My happy place is the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. It's such a picturesque place, a wonderful natural environment.

As a kid, I came to the caves and did the boat ride, and I have vivid memories of seeing the glowworms. In the dark, it felt like you were as close as possible to being in outer space - they seemed to go on forever, off into the distance above you, just like the night sky.

Later on, I found out that my great-grandfather Tane Tinorau was credited as being one of the first explorers of the caves, in the late 1880s.

When I was growing up, in Otorohanga, we held a little bit of fear about the "wild" caves around, because traditionally they were associated with burial places. There are caves we consider tapu, but as far as we know the Glowworm Caves didn't have any human remains.


I started working as a guide at the caves six years ago. I have long family ties to the caves, of course, and have a lot of family working here, so it's nice to be able to continue that connection.

I have two happy places within the caves - the cathedral, which is a big, open cavern, and the grotto where we do the boat ride. The cathedral is a great storytelling setting, especially for the story of Rangi and Papa's separation. When you enter in the dark it feels like the world of darkness at the beginning of that creation story, and I associate the glowworms as being a symbol of the first light.

The acoustics are very good. We've had concerts and opera there. I sing there and a lot of other guides do. But if you're there alone you'll hear nothing but the drip of water. It's an almost-silent place. It's always a constant temperature - about 15C year-round - so it's got a coolness and dampness to it.

I never tire of the beauty of the glowworm lights. If you're in there with the glowworms for an hour or two, doing maintenance or something, by the time you leave they're that bright they look like they're bulging out from the top of the ceiling, because your eyes have adjusted so much.

People sometimes have a spiritual connection to the caves, a spiritual experience. The enjoyment they get from it is the reward for me. As soon as they walk in there's a wonderment - you can hear it in their expression. It's the beauty of the cave, the formations, the whiteness of the rock.

Children are always a little bit impatient to see the glowworms. When they get out into the middle of the grotto and they see this mass above them, that's the real wow factor. It never fails to be a unique, amazing experience.

125 years old

The Waitomo Caves marks its 125th anniversary of guided tours this year, making it one of New Zealand's oldest tourist attractions. New Zealanders who visit by March 31 qualify for free visits for the rest of the year.


- as told to Bronwyn Sell