Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars


What a sight it is to see a sky full of stars amidst the polluted cities which we live in. I crave to see stars in the night sky but I always fail. I look up to the sky almost every day expecting there to be some sudden change, some ray of shiny stars. There is a feeling of wonder and awe when you look up to the sky and see glitter in there. I felt this awe when I went to Waitomo and saw the glowworm caves there. Waitomo is a small town in the northern island of New Zealand. In Maori, the term Waitomo can literally be divided into two words- “wai” which means water and “tomo” which means hole. Waitomo consists of several caves after which it is named. These caves are the habitat of various glow-worms and I explored these through the streams which go through them.

Glow worm caves

Photo of Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Waitomo, Waikato, New Zealand by vidhi bubna

We went to Waitomo only to view these blue glowworms which are popular world-wide. After the popularization of these caves, Waitomo has become a home to various tourists and it started the Waitomo caves hotel to promote the spirit of tourism. We booked the cave tour for about 4:30 PM. This was the last tour to the caves as they don’t do tours after that time. It is almost a two hour ride and journey into the caves. When we went to book the tour, we had no idea of the awe that we were going to experience. It hit us when we went to the cave. I went with my family and it was the best collective experience that we have had. The caves are about 2 hours South of Auckland, 1 hour South of Hamilton and 2 hours West of Rotorua by car. The price of the expedition was $50 for adults for the limestone part of the cave and $89 for the limestone and glowworm caves. They have good children and family offers too.

The entrance to the caves

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

We had to prepare for the cave expedition by wearing a fully covered swim-suit because there are eels in the water there. The very idea of there being eels in the water scared me. They also gave us one tube each to float over the water as it could get deep in some areas. We took headgear with us which included a torchlight and a helmet. The caves were quite dark so it was important to be prepared. We had a tour guide with us to guide us through the cave and help us with the ways. He began with the story about how a shepherd had lost a sheep and he came running to find it. He noticed the sheep going into a small cave and followed it inside. He had discovered the cave by sheer luck and the cave was now used to promote tourism. Initially the shepherd had used only candlelight to explore the cave but now the cave was fully fledged with exploration gear.

We had to walk up to the entrance of the cave and it was a steep climb. Since it was December, it was getting cold and the cave water would also be cold. Our swimsuit would however keep providing us with heat in the cold water. The guide told us that a number of popular singers and bands have played their music in the Cathedral section of the caves. Soon, there was water and I dived into the water with my family. Suddenly, the idea of the eels scared me but the rebellious wanderer in me was waiting to explore these caves to the fullest. Initially, we walked inside the cave and enjoyed the limestone formations there.

Glow worms hanging from the ceiling in the caves

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

Facts [basic geology about the caves]: Geological and volcanic activity has created around 300 known limestone caves in the Waitomo region over the last 30 million years. The limestone formation in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves occurred when the region was still under the ocean about 30 million years ago. The limestone is composed of fossilized corals, seashells, fish skeletons, and many small marine organisms on the sea beds. I could see these fossils embedded in the walls. Over millions of years, these fossilized rocks have been layered upon each other and compressed to create limestone and within the Waitomo region the limestone can be over 200 m thick. The idea of so thick a wall surrounding me with nowhere to escape scared me.

The guide then told us about how the caves were formed. The caves began to form when earth movement caused the hard limestone to bend and buckle under the ocean and rise above the sea floor. As the rock was exposed to air, it separated and created cracks and weaknesses that allowed for water to flow through them dissolving the limestone and over millions of years.

Limestone formations hanging on the roof

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

The stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations grew from water dripping from the ceiling or flowing over the walls and leaving behind limestone deposits. The stalagmites form upward from the floor while the stalactites form from the ceiling. These formations were twisting around each other and falling from the sky creating a beautiful theatre like experience.

The idea of there being such beautiful formations hidden deep inside caves excited me. There must be many more caves with hidden and deep formations which are unexplored. I frankly ignored all the information that the guide gave to me at that point as I was too lost in enjoying the beauty of the caves. There was water again and I dived into it. I had no idea that this was the part of where the glowworms were. My eyes took two minutes to adapt to the dark and then I saw the glow-worms clearly. It was literally a sky filled with living stars. The caves consisted of millions of glow worms in the sky and it was the best sight that one could ever see.

Glowworms hanging from the ceiling

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

There was a slide further and the guide asked us to jump off from the slide and dive into the water down. I wondered about how humans had encroached the natural habitat of these glowworms and had modified it with man-made objects to make it more accessible. The slide section added more drama to the ride as we had to jump into oblivion in a completely dark cave.

We walked further into the glow-worm caves and the guide asked us to sit in the tube. I couldn’t take my gaze off the ceiling of the cave. We then sat in the tube and he pulled us forward. This part of the ride was very luxurious as we could feel movement while we saw the glowworms glowing in the sky. The guide then lit a small dynamite which produced a large sound so that the glowworms would glow brighter. Glow worms are sensitive to sound and the loud sound caused them to glow a lot brighter. This however only lasted for only ten seconds.

Boat ride till the end of the tunnel

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

Then the next part of the ride included a boat ride till the end of the tunnel. We sat in the boat and the guide rowed it through till the end. Through this part we could see the glowworm lights decreasing time by time. I felt like the journey was reaching an end but it was the best experience of my life. Never before had I felt the delusion that the sky is filled with so many stars. Never before had I seen so many glowworms together filling up beautiful caves with limestone formations. The eels had not bitten any of us. We exited the cave and then returned the gear.

Other things to do in the area which involve adrenaline and a challenge of adventure

Black Odyssey Tour- Test yourself as you twist and turn through the Ruakuri Cave's main network and hidden passageways. Conquer thrilling rock traverses and mind-blowing heights. Edge over crossings high above roaring steamways. You'll also spider-walk through ancient rift passages and experience the challenges of technical high rope work and flying foxes. I did not do this activity but it involves climbing rocks on the caves and you will be connected to protective gear. This sounds really difficult but it is easier than that.

A topic which deeply hurts me is the negative impact which tourists have on these glowworm caves. I came back home from the trip and I googled about glowworm caves and I realized that we cause an imbalance in the caves. These are some of the easily overlooked problems that we cause in the caves and these facts are worth reading:

Pollution is the biggest issue concerning the environment caused by the huge 400,000 tourists that visit the caves each year. People will always litter no matter how much they are asked not to, which over time if not maintained, builds up, making the caves look under kept and not as spectacular for future tourists, that the caves otherwise should look like. Noise from both the instructors/supervisors explaining about the caves and the tourists reacting to them can disrupt the local ecosystem and scare glow worms, making the total population decrease.

Glowworm caves with limestone formations

Photo of Experience caves with glowworms as living lights- your chance to view a million stars by vidhi bubna

Sometimes people are so fascinated in something, for example the stalactites, and feel the need to take a souvenir in memory of the great experience. This is not sustainable as the time period for the decorations to grow back is beyond repairable, as on average, the stalactites only grow one cubic centimeter every century. When tourists travel throughout the caves each person emits 170W of energy into the caves, which can interfere with the humidity levels in the natural environment and also disrupt the eco-system inside the caves also.

When anyone touches the structures of limestone within the caves, finger prints contain acidic oils, which over time, would break down and ruin formations within the caves. For example, in the 1970's, an average of 4 tours each day, with up to 100 people at once, caused reduction in glow worm numbers and eroded the limestone formations due to people touching the structures within the caves. When people breathe, we breathe out Carbon Dioxide which is also slightly acidic, and with 400,000 people going through the caves each year, it can pose a huge risk on the humidity levels increasing or decreasing dramatically and disrupt the eco-system within the caves.

The caves natural environment is dark with no lights, however, for anyone travelling throughout the caves to see, they must have light. The lights from torches etc, have negative impacts on the limestone formations, that over time build up with a moss-like substance called Lampe flora. The interaction between rainfall in the above ground environment and the stream running through the caves causes approximately 4-10 times a year, for the Black Water Rafting and glow worming activities to be closed due to flooding, which effects both the environment by eroding the caves structures, with faster moving currents and also a loss in the economic factors of the Waitomo industry, and on the people, with disappointment felt among the tourists and employees/tour operators.

I think that the caves are a beauty waiting to be explored but they should be explored in a sustainable manner and efforts shall be taken to keep the place alive.

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