I left Awakino and headed for Waitomo. As I approached the town, I saw one of the 'blackwater' rafting companies. I wanted to see the glow-worm caves. RM & AS stopped and saw the caves on their drive from Auckland to Wellington and they were really impressed. I might have done a simpler (cheaper) tour or gone to see the glow-worms in one of the publicly accessible caves, but a) I was open to doing something more adventuresome and b) Graham said the blackwater rafting wasn't to be missed. I stopped at this first place and asked what they did and when they had tours. It was clear that I would have to spend the night in Waitomo and go in the morning, but it sounded like a good option. The girl there told me I could also book through the i-Site and compare what different companies had on offer. This is what I did, but I ended up going with that first company (Rap, Raft 'n' Rock, which was great, despite its name). They offer a bit of everything and a three hour tour for a fair price. It includes entry to the Glow-worm Museum, at the i-Site, which I visited that evening. It was a hokey, but it was informative about the geology and biology of the 'glow-worms' (though their chemistry was a bit absurd... not that that would bother most people... and the history seemed a bit sanitized... but anyhow, they serve their purpose).
I found myself a motel for the night. Motels in New Zealand are usually accommodations for families. They are large, not fancy, but include a mini-kitchen area. As soon as you arrive at a motel they present you with your milk. You see, you necessarily need tea (having just arrived), but you wouldn't have milk (having just arrived). I do drink tea, but not with milk, so I just saved mine in the fridge and drank it in the mornings.
At 8:45, I and the other participants (a young Danish couple and a Taiwanese guy) met our guide Mike at the Backpackers inn where they have their offices. (All photos are by Mike or other employees. Cavers are asked not to bring cameras. We really needed both hands free). We had to fill in a form (and I confessed to my previous knee injuries) and then were driven to their "five-star changing facilities" (our guide was blessed with the typical Kiwi humour - like the geophysicist who told me sheep are now rare since they are down to 35 million). These were shippping containers on a hillside, with toilet, shower and tub for washing wet suits.
We were given wet suits and boots, and then climbing gear. We then drove to the entry of the cave, where we practiced using the climbing gear on the open hillside. Then, one by one we abseiled the 27 m into the cave with our guide as brake man at the top. Once inside, we got an inner tube and began our walk through the (black) water. I saw an eel, a common resident of the caves (along with weta - a giant New Zealand insect like a grasshopper, spiders, and things I did not see like rats or possums).
We climbed through the caves for a while, both on the rock and through the river. Then we came to a larger cavern area where we were able to really see the glow-worms (rather than just the odd glint of bluish light). The glow-worms are really the larval stage of the Arachnocampa luminosa, a type a gnat which makes sticky threads to trap food like a spider. The threads are covered in sticky mucus and look like tiny chandeliers. The larvae can only eat and not excrete (and the adult has no mouth so the larvae must do all of the eating). The bioluminescence is a biproduct of digestion and used to attract food. Insects instinctively fly up, and in the dark of the caves, pinpoints of blue lights do look like the night sky. We were efficient enough in hiking through the caves that we had time to stop and watch a glow-worm eat a gnat which Mike caught and stuck on a thread.
We had a couple a periods of floating along the river on the inner tubes, or sort of swimming along on top of the inner tubes, freely or in a chain. And there were a few person-sized tunnels one could carefully crawl through. The caves themselves were pretty amazing.
Then we stopped for a snack of chocolate and hot juice and had a chance to hear about the formation of the caves and caving exploration. We climbed back out of the cave, drove the the changing rooms and showered. We returned to their offices where they fed us hot soup and showed the photographs that Mike had taken.
It was a great, fun and fascinating experience and I'm really glad I did this. I've wondered about caving before. I'm a little claustrophobic. Mainly that means I don't like being trapped. But, all of the tunnels we climbed through were short enough that I could see either the exit or at least light from the opposite side, so it didn't bother me. It was really a different world for me. Plus, bioluminescence is high on my 'things which are inherently cool' list. It was quite magical to float down the river in the dark with bluish star-like illumination from the glow-worms above.