It was absolutely magical. Pausing on the ropes I could see above me that the blue sky was still visible through the fern lipped opening: somewhere beneath the mist below my feet was the cave floor - only the sound of rushing water convinced me that it wasn't bottomless. It really lived up to its hype as a scene from a lost world, with trees and ferns clinging to the side of this huge hole in the ground - you half expected to see a pterodactyl glide overhead. You could imagine how amazing it must have been to have discovered this for the first time.
100 metres (330 feet) and 20 minutes later, my fellow abseilers (Vicky, Ingrid and Vanessa, our guide) and I touched down on the rock floor. Kate had declined to come on this trip because of her fear of heights, and after that journey down the ropes I could understand why. However, it was a real shame as I'm sure she would have loved it.
I was on the Lost World adventure, one of the many activities in the Waitomo cave region, a large karst limestone area that was riddled with a network of underground streams and caves. On the surface, the green rolling hills were patrolled by legions of sheep, oblivious to the incredible world beneath their hooves.
Once we had regained some feeling in our legs after the harnesses had cut off circulation we walked further into the cave. It was probably the largest enclosed space I have ever been in. The cave ceiling was incredibly high and all that we could see of the outside world was the distant hole we had come down and two other openings that looked like stained glass windows as the sun filtered through the vegetation that grew across them. Vanessa took some heroic shots of us against this backdrop to counterbalance the more nervous shots of us at the top of the abseil.
We left this cavern and continued along a wide tunnel marvelling at the stalactites and other limestone formations on the way. We made it through to another cave that had a stream rushing through it and then Vanessa told us to switch off our headlamps. We looked up above our heads to see the ceiling covered in tiny dots of greenish light - glowworms. We sat there for a minute or so in silence staring at this amazing sight while the stream thundered below.
It was like looking at the stars in the night sky, which it turns out is exactly the effect that the glow-worms are hoping to create. The glow-worms are actually the larvae of the fungus gnat. The larvae attach themselves to the ceiling then let down long strands of sticky mucus to catch their prey. The bioluminescent glow comes from a reaction in their digestive system, which in turn confuses other insects that have followed the stream into thinking they are back outside and fly towards the "stars", inevitably meeting a sticky end.
When they hatch, the gnats themselves only live for two days (as they have no mouth to eat with) and their sole purpose is to procreate. Once they have served their purpose, the males are in turn fooled by their very own illuminated illusion and inevitably get caught up in their friend's starlight snare. Before they suffer the same fate, the females lay about 100 eggs, of which only one or two make it to the larval stage - largely because the first ones to hatch eat the rest of the litter to kick start their glowing. Nice. To paraphrase our guide's succinct summary - they are fratricidal maggots with bad colds and shiny poo. Quite pretty though.
We switched our lights back on and moved on towards our final challenge - the 30m steel ladder to our exit. We took it in turns to climb up while being safely roped in case of a fall. It was quite hard work getting up there. The steps were cold and quite slippy and you really had to cling on as it had a tendency to wobble from side to side - pretty tiring on your arms after a while.
Anyway, we all made it up and continued through some more tunnels before emerging above ground into a beautiful leafy glade. It was now late afternoon and we had been underground for about two hours but it didn't seem that long.
While we were packing away all our gear, Vanessa joked that she was going to send the memory card from the digital camera back to the main office using pigeons so we could have the photos ready by the time we get back. She had been joking all afternoon about various things so none of us believed her. She wasn't joking though, and to our amazement she produced two pigeons from a box in the van. I helped her put the card into a tiny velcro pouch strapped to one the pigeon's back and off they went. Amazing. That was the icing on the cake for me after a fabulous afternoon.
We got back to the campsite about 7pm and I ran to meet Kate at the tent. She'd spent the afternoon exploring the region above ground and had found lots of other caves and seen some of the other adventure trips emerge from watery holes in the ground. There was a pizza place at the campsite so we ordered a takeout and went back to the tent, dining beneath the stars - or are they glow-worms?
"...and the sound of Te Awamutu had a truly sacred ring." (Crowded House, "Mean to Me")
Earlier in the day on our drive to Waitomo we stopped at Te Awamutu, hometown of Neil & Tim Finn, the brothers behind New Zealand legends Split Enz and Crowded House. It's basically the New Zealand version of Graceland.
It's a classic small NZ town, with a few shops and bars but not much else to speak of apart from its famous sons. The local museum had a whole section dedicated to the Finns which included all sorts of memorabilia, including original lyric sheets and gold discs, which I found quite interesting. The most interesting thing was the way that the brothers clearly loved their old town and did not want to dissociate themselves in any way. Nice fellas.
Kate had kindly indulged me as I pored over the exhibit, so I didn't push it by insisting we do the Finn tour - finding places around town that were significant in their early lives. Even I draw the line at hovering outside the house where Neil Finn had piano lessons as a child.