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Go to the Glow

Spending hours on all fours in a cold, wet and dark cave doesn’t particularly sound like a great holiday outing but the glow worms of Waitomo Caves in New Zealand sure know how to put on a show to keep the damp at bay.

Words: Joleen Lunjew   Images: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company

Reality hit me as I stood on the edge of an underground waterfall, peering gingerly at the swirling mass of foamy water roughly two metres below. Am I really going to leap backwards into the icy darkness? What if I accidentally somersault and land on my head? What if I sink under and can’t surface for air? What ifs. Why do people always conjure up the worst possible scenarios?

     Realising my line of thought wasn’t helping one bit, I took a deep breath to calm my furiously beating heart. I will make the jump, I told myself but maybe I shouldn’t have volunteered to go first.

Taking the Plunge

It’s perfectly safe,” said Jed my guide. “I had a 65 year-old lady jump on my last trip,” he added. I was not about to let an old lady outshine me. I clutched the tyre tube firmly to my butt and backed cautiously to the waterfall’s edge, all the while being fully aware of the strong currents threatening to sweep me away. My heels were now dangling in the open space.

     “Oh come on, we don’t have all day,” teased my partner. I gave him an evil glare before I pushed off the ledge, hurling my body swiftly into the dark below. The fall was less than a second but it felt like an eternity before I made contact with the icy cold water.

Visitors begin the underground river journey by floating through the glow worm cave.

The deafening din of the waterfall masked the cheers from above. Feeling slightly embarrassed, I noted that the waterfall didn’t seem that high after all. Nevertheless, I was relieved to have survived the jump.

Hurling yourself backwards off underground waterfalls is one of the many exciting aspects of black water rafting. Although it is called black water rafting, rafts are not used and the water is not black. This sport involves navigating a network of caves, rivers and underground waterfalls on an inner tyre tube. 

The Waitomo Glow

The heart of this sport is located in Waitomo, an area that is littered with limestone caves formed by 30 million years of volcanic and geological activities. Visitors have been flocking to the Waitomo caves since the late 19th century. So what’s so special about these caves that even the Queen of England has come to see? The main attraction here is, in fact, smaller than your pinkie finger. Found together in large numbers, tiny creatures called glow worms emit a soft light, creating the illusion of twinkling stars against the black underground canvas.

     Not satisfied with showcasing their natural treasures through dry guided tours in the caves, the adventure-loving Kiwis invented a sport where visitors can have a wild, adrenaline-packed time while enjoying this amazing spectacle of nature. Black water rafting was founded by The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (www.waitomo.com) but there are many other operators conducting tours now.

Guests hook legs to form the ‘eel’ as they float down the river.

 Black Bowels

If you decide to go with the founding company, there are two trips you can choose from: Black Labyrinth and Black Abyss. The three-hour long Black Labyrinth experience is ideal for first timers who want a taste of what’s in store without having to exert themselves too much. The latter is a pumped-up version of the first and includes additional activities such as abseiling, flying fox and climbing up underground waterfalls.

     Pressed for time, I opted for the Black Labyrinth. The only gear you need is your bathing suit and a towel for drying off after. The rest – wet suit, boots, helmet and headlamp – are all provided by the company. Cameras are unfortunately not allowed but photos are available for sale at the end of the trip.

     It was a 10-minute drive to the caves where a pile of inner tyre tube greeted us at our destination. After choosing our floating devices, our guides – Jed and Lucy – proceeded with a safety briefing and a practice run. We were told to hook our legs under the next person’s armpits to form an ‘eel’. This would be our formation when we drift through the glow worm cave.

     Our guides then brought us to a river where a platform was built roughly two metres above water. This would be our practice jump and everyone passed with flying colours. Somehow, jumping in broad daylight was much less daunting.

     Satisfied with our performance, our guides finally led us to the cave entrance where we had to crawl and slide down a narrow passageway before emerging in a large grotto. Majestic stalactites hung from the ceiling above, some connecting with the stalagmites below to form imposing columns.

Abseiling down into the caves can be both exciting and nerve wrecking.

Into the Abyss

“This way please,” said Lucy as she led us deeper into the cave. The drop in temperature was pretty evident, as we bowed our heads to avoid scraping the low ceiling of the caves. We continued navigating the narrow cave passageways for the next hour, sometimes on our hands and knees, sometimes on our bellies, exploring crooks and crevices.

It was not long before we got to the waterfall where we took a leap of faith into oblivion. Ironically, the anticipation was much scarier than the actual jump itself.

Climbing up an underground waterfall; one of the many activities at the Waitomo Caves.

The highlight of the trip was just after the waterfall. Forming the ‘eel’, we fell into a hushed silence as Lucy pulled us along. The scene above us was nothing short of spectacular. A blanket of soft tiny lights formed a surreal galaxy of stars. I reclined on my tube to take in the ‘night sky’ above, while imagining that I could identify the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross and even the Milky Way. It seemed incredible that tiny creatures could create such an astounding work of art. A sense of calm flowed over me as I listened to the gentle lap of the waters.

My dreamlike surroundings slowly gave way to reality. Daylight was approaching. I turned to look back one final time before the glow totally vanished. If only we had just a moment longer.  


Glow Worms

Despite its name, glow worms are not actually worms. They are in fact, the larvae of a two-winged insect resembling a large mosquito. The larvae can grow to the size of a matchstick and looks a bit like a maggot.

To attract food, the glow worm emits light from its tail, a result of a chemical reaction between its waste by-product and the oxygen in the air. Insects attracted by the light are caught by sticky threads that the glow worm weaves, much like a spider web.

Glow worms can live for up to nine months before making a cocoon and finally emerging as adult insects. The adults have only a few days to live as they don’t have a mouth. Their sole purpose is to mate and reproduce.

Damp, dark places shielded from the wind with flat ceilings are ideal for glow worms. This is so that their thread does not get tangled and the wind does not dry them out. The caves at Waitomo provide the perfect environment with an abundance of insects brought into the cave via the river.

     AirAsia flies four times a week to Christchurch from Kuala Lumpur. Waitomo is located about 200 kilometres from Auckland, while Taupo, Rotorua and Mount Ruapehu are about 2-hour drive from Waitomo. You can either self-drive to Waitomo or catch a domestic flight to the North Island. For flight schedule and bookings, visit www.airasia.com