We stand in front of the entrance to the caves and click our little lights for a last time. On, off. “You know, with all the German campers around us this morning this feels like an episode of Dark and we should not go into these caves.”
I haven’t watched Dark, so I don’t get the reference as good as Bridget wants me to pick it up. We are at the Waipu Caves, the biggest non-commercial (glowworm) caves in New Zealand. I have read about them in our official, slightly unofficial guidebook. ‘You can explore as far as you dare to.’ it writes. Which sounds for a natural cave system quite adventurous. Well, I am pretty sure this is safe. It is New Zealand.
We arrived the night before in our tiny camper van. It is slightly older than Major Tom, our South Island camper. Every camper van needs a name. So, Bridget named the North island one ‘Elton’ and we listened more than once to Rocket Man.
The drive from Auckland to Waipu was mostly in darkness. Once we had left the highway we found ourselves on narrow roads, most of them dirt or gravel which slowed our drive but also saved a couple of opossums their lifes and gave us incredible views of the night sky.
The neon light of the little restroom flickered slightly at our nightly arrival spot and I wondered if we pulled into the right place. A fleet of small camper vans and soft mumbles from people sitting in the dark told us that we should be okay. The overhead window in the back of the car would give us an incredible night view lying in our small bed. I felt a little sorry for Bridget once she took her contact lenses out.
It’s dark and muddy as we slowly enter the cave. I read somewhere that our eyes need about 7 minutes to adjust to night vision, if you are not interrupted by the headlamps of others. We follow the stream which winds through the main cavern and further into the next and the next ‘room’. Is it called room? I don’t know. We try to stay on the stones and use our hands to avoid slipping. The mud has created a thin and treacherous layer on the smooth rocks. As much as possible we try to avoid using the direct light of our lights but it’s just impossible to walk without. “Let’s stay here and wait. This seems a good spot.” My hands are covered in brown and wet dirt. I wonder how the rest of me looks like.
We sit in the dark, leaning against cold stones. We can hear the voices of a couple of photographers who are doing a shooting in the first hall, right by the entrance. Slowly, very slowly the darkness we are looking at turns into tiny light bulbs. More and more glow worms are popping up in the darkness. “The glow worms emit a pale light which attracts insects toward the sticky threads of their snare.” The romantic spectacle is a mere hunt for food. Yet, as the wall opposite of us shines brightly in the light of thousands of these insects, almost matching the night sky, you can’t stop yourself from being in awe. The stream mirrors the green shine, and with just the echo of drops falling to the ground this feels like a different world.
After some time – I have literally no idea if 15 or 50 minutes have passed – we go further into the caves, aiming for a room called cathedral. We climb over stones, slip and climb further. Three girls follow us in a short distance, their flashlights throw weird shadows onto the walls. Everywhere we turn looks the same. A labyrinth of rock and water. And then it hit me. That really weird feeling of being underground, underneath all that massive rock. “What if…” is such a prominent thought for adults. What if there was an earthquake now. What if there’s a totally weird guy in the pitch black darkness just behind us. What if there were animals that we don’t know of. All these thoughts race through my mind. I reach for Bridget’s hand in the dark. “I think I need to go back towards the exit.”
Bridget never makes fun of me when my imagination takes over. She just says okay and we walk, rather slither, back over the rocks to the dim light of the main hall. We must be beyond muddy by now. We approach the stream again. “We should just get our shoes wet. We can walk with so much comfort then.” Bridget suggests.
And then once our shoes are wet, and we stand knee deep in the water we give each other a look and instead of going further towards the exit we head straight back into the cave even deeper following the stream. Why haven’t we thought of that before? We explore the place for another 20 minutes, all fear suddenly gone, following the stream in smaller caves and feeling a lot like Indiana Jones without the snakes and the spiders and the death traps.
If you are you curious: yes, we were super muddy. Luckily, the small restrooms at the parking lot had an outdoor shower – they seem to know why.
After the adventure we head straight to the beach, jumped into the water of the Pacific, had a nap and then found a food truck with fish tacos. We decided for a campground more inland at a farm. There we prepared a simple veggie stir fry and enjoyed the Deep Creek‘s hazy ipa in our beer growler.
Also, we saw a bull with the biggest balls ever.
The glow worm caves in Waitomo were also impressive. But if you have only one pick on the North Island – and are maybe a little low on cash – go to Waipu instead and enjoy the more simpler but still very impressive adventure of exploring the caves and seeing a night sky made of little bugs all by yourself and in your own timing.