Under the ground of a northern corner of New Zealand lies one of the strangest and most beautiful natural phenomena that you’re ever likely to see. In fact, it’s a wonder of the subterranean world, a remarkable mixture of geology and wildlife. Suffice to say, if you’ve got a bucket list, then this should probably be on it.
From the outside, however, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that these unassuming caverns held such a wondrous secret. Still, the limestone caverns are found in the Waikato region on the northern island of New Zealand. In the local dialect, they’re known as the Waitomo or “water shaft” caves. And since 1889 they’ve been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.
But what exactly is it that has made the caves such a draw for sightseers and photographers? To fully understand that, we need to go back in time and begin to figure out how the caverns themselves were actually formed.
The caves began to take shape 30 million years ago when the area was still beneath an ocean. In fact, fossilized coral and sea creatures began to form layers of rock, and over millennia compression subsequently turned those deposits into limestone. In some places in the region, that limestone can be more than 650 feet thick.
Movements in the earth then caused the limestone to start to twist, creating cracks and fissures through which water could seep. Fast forward another few million years and the water had eroded those cracks far enough to create enormous underground caverns. Furthermore, deposits of limestone slowly formed stalactites and stalagmites as the caves were created.
With all this geological action, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the caves themselves that have been attracting visitors here for more than a century. However, it isn’t. Because while the rock formations are indeed spectacular, it’s something that lives in them that has had tourists flocking to the Waitomo caves in their droves.
In 1887, the local Maori chief, Tane Tinorau, and an English surveyor named Fred Mace began a rigorous survey of the cave system. While the Maori had known about the existence of the caves for a long time beforehand, what the pair found in one of the chambers left them awestruck.
They traveled into the cave on a boat, with only candles to light their way. In fact, they used poles to push themselves into what is now the exit to the tourist attraction. While they were underground, they came across what is essentially a natural grotto. And up on the ceiling was a sight that now attracts thousands of people every year.
High above them hung thousands of Arachnocampa luminosa, a species of glowworm, that turned the roof of the cave into a beautiful light show, twinkling overhead in the gloom. These glowworms are in fact the larval stage of gnats, and they can remain as larvae for six to 12 months at a time, surviving as gnats at the end of their lives for only long enough to mate.
The display that greeted the pair was so spectacular that within two years Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti had started leading guided tours into the grotto. Tinorau also discovered another entrance to the cave, and that now acts as the main entrance for tourists. In 1906, however, the administration of the caves was taken over by the government after a number of occurrences of vandalism.
In 1910 a hotel was built close to the attraction in order to cater for the tourists who were coming to see the incredible light shows. Based on these photographs, it’s easy to see why the attraction is so popular, with the roof of the underground grotto looking like some sort of otherworldly night sky.
Indeed, Shaun Jeffers, a photographer who spent a year working in the caves, has described the glowworms as being like something from a science-fiction film. He said, “When the headlamps are out and all you can see are the glowworms, you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped into James Cameron’s Avatar [planet] Pandora – it’s just unreal!”
“Photographing glow worms is very similar to shooting the night sky, however the exposure time can be much longer,” Jeffers further explained in an article written for Bored Panda. “These images in particular range between 30 seconds and six-minute exposures.”
But it wasn’t just the exposure lengths that Jeffers had to figure out. In fact, there was plenty of hardship to endure during his time under the ground. “To achieve the shots, it required me to submerge myself and my tripod in cold water for up to six to eight hours a day,” he wrote. But he did concede, “It was totally worth it!”
Interestingly, the caves are split into three levels. Visitors enter at the Catacombs level, before descending a five-foot vertical shaft of limestone called the Tomo. The second level is known as the Banquet Chamber, because early visitors used to stop here for something to eat. In fact, you can still see smoke stains on the wall from their time down there.
From the second level it’s often possible to visit a limestone formation known as the Pipe Organ, but when the caves are busy, this section is closed off because of a potentially deadly build-up of carbon monoxide. The third level is known as the Cathedral, and its acoustics are so good that a number of choir groups and singers, such as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, have performed songs there.
Finally, the tour finishes with a boat ride through the famous grotto along the river where Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace first began their exploration. The only illumination in the grotto comes from the glowworms. As Jeffers put it, “There’s no place quite like it. Being alone in the cave and staring up at the glow worms is an unreal experience.”
It might be a magical place, but there’s science at play here as well. In fact, various machines monitor the cave at all times, checking the air quality, the temperature and a number of other factors. This data is then used to ensure that the caves are being managed correctly. For example, the Scientific Advisory Group can dictate how many people can go into the cave on a given day.
It is also good to know that, in 1989, the land surrounding the caves and the caves themselves were given back to the descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and Huti. Moreover, a percentage of the revenue generated by the caves is now directly sent to the relatives of the couple who helped this place become the tourist attraction it is today. Many of them work at the caves as well.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are undeniably a truly spectacular slice of the natural world, formed over millions of years to create the perfect habitat for a rare and beautiful creature. If you’re ever in New Zealand and fancy stepping into another world, then a visit to this subterranean wonder is definitely going to fit the bill.