Thursday, November 18, 2010

Glow Little Glow Worm: The Waitomo Caves 18 November

For those of you who have not been there, Waitomo is a fairy land.  The name comes from two Maori words:  "wai" which translates as water and "tomo" which means entrance or hole. Waitomo can be translated as the "stream which flows into the hole in the ground".   There are more than 300 limestone caves beneath the hills of the Waitomo region, created by geological and volcanic activity over the past 30 million years. Cave features include the typical stalactites, stalagmites, and running underground streams.  The most unusual feature of all, however, unique to the area, is the New Zealand Glowworm.

The New Zealand Glowworm

A glowworm is not a worm at all.  Rather, it the larvae stage  of a two-winged insect or fly that grows as long as a matchstick and looks a bit like a maggot. The New Zealand glowworm is the arachnocampa luminosa. "Arachno" of course means spider-like; the name refers to the way glowworms spin long silky strings that act as webs catching flying insects like spiders do. "Campa means larva and "luminosa" means light-producing.  The glowworm attracts other insects by "lighting up."  The light is created through bioluminescence, a reaction between the chemicals given off by the glowworm and the oxygen in the air.  The reaction is actually a reaction involving the wastes generated by glowworm.  So -- putting the scientific name of the glowworm aside, we began to think of the glow from the glowworm as, in the words of a guide, "shiny maggot poo."  The light attracts flying insects such as mosquitoes, who fly toward the light and get stuck in the stick lines spun by the glowworm.  Ummm -- lunch!

We got to Waitomo on the evening of 17 November, and at the suggestion of our B&B hosts, took a nighttime walk through the Ruakuri bush.  The walk goes along a narrow stream that, at some point in history ran through the bottom of a cave.  Over time the ceiling of the cave fell in, so our walk along the stream took us through an area with steep walls along each side.  The reason for the nighttime walk: the walls were covered with glowworms!  Such a fantastic experience.

Grace at entrance to Waitomo Cave

The next morning, we were the first in line at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, to take the tour down through the cave, where we boarded a boat and punted through ( and ultimately out of) the cave.  The cave was pitch black -- except for the millions of glowworms that covered the ceilings and walls of the cave, with the lights reflected by the black, still water of the river.

We are not professional photographers -- although we did buy a new camera for Gracie that we took with us.  But it is impossible to take good photos from inside a black cave, so we let our fingers do the walking and found these photos on the internet to give you an idea of what we saw:

Millions of Glowworms covering the cave ceiling

Glowworms Hanging from Rocks
Closer view of Glowworm Strings

Ruakuri Cave

 The Waitomo Glowworm Cave is only one of many caves in the area, and we thought we should visit a second, Ruakuri Cave, one of the newer ones to open to visitors such as us.  Over the past few decades, Ruakuri was one of the caves frequented by adventure seekers, who would abseil straight down 35 metres (over a hundred feet), go cave tubing down a river at the bottom of a cave black but for the glowworms overhead, hike the dark in the cave, going by flying  fox over chasms, and ultimately rock climbing back out.  More recently, they have constructed an amazing circular staircase descending over ten stories.  There is a fantastic photo of the staircase, but we think it is copyrighted, so here is the link.

Ruakuri Cave has always been a spiritual place for local Maori, who, amongst other things, originally used the cave as a sacred burial ground (or wahi tapu).  The cave was discovered by the Maori 400 to 500 years ago when a hunter  was attacked by two dogs living in the cave entrance. The hunter and this tribe tracked the two dogs back to the cave and found a large population of dogs there, whom they caught and killed -- and ate.  The name Ruakuri  has been translated as with "Two Dogs" or "Den of Dogs".  Later, the cave became a wahi tapu (sacred site) for the Maori, who used for burials and for storing important taonga (sacred or precious objects, like Taonga Glass).

By the 20th century the land had passed into the hands of the Holden family, who own it to this day, and the caves were first opened to the public by James Holden.  Sometime later, the government nationalized the Ruakuri Cave and others in Waitomo, thereby getting all the revenue from tours operated at the caves.  This lead to extensive litigation by Holden, and in 1988 or 1989 the litigation resulted in a decision for the local land owners, not the government, had the right to operate the caves below the land.  Today, the owners of the land above the caves, many of whom are Maori tribes, also "own" the caves but lease the land for tourism, getting a slice of the admission charges and providing labor.  To the right is the sign that Holden posted at his entrance to the Ruakuri Cave.

The trip through the cave, the longest tour in the area, gave us a fantastic view of the black water rafters tubing along the bottom of the cave.  Couldn't photograph that, but here are some of our other favorite pictures.


Limestone Curtains

Moa bones (black) and fossils (white) found in excavation of Ruakuri Cave

Pipe leading from ground surface to cave, used to dump concrete down shaft during excavation and construction of tour facilities.  When workers tried to put metal rods down the shaft (to avoid carrying them in through the river), the rods gained such speed coming down that they penetrated the rock below and went down several meters.


No comments:

Post a Comment