Waitomo: Why go? Because it rocks!

By Nick Grant

The Waitomo Caves have taken aeons to form; it takes a century for one cubic centimetre of rock to form.
The Waitomo Caves have taken aeons to form; it takes a century for one cubic centimetre of rock to form.

A visit to Waitomo has long been on our family's holiday "to do" list, something we'd usually be reminded of while driving past on the way to or from somewhere much further away.

So when the opportunity comes up, daughters Freya, almost 11, and Tilly, just turned 9, and I leap at the chance to see the world-renowned caves that attract 500,000 tourists each year to the tiny King Country village.

And what better time to visit than during the 125th anniversary of these natural wonders' guided tours?

The sunny, crisp autumnal weather makes for a pleasant two-and-a-half hour drive from Auckland and, after quickly checking into our motel unit at the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park, where other accommodation options include tent and caravan sites, and cabins, we dash the 500m down the road to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitors Centre.

There we pick up tickets to the three cave tours we'll be squeezing into the next day-and-a-half, taking a moment to appreciate the centre itself and its elegant, award-winning architecture.

Then it's a short drive to Aranui Cave, its entrance at the end of a five-minute, largely uphill bush walk. Our guide is a lovely kuia called Evelyn, who provides gently humorous commentary on the cave's history, the way the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and other decorative structures are formed, and other features including a colony of indigenous cave wetas.

At one point Evelyn says, "Any questions? No, well, you can sing a song then!" No one takes up her suggestion; since we stepped into the cave an air of reverent awe has enveloped the group as we all admire the other-worldly shapes and textures that aeons of dripping water have wrought on the rocks, and no one wants to break the spell.

We re-emerge into the sunlight after about 40 minutes, and have a quick bite to eat before it's time for the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Tour. Our guide is Watti, who tells us that like most of those leading tours at Waitomo, she's a descendent of local chief Tane Tinorau who, with English surveyor Fred Mace, was the first to explore the glow-worm caves in 1887, opening them to tourists two years later.

This 45-minute tour includes the cave known as the Cathedral - 38m underground, the purity of its acoustics has attracted a number of famous singers to perform there, ranging from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa to Kenny Rogers.

The undisputed highlight, however, is the boat ride back out. We glide through inky blackness under swirling constellations of the glow-worm's blue-green lights, sometimes just centimetres above our heads, steered by Watti using a system of ropes strung from the walls and ceiling. It's simply breathtaking and when we exit via the opening through which Tinorau and Mace first entered the cave system 127 years ago, we can't help feeling disappointed it's over.

Tilly marvels at how lucky our guide is to go to work there every day; Freya, meanwhile, declares the trip one of the most interesting of her life.

Final activity of the day involves a 25km drive to check out the Mangapohue Natural Bridge walk, where we take the chance to clamber over the limestone rock formations jutting out of the paddocks and examine the fossilised sea shells embedded in them.

Thanks to recent heavy rains, the landscape is lush, green and dripping and it's not hard to imagine the land being pushed out of the ocean by volcanic activity rather more recently than millions of years ago.

Next morning after breakfast we dash across the frosted lawn to have a dip in Top 10's spa pool, ensuring we're appropriately alert for our last cave visit, Ruakuri. This, the girls agree, turns out to be the best one to do last, as the two-hour tour includes examples of everything we'd seen on the previous two.

Our guide Mika, who's informative and funny, also gets the kids' tick as their favourite.
Before we go into the caves, our bags are stored for safe keeping. The passageways in the cave can be a little tight, says Mika, and it's all too easy to forget you have something on your back or shoulder that can damage the cave as you turn around, which would result in a $10,000 fine - a fair price, given it takes one cubic centimetre of rock formation a century to grow.

It's not just the natural features that are stunning in this cave - the man-made entrance known as the Spiral, completed in 2005, is an engineering feat worthy of admiration, too, as is the way the walkways have been bolted to the cave to minimise visitors' environmental impact, and the artful way the rocks have been lit.

As well as talking about the geology of the cave, Mika is full of fascinating factoids about its history of tourism and ownership.

We see several groups exploring the caves in more adventurous ways, abseiling down the walls and floating along the underground river in their inner-tubes, a sight that inspires Tilly to start calculating how much older she has to be before she can return to do those activities.

Our last port of call is the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre. Featuring various fossils, samples of different rocks found in the area and a 20-minute audiovisual show about glow-worms, it provides more detail about everything we've seen and is a satisfying way to bring things to a close. As we drive home, we agree the only disappointing thing about our stay is it has been far too short.

That's why Waitomo is already back on that list of future family holidays.

IF YOU GO

Waitomo Village has a range of places to eat, including a la carte Huhu Cafe, Florence's Kitchen, and the Morepork Cafe and Pizzeria. There's no dairy or general store, though, so if you want to prepare your own meals, stock up at the supermarket in Te Kuiti or Otorohanga (15km away in either direction along State Highway 3).

Nick Grant and daughters travelled courtesy of Avis, Waitomo Glowworm Caves (ph (07) 878 8228) and Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park (ph (07) 878 7639).

- Herald on Sunday

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