The starry skies of Matariki will be celebrated above - and below - ground during Waitomo's inaugural Māori New Year celebrations this year, writes Ceana Priest
Two men drifting on a flax stem raft discovered something remarkable beneath the King Country's rugged limestone landscape during the late 1880s.
When Kāwhia Chief Tāne Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace pushed off from a mossy stream bank near Waitomo Village, they floated beneath a stalactite-fringed cave entrance and into uncharted waters.
As their simple raft bumped against floating debris and logs, the flickering candlelight illuminated the damp walls. Their poles dipped into silky dark water peppered with thousands of tiny reflections, and when Tāne and Fred looked up, the hollow chamber was alight with twinkly blue-green stars. The duo had discovered the vast subterranean cavern of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and inspired an enduring Māori tourism enterprise.
While local Māori had known about the caves and glowworms for centuries, with many caves used as sacred burial grounds, it wasn't until the pair had embarked on multiple explorations that the caves, and its alluring fungus gnats, became internationally renowned.
Tāne and his wife Huti began guiding tourists through the cave system in 1889. But the fledgling Māori tourism business was scuppered seven years later when the government purchased the surrounding land and took over operations. It took nearly nine decades of negotiations until the ancestral land was returned to descendants of Tāne.
The caves themselves are magnificent, but it's the rather unattractive slug-shaped glowworms that are the show stoppers. For around nine months of its life, the misnamed fungus gnat larvae combine a heady mixture of oxygen, chemicals and enzymes to emit a blue-green glow that lures critters into its sticky, silky strands. Below this gruesome feasting, thousands of enthralled tourists glide quietly past on boats – enjoying the remarkable dazzling bioluminescence display.
To celebrate the Māori New Year and immerse yourself in the stories of the stars, the legacy of Fred and Tāne, glowworms and the cultural history of this tourist hot-spot, head to Waitomo from July 3 to July 10 for the Matariki ki Waitomo festival. The line-up includes paid and free activities, including Māori rongoā /traditional medicine workshops, a kids' programme and the opportunity to see works from local artists, weavers and carvers descended from Tāne. Head underground for twilight cave tours and a rare concert by local musicians in "the cathedral", famous for its acoustics. Visit waitomo.com for more information.
WINTER NATURE WALKS
If you can resist the alluring gnats, there are plenty of walks, historical sites and waterfalls to visit nearby. Feeling peckish after your adventures? Sample Matariki inspired hāngi or boil-up pies from Waitomo Homestead during the week-long festivities.
This narrow gorge draped in native ferns and dewy moss has all the highlights you'd expect from a trip to Waitomo. Allow 60 minutes (1 km loop) to visit the gloomy cavern with its roaring river, admire the slow-growing stalagmites and walk along boardwalks clinging to cliff faces. This free walk is a must-do when visiting with kids. At night, there is a superb display of glowworms beside the main bridge.
Information: Located on Tumutumu Rd near Waitomo Village. Only suitable for walking, and no dogs allowed.
Piripiri Cave Walk
From the car park, the 20-minute stroll through native bush to the cave entrance is impressive after rain; it's like visiting a tropical hideaway. Take a torch to navigate the stairs that descend to the viewing platform – it's pitch black inside the small cave. Excellent short adventure for young kids.
Information: Located 29 km west of Waitomo Village on Te Anga Rd. Only suitable for walking, and no dogs allowed.
The Marokopa River creates one of the nation's most photographed waterfalls as it plunges 35 metres off a jagged lip of greywacke, often with dazzling rainbows to delight visitors. But on windy days, prepare yourself for a soaking as the fall's spray is whipped into a frenzy and deposited on the viewing platform. This short walk can easily be completed within 30 minutes, including some "forest bathing" beside the giant wizened trees.
Information: Located 31 km west of Waitomo Village on Te Anga Rd. Only suitable for walking, and no dogs allowed.
Mangapohue Natural Bridge
This cavernous ancient cave has slowly collapsed over millions of years, leaving a small roof remnant with stalactite-like formations clinging on tightly. Buggy-friendly boardwalks follow Mangapohue Stream deep into the dark gorge, across a moss-draped goblin bridge to the base of the stairs. Steps lead up into the 17-metre-high limestone arch, which provides glimpses of the surrounding farmland, with 25-million-year old fossils exposed in limestone outcrops.
Information: Located 25 km west of Waitomo Village on Te Anga Rd. Suitable for buggies on the boardwalk (5 min), then walking around the fossil loop (15 min). No dogs allowed.
On a fine day, this stroll can't be beaten for its expansive views of farmland dotted with limestone outcrops, and the well-preserved pā remnants provide insights into warring Māori tribes. The steady climb to the breezy peak includes plenty of plant identification labels to motivate less enthusiastic explorers – who can get there first? Ditches and storage pits are still visible, and the steep slopes provided a natural defence against raiding war parties. Allow about 60 minutes (about 1km) return.
Information: Located about 6.5km along Waitomo Caves Rd from SH3. Only suitable for walking, and no dogs allowed.