Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.
You’re standing on the edge of a ledge. Covered head-to-toe in a neoprene wetsuit, purple short-shorts and giant white rubber galoshes, and holding a large inner tube. You’re contemplating a jump into the frigid waters that slosh noisily just below. It’s pitch black, but your headlamp punches temporary holes in the emptiness, providing glimpses of other victims shouting and flailing wildly beneath you. A man taps you on the arm and pushes you forward – you hesitate, but there’s nothing to do but turn around and jump, plummeting ass-first towards the numbingly cold water beneath you, awaiting the inevitability of a painful impact.
This certainly wasn’t how I had pictured my day unfolding when it began. We were headed 2 hours south from Auckland, driving towards Waitomo, a village that is home to one of the largest complexes of underground caves in New Zealand. Caving is highly popular attraction in New Zealand, and the underground spaces like those found at Waitomo boast almost 400,000 visitors each year.
We had also heard about a peculiar Waitomo Cave phenomenon known as “Glowworms” – a unique species of bioluminescent insect that emits an eerie light in order to attract its prey. Glowing insects and cave exploring? Our interest was piqued – we wanted to see these strange creatures up and close and personal for ourselves. But how exactly does one go from a casual curiosity in glowing cave bugs to standing shivering, wearing a wetsuit in a pitch black cave? And how did we plan to warm ourselves up afterwards? Keep clicking below to see what happened.
Visitors to Waitomo caves have a huge range of options for viewing these amazing natural wonders and the strange wildlife like glow worms that live within them. Trips to Waitomo Caves range from more casual walking tours along guided underground paths to full-on spelunking and cave rafting expeditions.
Though a leisurely cave walk sounded fun, this was New Zealand after all – frequently cited as the home of “extreme sports.” We wanted a more “hands-on” experience so we opted for an underwater tubing trip which would take us on water voyage through the inner workings of the one of the caves. After suiting up in what is perhaps the stupidest outfit I’ve ever worn in my entire life (pictured left), we were ready to enter the caves.
As we entered the first narrow tunnel, icy cold water up to our waists, I began to wonder what I had gotten my claustrophobic self into – but the scenery quickly changed. After jumping through a few small waterfall pools, the ceiling soon opened upwards, revealing a massive underground cavern big enough to hold a cathedral and a meandering underground stream. Above us lay a miniature Milky Way of twinkling lights – a constellation of glowworm insects silently advertising for victims. We hopped aboard our inner tubes and floated lazily down the cave’s river as we gazed up at the artificial light show performance above us. Still under the hypnotic visual spell of such a strange sight, we soon emerged back into the midday light, none the worse for the wear but soaking wet and exhilarated by our recent adventure.
After all the freezing water from the morning’s caving activities, it was time to warm up and relax. We headed 150 kilometers east towards Rotorua, a city that lies on the edge of one of New Zealand’s more active geothermal hotspots. In addition to geysers and mud pools, Rotorua is also an outdoor activities destination offering the chance to mountain bike, raft, fish and swim. But a morning of cave-exploring had just about done us in at this point – we were ready to just hang out. We stopped by the Polynesian Spa to take a soak in their naturally heated thermal waters, renting a private pool with a view of Lake Rotorua for 30 minutes.
As we immersed ourselves in the warm embrace of the nearly 100 degree water, the starry night sky above us punctuated by the Southern Cross, we had a chance to think back. Our day had taken us across two huge extremes in temperature. From a morning sloshing through knee-deep freezing water, looking up at ghostly glowworms to a heated hot-spring pool and starlit New Zealand sky. Going from cold to hot – it was just the kind of extreme transition we’d come to find down in New Zealand, the corner of the world.