New Zealand’s Cave of Stars


Photo Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Photo Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The most awe-inspiring place I ever visited was the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, which lies beneath the rolling green hills in the Waikato region of the North Island of New Zealand. There are 300 known limestone caves in this area, but only three of them are open to the public. To me the Glowworm Cave is the most beautiful.

I first saw this Glowworm Cave in the late 1950s when I went there with a group of friends. After we drove into the dense bush and parked our car, we walked up to the entrance to the 30-million-year-old cave. Upon stepping inside, I was suddenly overcome not only by the sight of the immense naturally-shaped beautiful limestone decorations before us, but also by the overwhelming smell of chalky dampness. We followed our tour guide across a low-lit walkway suspended high above a fresh water river and past the massive pink, white and brown prehistoric stalagmites and stalactites that had been formed by centuries of dripping limestone water. This vast chamber has incredible acoustics due to its rough surface and shape, and this seemed verified by the echoing thunder of distant subterranean waterfalls. After moving along narrow corridors and through deep crevices we soon came to a flight of descending steps, which took us down to the river below.

Once we had gathered on the built-out jetty platform, we were asked not to use our cameras or make any noise, as this would disturb the glowworms. We then boarded a small boat where our guide pulled us forward by an overhead rope. As we glided silently along the inky black river, I became acutely aware of the subterranean cold air and the sound of rushing water, which seemed to get louder the farther in we went. For a moment I was concerned that we were about to go over a waterfall, but instead we sailed into a cathedral-sized grotto where the ceiling and walls were covered with thousands upon thousands of glowworms. They hung above us like a universe of twinkling blue stars. Devoid of any outside light and with the overhead glowworms reflecting on the glassy dark water around us, I suddenly had the feeling we were now sailing through a luminescent Milky Way. It was breathtaking!

There are many types of glowworms in the world, but the glowworm unique to New Zealand is called: arachnocampa luminosa. Arachno means spider-like. It refers to the way glowworms catch flying insects like spiders. Campa means larva, and Luminosa means light-producing. The glowworm uses the biolumninescence glow (a reaction between the chemicals given off by the glowworm and the oxygen in the air) to attract food. As insects hatch in the river below and fly toward the attractive blue light, they get stuck in the hanging sticky threads the glowworm excretes in order to catch its food.

The Glowworm caves were first discovered in 1887 when a Maori Chief named Tane Tinorau, along with a land surveyor, decided to explore the cavern. They built a raft of flax stems, and armed with candles to light the way, floated along an underground river until they came to a large subterranean chamber. To their astonishment they found the ceiling and walls covered with glimmering blue stars. The Chief named the area Waitomo, which is a Maori word meaning: Wai = water, and tomo = hole in the ground. Its interpretation is: the stream that flows into a hole in the ground.
There are two other caves open to visitors today at Waitomo. They are called the Ruakuri Cave and the Aranui Cave. The Ruakuri cave is steeped in Maori legend, which tells of its discovery some 400-500 years ago. Its entrance was made sacred at that time by the Maori tribe living alongside it. The Ruakuri also has black water river rafting for the courageous, but perhaps the cave’s greatest innovation is the spectacular natural and man-made spiral entrance, which allows full wheelchair and pushchair access down to its lower levels. The Aranui Cave is a magical, mystical place also steeped in Maori myth and legend. It does not have an underground river, but the entrance to the cave is covered with various unusual insects, including the weta, a type of large New Zealand cricket or grasshopper.
To this day I will always consider the Waitomo Glowworm Cave as one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever visited.

About the AuthorAnne Loader McGee is a children’s author with a number of published books to her name. She was born and raised in New Zealand, but now lives in California, USA. Photo Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

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One response to “New Zealand’s Cave of Stars

  1. I remember seeing some glow worm caves in NSW just outside of Sydney a few years ago, they weren’t anywhere near as stunning or bright as these though. Quite interesting that they take place in such watery caves.

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