Day 92: In the caves of the glowworms

So it turns out that I’ve arrived in Hamilton just in time for a five day cricket tournament.

The Barmy Army (travelling England supporters) are firmly ensconced in bars across town and at my hostel there appears to be a mix of England fans, New Zealand enthusiasts and the Australian Frisbee Team.

It’s an eclectic mix and everyone is very friendly though if the guy who only appears to know to two lines of a Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” doesn’t learn any more lyrics I may be forced to take direct action.

He only knows these three lines:

That’s life (that’s life) that’s what people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May

And he is singing them on continuous loop.

Direct action will entail him and the kid who for some unknown reason keeps squawking the five chords from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ being forced to listen to Wham’s “Last Christmas” on endless loop… at the other end of town and locking the door so neither if them can get back into the hostel.

There are limits to my patience.

Hamilton doesn’t have a good reputation among the travellers I have met. Each time I have said that this was my destination I’ve been met with: “Don’t go there”.

But I like it. I’ve been quite surprised by how much I like Hamilton.

The town centre isn’t the prettiest but it reminds me of some of the small towns that I visited in New England a few years ago. There is the same kind of sprawling expansion, purely because there was so much room when Europeans settled here.

There are murals and paintings around almost every street corner and I discussed the Gardens at length yesterday.

There is also a sense of real efforts to create a strong community, which I saw yesterday at the De Stylez coffeeshop.

Last night I met Melville from Hamilton’s community radio station, Free FM because he visits the hostel each week to see who is in town to ask them for an interview for his weekly show.

Unfortunately for him, I was the only one in. More unfortunately for him, I couldn’t pop down to the studio as I had other plans.

From what Melville said, the station sounds as like it is really focused on Hamilton, its surrounding towns and the people who live there. Stories and shows are focused on residents, for example serialising a novel written by a local woman who crossed the Simpson Desert fifty years ago.

Sounded good so why couldn’t I help with content?

I visited the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves today and wouldn’t be back in time to visit the studio.

I took two tours, one with Waitomo Glowworm Caves Guided Tour and one with Footwhistle.

It seems that the different caves and the tours here are owned by different families, each offering something slightly different according to what the cave on their land has.

I chose these two because I’m travelling by bus and the timings of these tours worked best around the drop off and pick up.


That had been the theory but a landslide a few weeks ago changed the bus timetable and I arrived slightly late for my first trip and had to be booked onto a slightly later one.

These things happen, though up until a couple of days before the bus rides the company was still emailing me incorrect timetable details.

That could have gone horribly wrong.

It was Gary the driver who told me of the changes when I caught the bus from Hamilton (and when he returned with the bus to Waitomo to go back, he asked if I had made my tours, which was very thoughtful).


Of the two tours, I preferred the offer from Footwhistle. It is more expensive but they take small tours into one of the caves for an hour rather than large groups for a 30 minute experience.

The first tour with the Glowworm Caves Guided Tour was a walk through the caves followed by a short boat ride.

Marlin, our guide, provided a comprehensive summary of how the cave we were in had been discovered and how the caves were formed.

The Waitomo Caves were discovered in the late 1800s by local Maori chief Tane Tinorau, who owned the land on which they were located.

The caves were opened to tourists in 1889, with local Maori acting as guides.

Many of the staff working at the caves today, said Marlin are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti, as the cave and its lands were returned to his family in 1989, following a period of government administration.

I’m back in limestone territory with caves like the ones I went into in Southern China, though the mountain formations are nothing like the Karst structures I saw in China or Northern Vietnam.

Marlin also demonstrated the acoustics of the caves by singing a Maori song. He had a beautiful voice though he preferred to sing in the dark because of stage-fright.

It was quite a crowded visit as there were tour groups in front and behind us which, with the excellent cave acoustics, meant there was an overlap of presentations.

Seeing the glow worms themselves was incredible. It’s like seeing star constellations or the Earth at night from space.

For the general knowledge/pub quiz fans… who hopefully aren’t eating their dinners, the glow worms aren’t worms. They’re the larvae of flies, so what I went to see were glowing maggots.

It would be difficult to market the reality.

The final part of the tour was a short and peaceful boat ride through a water filled cave.

Marlin guided the boat through the darkness hauling us silently along a rope that stretched through the cavern.

The roof was dense with glow worms and their light was reflected in the river below.

Marlin asked us not to take photographs or touch the rocks to preserve the caves – with the number of people tramping through, this is necessary.

The tour with Whistlestop was a completely different experience and photographs were allowed.

There were only three of us, plus Rich our guide who not only told us about the caves and the glow worms but also about the land around us – pointing out different types of trees, bird calls and discussing the local land use and ecology.

It was a really interesting afternoon.

We were taken up to another cave owned by Rich’s family further along the road, and he led us down a winding path to where a waterfall plunged deep into the cave. This is how the caves have been found over the years – following the flow if the water to where it disappears underground.

The water plunges deep underground

From here, we headed hundred metres underground with Rich showing us how to spot the glow worms that live outside the caves as well as inside.

…and that’s where we’re going.

The purpose of the glow worm is essentially to eat. In this larvael stage, this is the only time that the creatures can eat – the adults can’t and their purpose is to reproduce before death.

Close up of the glowworm threads

In order to eat, the glow worm produces sticky strands that hang down from the cave to catch their prey.

They don’t cluster close to each other as they would eat each other.

Not feeling quite so warm and fuzzy about the glow worms now, are we readers?

Inside the caves, we followed a tunnel – the cave had needed no following out for people to walk through when it was discovered – to the source of the cave’s name… a rock that looks vaguely like a foot and a whistle, described by potholers in 1942.

Both tours were fascinating, both offered different elements but the Whistlestop tour was more personal, less crowded and… above all… it offered a cup of tea in a wooden hut in the forest.

What could be better?

*Featured Photo: Into the caves.

Categories: Nature/Landscapes, New Zealand, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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