Waitomo – 3/24/2019

This was our last day in New Zealand. Our most important task was to get from Rotorua to Auckland in time to fly back to Chicago tonight. We booked another Great Sights tour to do this, which also includes a stop at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

We gave ourselves plenty of time to get from our B&B to the bus terminal since we 100% couldn’t miss this tour. We arrived 30 minutes before our bus! Fortunately (and unexpectedly) we were again able to snag front row seats. There were only 9 people on this tour compared with the 45 that completely filled the bus on the way to Christchurch. It may be because today was the last day of Crankworks, a mountain biking and trick riding convention that happens annually in Rotorua.

Sadly, our driver/guide was not of the same caliber on this journey. His commentary was boring and sparse (which, admittedly, was better than boring and endless).

He did describe our 20-30 minute journey out of the caldera Rotorua sits inside.

After that he let us snooze for another hour and a half or so until we approached Waitomo for our tour stop. He roused us with a recording of a Maori performer singing “Kia Ora” (which means “hello” and is a common greeting in New Zealand).

Our timing was just about perfect, because we were able to join the 9:45 AM cave tour, giving us more time for lunch afterwards. Our day seriously perked up as soon as our cave guide, Danny, took over.

In Maori, wai means “water” and tomo means “hole.” Roughly translated, Waitomo means “water disappearing into a hole.” That’s exactly how these caves were discovered. In 1887, the local Maori chief, Tane Tinorau, noticed water disappearing into a hole. Brave man that he was, he explored the caves floating on a flax raft with only a candle to light his way. Fred Mace, an English surveyor, accompanied him.

The Waitomo caves are one of New Zealand’s oldest tourist attractions. They were open for business only two years later, in 1889, and have been guiding tours ever since.

Danny, is a fifth-generation cave guide and is descended from both the original explorers. Only 1% of the tour company employees can claim that!

(Like most caves, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so I’m borrowing some from the internet after this.)

This hole was enlarged for tour access to the dry portion of the caves.

The caves are limestone and have the typical formations you’d expect, including one stalactite that looks like a bungee jumping kiwi bird. The tour of the dry parts of the cave was pretty brief. We really only went through two “rooms” of the cave, including the cathedral (the name given to the highest room in any cave system).

Danny asked if there were any singers in the group because the acoustics in the cathedral are great. Two little girls from San Francisco did about 10 seconds of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before they became too bashful to continue. Instead, Danny serenaded us with a Maori song. He was good!

However, the real attraction in these caves are the glow worms, which VASTLY exceeded my expectations. To be honest, when we booked this tour, I expected we would see maybe 10 or 20 glow worms. We saw thousands!

Danny started by taking us down onto an observation platform above the river. The ceiling was at about waist height. Crouched down, we could already see hundreds of glow worms when he turned off the lights!

He told us about their 11 month life cycle. They spend most of that time in the second stage, as a glow worm. To feed, they each drop down a handful of threads (very much like spider web silk) to catch flying insects. Danny turned on a spotlight aimed about six inches below the ceiling and all those threads were illuminated! It was so cool!


After the lifecycle talk, we descended some stairs down to the almost pitch-black dock and boarded our boat. Trish and I were in the very front, which is actually where Danny stood, on the bow.

Glowworms are sensitive to sound and will dim their light if it’s too loud. Because of this, the boat didn’t have a motor of any kind. Danny also didn’t paddle or use any kind of pole, instead, he stood on the bow and pulled us along a network of ropes strung throughout the cavern. Except for small murmurs of wonder and the sound of water sloshing against the hull, it was completely silent.

The caves were pitch black, looking up was like lying on your back outside in the middle of the night in the desert looking at the stars. The older a glowworm is, the brighter it glows, so there was a great deal of variation. I thought the brighter ones looked greener and the dimmer ones looked bluer.

There weren’t many glowworms on the stalactites so you’d see black areas against the light that shifted as the boat moved, but it was virtually impossible to make out any rock features by the light of the glowworms. Danny was also just a black shape against the worms.

It’s impossible to find a photo that truly captures what the experience was like. Any long exposure of the ceiling brings out many more rock features than were visible and tourist photos artificially illuminate the boat so you can see what you’re in for. In reality, it’s just you, the glowworms, and the dark.


It was truly magical.

Once we disembarked the boat and were allowed to take pictures again the entire group continued speaking in whispers. It was tough to break the spell the glowworm caves cast.

This was definitely a great way to conclude our trip!

The glowworm cafe actually had a really good smoked chicken and cranberry pizza.

We enjoyed our lunch outside under the large awning that covers the whole center.

After the glowworms, we just had about three more hours on the bus to get to Auckland.

We ran into some slight trouble in Auckland because we got stuck at an intersection shut down for a march supporting the Christchurch Mosque victims. We were actually only a few blocks from where we were supposed to end up, so we just asked to be let off the bus (which did mean dragging our suitcases up one excruciatingly long block) but the rest was downhill (literally).

The march also passed us and we stopped to watch and show our support.

The crowd was filled with signs pledging support for many marginalized groups, including Muslims, Jews, native peoples, rainbow pride, trans rights, and more I’m sure we didn’t see.

We caught an express bus to the airport (the Sky Bus), which basically costs the same as a SuperShuttle but runs on a schedule at specific stops. It made sense for us since our drop off was near a stop and we weren’t sure exactly what time we’d arrive due to traffic.

Traffic was light on a Sunday, so we made it to the airport by 4 PM. We reshuffled a few things in our checked bags to get rid of liquids from our day pack and redistribute some weight. After that, check in was a breeze thanks to the automated terminals (it’s soooo much more efficient than at ORD).

Considering we had almost four hours to kill, we really appreciated access to the Strata Lounge. I’m glad we had a chance to scope it out before our flight to Sydney because we were able to take full advantage of the amenities, including taking a shower.

The shower went a huge way toward making us feel ready to face a 15 hour flight.

We had some dinner and shared a well-earned beer (a lager from Marlborough).

At the appointed hour, we packed up our things and said goodbye to New Zealand.

I’m not sure if something specific triggered it, if it was random, or if it was related to the Christchurch mosque shooting, but there was extra security on the part of the terminal we left from.

Fortunately, with assigned seats, we didn’t really care.

We settled in and were again completely sold on the Sky Couch as a method of travel.

It even works if one of you wants to sit up and the other one wants to sleep!

Trish is under that blanket… somewhere.

We got strong tailwinds, so we were on the ground in Chicago almost an hour early.

Global Entry made customs a breeze and we were in a cab bound for home less than an hour later. Someone was very glad to see us when we arrived.

On the other hand, Thunderpuff just wanted to make sure we knew any souvenirs we brought back belonged to him.

My parents greeted us with a home cooked meal and we hit the sack a little before 10 PM. We both mostly slept through the night (with some Delilah cuddles interspersed throughout) and woke up feeling on schedule. It was a great trip but it’s nice to be home.

Delilah agrees.

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