Saturday, February 2, 2013

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Us in the Cave
When we came to New Zealand in 2005, we stayed for three weeks and took in the majority of the tourist sites, stretching from the Bay of Islands in the North Island, all the way down to Invercargill in the South Island. But the one thing we didn’t do, and regretted missing, was the glowworms in Waitomo.  You can see them by walking through one of the caves on a walkway, or in a rowboat, or by abseiling down into them. But the way we wanted to do it was with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. With them you don a lovely two piece wetsuit, grab some gum boots, a caving helmet with a light on it, and a big ol’ innertube.  You’ll be walking through the cave, floating through the cave, and oh yeah, jumping backwards off two waterfalls about 2-3 meters high, with that inner tube (hopefully) on your butt.

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Those photos are not of our group—they were taken on an different tour of the same cave, with a large DSLR, rather than the waterproof point-and-shoot the normal guides carry with them.  For any photo geeks, the metadata on those images shows they were taken by a Canon 5D mkII, and probably a 24mm f/1.4 lens (over $4000 of gear, compared to the sub $400 compact our guide had).  Unfortunately, but somewhat understandably, they did not allow us to take our own cameras, as it was enough like herding cats as it was, without everyone stopping to take pictures as well.  The guides took different pictures than we would have; that’s both good and bad.  It definitely included posed and group photos.
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After a change of clothes and selecting an inner tube, we had a practice “jump” off a dock in the daylight before descending into the cave.  We were instructed to turn around and face away from the water, tuck our bums into the tube, and jump up slightly and back into the water, like this.
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This also gives you some sense of the distance we’d be jumping falling.  The guide who took this picture was standing in the water below the dock.  Because of his height, David made the most spectacular splashing noise and our guides were much amused.
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Lana was a little less confident in her plunge, and didn’t so much jump as fall back into the river, which wasn’t ideal. She did keep her seat, however, and managed to not upend herself and her tube.
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After everyone took their turn and paddled their way a bit down river and climbed out of the water, we headed into the cave. There was no turning back now.
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David
Lana
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After entering the cave we took a couple of group shots (one with flash and one long exposure in the dimness of the cave). Then we edged our way through very cold knee deep water.  One of our guides sat us down and told us all about the glowworms.
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The glowworms in this cave are the larval form of a gnat; arachnocampa luminosa. They use bioluminescence to lure prey into sticky web strands (see above), and then reel in their catch.  The first glow worm we saw was alone, and it absolutely looked like someone had planted a green LED in the ceiling of the cave.  Unlike LEDs, glow worms produce light with with roughly 98% efficiency, compared to 22% for traditional LEDs.
After that we walked a bit further, toward the sound of ever-increasingly loud rushing water. It was time for our first waterfall jump.  The first one was the smaller (shorter) of the two, and about the same distance as the dock.  This is another of the ‘stock’ photos from the high-end DSLR, of someone in mid-air over the rushing water:Black Labyrinth 014
Despite some last-minute coaching and tips from the guides, Lana managed to execute a poor jump and her feet bumped into the rocks on the way down. No matter—she kept her seat (whew). David’s splash made an even louder sound with the acoustics of the cave (it wasn’t until the third and final jump that he found that breathing out through your nose while jumping, rather than just holding your breath, is what you need to keep from irrigating your sinuses with cold cave water). After the jump we paddled down the river a bit, eventually scraping bottom.  Time to pick up our tubes and hike a little further.

By now we’d all gotten a warmed up (figuratively—it was bloody cold in there) and were excitedly chattering about the jump, the glowworms. Again we heard the sound of rushing, and we knew what that meant. It was time for jump number two.  Lana was so keyed up for this one (the bigger one) that she decided to just go first to get it over with.

Let’s pause here a minute, so you can put yourself (all cozy and comfy in front of your computer, maybe with a cup of tea) in our place. You’re standing in rushing 53 degree (12C) water at the edge of a 12 foot (3ish meter) waterfall, acknowledging the height of the jump you are about to make, and then turning your back on it. This is the a moment when you realize you are thousands of miles from home, deep in a hole in the ground, with nothing between you and a head injury except for a miner’s helmet and an inner tube. And then of course, you jump. Might as well.

After we all jumped or climbed down (that was an option), we linked up in a chain, each person holding in their armpits the gum boots of the person behind them.  Since Lana was the first to jump, she was at the head of the chain. One of our guides grabbed her by the toe of one of her gumboots and began to pull us along.

When we reached the section of the cave with many glowworms, everyone switched off their headlamps, and we floated along with only the light of the glowworms—the sheer number of glowworms was enough to illuminate the cave walls.  It was breathtaking and surreal.  In the quiet and dark, our senses narrowed to just the lights overhead, with the occasional “ooh” and “ahhh.”  The river current was so gentle that we felt motionless, and the glowworms appeared to be moving over us like a starry sky.  That was the moment when everything felt worth it. The horribly unflattering wetsuits, the goofy helmets, the nose full of river water. It was one of the best moments of our trip so far, and a highlight of our entire two weeks of travelling in New Zealand.
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Eventually, we passed into sections with fewer glow worms, and our guides told us we could keep our lights off still, and just find out way to the light at the end of the tunnel.  They had a typical New Zealand, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, so we weren’t sure if they were kidding or not, but it turns out they weren’t.  It was a pleasant way to end the tour.
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The timing worked out that we did the tour on New Year’s eve, but emerging from the cave in some ways was a passing into the new year for us. Already, 2013 has been a bit like the glowworm caves:  fear and wonder, in equal measure.