Waitomo Caves, NZ

Day 2

Today is our Waitomo Caves main event: Blackwater Rafting! That’s the clever branding invented by some nuts who, a couple decades ago, decided to start taking tourists on trips through the caves where you jump off underground waterfalls and float down a hidden river on an inner tube with a ceiling of glowworms overhead.

We’d decided to just spend the day in our room, relaxing in advance of our 3pm tour. Around noon, I brought up the ticket in my email to check what kind of stuff we were supposed to bring with us. That’s when I noticed that the tour time was listed as 12pm. “Um, Rett…are we missing our tour right now?” It’s probably just a mistake in the email, righ? Because Rett had been clear that it was 3pm, since the moment that she booked a week ago. But a frantic call to the office turned doubt to damnation: she had in fact somehow booked the 12pm tour, and we had missed it. Fuck!!

And the ticket was clear, there are no refunds, so there goes US$221, straight into a bottomless black cave. Without us. Well, what to do now? Cry? Yell and scream? No, it was a mistake. We’re here in Waitomo because we wanted to raft under glowworms, so is there any way we can still do it? Yes, luckily on this busy Easter weekend, tomorrow’s last tour at 4:30pm has slots available, and we were already staying in town for one more day. After only a couple minutes of discussion, we decided to re-spend the big chunk of money, and hope that the tour ends up being worth at least half of the US$440 we’re now effectively paying for it.

Rett often chafes when we’re having a good time and I slow-walk her desire to spend more money to take things even higher. “Let’s order one more drink after that great meal while we enjoy the beautiful sunset!” “Let’s take the helicopter ride after the incredible boat ride at Milford Sound!” But a large part of why I resist is in anticipation of situations like this. By keeping our wallets in our pockets back then (which did limit our emotional peak to 9.0 rather than raising it to 9.5), that means we have cash available to dole out now, to prevent a 9.0 from incinerating straight down into a black zero of acrimony, guilt, and disappointment. To me, the happiness-math makes it obvious which use of our money provides more value to our lives, though yes, in order for the math to work out it does require mistakes and misfortunes to befall us in the future. But even with lives as lucky, fortunate, and well-planned as ours, experience shows that we’re far from perfect, and it would be foolish to assume that this will be our last money-fixable screw-up.

Well, our afternoon is free now! We had already planned to do a nighttime walk back out to Ruakuri to see the above-ground glowworms, and in retrospect that would have been a pretty tiring afternoon, finishing up a three-hour spelunking trip and heading out again an hour later. Now we could have a more-relaxed, silver-lined night.

We could have rode the 2 miles back out to the walk (the road isn’t very busy even in the daylight, and our lights are good), but with our “extra” time, decided to take the Waitomo Walkway instead, and it was totally the right decision. Our lifestyle means we’re rarely “out” after dark, so the twilight countryside adventure was even more affecting than the environment made it.

Along a shadowy forest trail, we could see a small sign commemorating a totara tree planted by someone in 2015. All we could see was a gap in the forest, so maybe the totara tree had died? It seemed unlikely that the sign was referring to this distant tree on the hill, but now after reviewing this photo, it at least seems like this is a tree that would be worthy of a sign!

The Waitomo Walkway roughly followed the Waitomo Stream, taking us right across private Shire-like farmlands. There were at least half a dozen fences to cross, all aided by various stair-constructions, and one really cool collapsing-rail gate. But the hilly and water-carved landscape meant that we weren’t just striding through cow-pasture (though we certainly did some of that). We frequently were sent into dark hollows, up onto to stone ridges, and generally across land where the balance between its natural state and its human modification exuded a wild comfort here at the balance between day and night.

#FindRett in the dimming post-sunset glow, trying to not step off the steep hillside.
The remains of a human-built stone dam, or natural limestone laid in brick-like layers?
A hilltop geodesic dome-tent, appearing identical to one we stayed in in Nova Scotia, gives its presumably-AirBNB guests a high vantage over the shadowlands.

During yesterday’s daytime exploration of the Ruakuri bush walk, I made sure to do a short preview of its connection to the Waitomo Walkway, and that certainly made our navigation easier in the increasing darkness. Even more-helpful was having the knowledge of the Ruakuri walk itself, because while we would have been able to navigate its twists and turns with our headlamps (at the cost of our night vision), we would have had much less understanding of the spaces surrounding us.

And when you suddenly see a field of blue-green stars floating in the blackness where you expected a rock wall to be, it’s disorienting even when you have some knowledge of the landscape! While we had kept our headlamps low for the walk so our pupils could fully open, and soon switched to using our dimmed phone screens (it’s kind of incredible how they were able to provide enough light to see by once our eyes had fully adjusted to the dark), it turned out that it wasn’t actually difficult to find the glowworms. Because they were everywhere! Well, not exactly everywhere; they were definitely clustered in certain spots, but some of those clusters covered wide fields where we felt completely surrounded by fairy lights.

A wall of glowworms!
The same shot as above, but I pointed the the mostly-black, dimmed lock-screen of my phone at the wall for about one second of the 30-second exposure, as a “flash” to reveal the plant-obscured rock wall that the worms are clinging to
Looking up at the ceiling of one of the cave-tunnels (again, with a slight “flash” to reveal the worms’ home). Here you could look up and see the recessed lights inches from your eyes. The topmost worm is inside an inverted well, so his light reflects off the walls of that well.
Rett’s face (and glasses) lit solely by the light of glowworms. It’s another 30-second exposure, so the difficulty of her holding her head motionless, and me the camera, for 30 seconds, is the main cause of the blurriness. But this is pretty close to what it looked like to our dark-adjusted eyes. The worms themselves weren’t this intense, but it was possible to see their light reflected in Rett’s face.
Another wide field (probably 8-10 feet across) of glowworm constellations.
Again, the same photo as above with a “flash” to reveal their location.
Distant celestial stars and local living stars in the same shot. The 30-second exposure means that the real stars leave tracks across the sky, while the worms sit motionless.

The Ruakuri Walk is a well-known glowworm location (the trail sign at the entrance points out some specific places to look for them), so there were a handful of other parties on the track (some more-respectful of the dark than others). But in most places it was just us and the glowworms, and we ended up re-walking almost the entire trail over the nearly two hours we shared in the natural wonder. The moon was relatively-full, but we waited until tonight to do the walk because it would rise later, giving us a good window of solid darkness between sunset and moonrise.

The long walk back in even-more-darkness (though eventually aided by that moon) was still a magical, mystical experience (and we were able to spot a few more glowworms here and there). I normally try to convince Rett that her “night owl” tendencies are really just an echo of a child’s desire to not miss out on the goings-on when the adults were still awake, and are now an illogical self-defeating behavior. But the light and life glowing in the dark of this night is an argument against the sun that even I could endorse.

We nearly stepped on this hedgehog on our way out of Ruakuri. Sonic he was not, seemingly content to sit until we moved on.
We weren’t sure if slugs existed in this seemingly slug-friendly country, but apparently they do!
The iconic New Zealand silver fern, whose underside traditionally glows in moonlight, here aided by the blast of our headlamps.
The moon finally rises, making it easy to walk across the fields in the places where its light reached the ground, though the rippling landscape made those places rare.


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