part of a very small group — just ten people, plus the tour guide, who I would describe as Stephen Fry with a Kiwi accent, with a twist of Garrison Keillor in his personality and appearance. A native to the area, Norm has been exploring caves most of his life and in fact helped develop the caves we would be seeing, including laying down paths. A little more than a decade ago, he was working a desk job when he woke up one day and realized that he hated his job and it was time to chuck it in and do what he wanted to be doing.
I know all this about Norm, plus plenty about our fellow cavegoers, because on the 30 minute drive in a van to get to the caves, Norm told us about himself, then quizzed us all on where we were from, what we do, and various other details of our lives. He called my family “Team U.S.A.”
So, yes: A thirty minute drive to get to the cave entrance. That was a new one for me and totally unexpected. Along the way, Norm regaled us with information about the local village (population 41), local gossip (no one is happy about the new traffic light), and all sorts of interesting details about the geography, flora and fauna, the caves, and more.
The cave we visited was located on a private farm and is owned by an older farmer named Derek. Derek thought he might have caves on his property, especially when one of his cows disappeared 40 years ago without a trace. And sure enough, later on, we saw the bones of that cow in a cave under a tomo (the Maori name for one of the deep shafts from the surface down to the cave below). Apparently, when Derek and Norm and two other guys were exploring the caves fully before opening them, Derek looked at the cow’s bones and “reckoned” that it must have been the one he lost.
Yes, I know this is a long story, but I’m trying to give you the flavor of the day.
So, we had thirty minutes in the van to get to know each other and also enjoy the gorgeous views:
At the end of our journey, Norm let us out of the van and suggested we walk the final five minutes, as it would give us a chance to explore the immediate scenery.
Can you see the people on the trail?
When I got to the bottom, Norm was already there and was fitting a miner’s helmet on one of my daughters.
“Oh, how neat,” I thought. “We’re getting miner’s helmets to keep us from bonking our heads.”
Unlike the U.S., which is a very litigious country, New Zealand is not. You participate in activities and enter places at your own risk. I learned 14 years ago that the Kiwis’ use of guardrails and other safety measures is far more relaxed than in the U.S. Because of that, I thought it was rather nice of Norm to kit us out with helmets with lights on them.
Has everyone else figured out what I was too dense to understand, even at that moment?
Once we were all be-helmeted, Norm led us into the cave, flashlight in hand. Only then did I realize that, unlike every other cave tour I’ve been on, this cave had no lights in it, only the ones we brought in.
And I started to very quietly freak out. Big time.
As with my very short time spent in the waters at the Great Barrier Reef, my breathing got rough and ragged and I could feel my heart rate shooting up. I turned to Pete and said something about how I wasn’t sure I could do this. By this point, our group was maybe 50′ inside the cave. I could still see daylight, but just barely. Pete suggested that I go back outside, but for some reason, I kept going along with the crowd.
At about 70′ in, Norm told us all to turn off our headlamps and he extinguished his flashlight. We did. By that point, there were big tears rolling down my cheeks, I was shaking from head to toe, and I had my hand over my mouth to keep from making any noise that would let the rest of the group know I was upset. Pete knew, but that would be because my other hand had one of his hands in a death grip.
Why I did not turn back, I still cannot tell you.
Norm turned his flashlight back on and said we could turn our headlamps back on, thank you GodBuddhaOprahFlyingSpaghettiMonster. He spent several minutes explaining about the life cycle of glowworms. I don’t remember much about that part, but I do recall Norm telling us that when adult glowworms mate, the female only lives for about two days afterward. Once she dies, the male goes off to find another mate. At that moment, Ellie piped up, “Just like Henry the Eighth!”
I calmed down a bit during the sciencey stuff, so I thought I was okay. Then our group moved a bit further into the cave, maybe another 50′. I could hear the sound of rushing water. We came around a corner and there was an underground river with a boat sitting right there, clearly waiting for us.
Norm told directed us into the boat: “Team U.S.A., you get in the front.” Norm got the rest of the group into the boat and situated and then instructed us to turn off our headlamps. Norm’s flashlight and headlamp were still providing a little light.
A boat, I can do.
Caving, with lights, I can do.
Caving in the dark + a river of an unknown depth = the perfect storm of my absolute worst fears. The only thing that could have made it worse was snakes. As it was, I was already closing in on possible cardiac arrest.
Norm got into the boat and turned off his lights. We were in total darkness.
I was gripping the side of the boat with one hand and Pete’s hand with the other one.
As our eyes adjusted to the dark, the most amazing sight unfolded in front of our eyes.
Stretching along the ceiling of the cave were zillions of glowworms. Everywhere. And they were every bit as magical as when I saw the Milky Way for the first time last week at Uluru.
Norm slowly guided our boat down the river while we soaked in the beauty of the glowworms in silence. I was still freaked out, but calming down a bit. Our eyes adjusted to the dark and we could see a little, just like when you wake up in the middle of the night and walk around your bedroom without turning on the lights.
We floated in the boat for about 20 minutes and then Norm brought us back to shore, so to speak. When we docked, he told us not to turn on our helmets, as we would be walking out of the cave by the light of the glowworms. Pete held my hand and kept me close. Every time Norm stopped our progress toward the light so that he could tell us something else — and I will tell you he was truly one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had anywhere — I would lean against Pete and shake so hard I thought I would break, while tears ran down my face.
And then finally, oh FINALLY, we were back out in the light.
Norm announced that we would take a short tea break before going into another cave. I quietly informed Pete that I would be sitting out the next cave.
We walked up the hill and found ourselves in another gorgeous New Zealand valley.
Norm brought some supplies from the back of the van and set up tea, coffee, cocoa, and cookies in a little open-air shelter that he and Derek and the other blokes had built.
We enjoyed our little respite and then Norm announced that it was time for our next cave. I quietly asked him if it would be okay if I just sat that one out. He asked if I’d gotten claustrophobic and I said that it was the absence of lights that was the worst part for me. He promised me that the second cave was totally different and that it had electrical lights all along the way. I decided to give it a shot.
Norm was right. The second cave tour was much like the kind I am used to. There weren’t any glowworms — it was a different kind of cave — but we did see a lot of interesting rock formations, plus the various entrances (sinkholes) into the cave, as well as the aforementioned cow bones. Oh, and the 20,000 year old bones of a moa, which apparently fell into the cave and died.
We finished our tour and got back into the van for the 30 minute drive back. Along the way, we passed through more gorgeous countryside, so much so that I couldn’t take it all in.
And we saw a rainbow.
In spite of my massive freakout, I’m actually glad I went on that tour. I saw things that I’ll never forget and learned a lot from the erudite and interesting Norm.
After that, we got back into Jenwheeled and drove north to Auckland. We had a very important date and couldn’t be late.
At dinner time, we pulled in front of my lovely friend Catherine’s house, where she was waiting for us with an amazing meal and her smiling face. We had a wonderful evening and I wish we could have stayed longer. Alas, we had to leave, as it is our last night in New Zealand and we have to repack our suitcases and clear out from Jenwheeled in the morning.
We head to Sydney tomorrow and will be there until we leave on Friday. *sniff* I’m not sure what our internet situation will be, but I will check in again when I can.
Updated to add: I’ve been thinking about this and think that I could do the cave thing again, provided I had time to mentally prepare myself. Whether or not that would have helped in this particular instance, I do not know.