Waitomo wonderland's wow factor
WE have entered a pretty blue kaleidoscope and our eyes and minds need time to adjust.
A seemingly endless number of tiny fluorescent lights - twinkling and glowing overhead like a fibre-optic ceiling - guide our way into another dimension.
The experience is definitely surreal. But we're not tripping on acid like a Seventies flower child or thrusting the Millennium Falcon starship into hyperspace.
Instead, we are on a slow boat heading into the bowels of an underground universe.
Initially, our group sits in silence - in awe of this starry wonderland, engulfed by the serenity.
But soon we cannot resist the urge to share the "wow factor" of the surroundings in whispers.
I had been wanting to visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves near Te Kuiti since I was a young girl, but we had been unable to see them on our only previous visit to New Zealand's North Island.
This time, even the prospect of a three-hour coach ride from Auckland wasn't going to stop me.
And this, the climax of our tour, proves the effort has been worth it. How something so small can have such a powerful emotional effect on humans is astounding.
But for more than 120 years, the glowworms have kept millions of visitors spellbound with their minimalistic beauty.
The insects (Arachnocampa luminosa) are unique to New Zealand and some parts of Australia but Waitomo has the most prolific groupings.
They can be found in their millions hanging from the ceilings, walls, and stalactites in the cave networks here.
Glowworms only live in very damp, dark places without wind but with fairly horizontal ceilings so their threads do not become entangled. The conditions in Waitomo are perfect.
Englishman Fred Mace was the first to see the glowworms here in all their glory in 1887, after being granted permission by the local Maoris to explore the area.
Mace built a raft and managed to talk local Maori chief Taane Tinorau into accompanying him on December 28, 1887.
They ventured into the unknown by candlelight from what is now the exit of the grotto.
Despite entering the dark recesses, they soon found their way lit by a myriad little lights reflected on the water.
Then they looked up and saw the source: thousands of glowworms on the ceiling.
After further exploration and surveying of this geological phenomenon, the first major public tours began in 1889 as Chief Tane and his wife Huti escorted groups through the cave for a small fee.
The caves themselves are the result of more than 30 million years of hard work by Mother Nature. First, the sea broke down marine deposits such as coral, shells and animal fossils into tiny particles on the ocean floor and over millions of years, these formed layers. Eventually, the layers compacted and hardened into limestone.
Once Mother Nature raised Waitomo from the ocean floor through geological and volcanic episodes, water and earth movement did the rest in creating the cave network. About 300 known limestone caves lie beneath the hills of the region and in some areas, the limestone is more than 200 metres thick.
The unique formations and decorations - stalactities, stalagmites, columns, pillars and shafts - have taken hundreds of years to form, with a stalactite, for example, growing an average of only one cubic centimetre every 100 years.
Over the course of the tour, we see our fair share of majestic limestone scenery - including a group of stalagmites rising from the ground in the shape of a camel, a family (a mother, child, junior, and dad with their pet poodle), as well as a surprise for the kids: cartoon favourite Sponge Bob Square Pants (though that took a little more imagination).
More than 250 metres of tiled walkways, steel handrails and short stairways allow visitors of all ages to appreciate the small wonders of the caves.
After walking through the entrance, the first we encounter is The Tomo: a huge shaft dropping 16m to the Waitomo River.
Another highlight is the 18m high Cathedral cavern - the highest point in the cave network.
Our guide shows us limestone formations that look like organ pipes and a pulpit and then asks us to clap to demonstrate the pure sound without echo that can be achieved here.
New Zealand's world-renowned soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has been among the famed singers giving concerts in the acoustically perfect underground auditorium.
Last Christmas, up to 200 people were expected at the annual Carols In The Cave to hear a local choir and schoolchildren singing festive tunes. The Cathedral is also popular for weddings but only one official photograph is allowed per ceremony to protect the fragile surrounds.
A little further along from this cavern, we bend down to see our first glowworms - hundreds only metres away under a low ceiling close to the walkway. The glowworm is the larva stage of a two-winged insect and reaches only 3 to 4cm in length. The insect has four stages: eggs, larva, pupa and adult, and has a total lifespan of only 10-11 months.
Nearby, we see a short silken "curtain" of their sticky threads which they throw down and light up to catch food during the larva stage. Insects fly towards the light and are caught on the sticky silken threads, which the larva then draws up to eat.
After taking in all these quirky facts and the surrounding grandeur, we finally make our way down to the lower level for our boat ride through the spectacular Glowworm Grotto to bring our 45-minute tour to an end.
Before we head out the cave exit where night will turn back into day, I have time to make a final wish upon a "star".
The writer was a guest of Sun Princess Cruises.
Brisbane-based Sun Princess organises Waitomo Glowworm Grotto shore tours as part of its visits to Auckland on its New Zealand cruises. A hearty home-cooked lunch and country hospitality in the cottage garden surrounds at Crosshills Dairy Farm, owned by Debbie and Fraser Robertson, is also included in the day-long adventure.
WAITOMO GLOWWORM CAVES
Waitomo is a Maori word with "Wai", meaning water, and "tomo" an entrance or hole.
The caves are open from 9am daily, 365 days a year.
The Glowworm Grotto is not wheelchair accessible or suitable for people who are claustrophobic. Guests must walk down about 100 steps to enter the grotto and about 50 to exit.
All photography, including non-flash photography and video, is forbidden in the caves.
Tours depart every half-hour daily from 9am-5pm.
Tours take about 45 minutes.
Ruakuri Cave is wheelchair friendly.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CAVES
Over the last 30 million years, the area we now know as Waitomo was formed as a result of geological and volcanic activity.
Through this earth movement much of the hard limestone beneath the sea buckled and bent and rose up out of the water.
Exposed to the air, the limestone separated into huge blocks of rock, filled with cracks and weaknesses.
These cracks created tiny channels through which water could flow and over millions of years larger caverns were eventually formed.
HOW CAVE DECORATIONS DEVELOP
Once the caves were formed, stalactites, stalagmites and other cave decorations began to grow. Water dripping from the roof or flowing over walls leaves behind a deposit of limestone crystal which sets as hard as concrete.
As time passes, these accumulate to form beautiful cave decorations. Stalactites grow down from the ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the cave floor. If they join together they are called columns or pillars and where they spiral around they are called helicti.
Cave decorations can take hundreds of years to form. As an indication, a stalactite grows an average of one cubic centimetre every 100 years.
EGGS - The female fly lays around 120 small spherical eggs. Within around 20 days the young larvae hatch from the eggs and crawl away.
LARVA - After hatching the young larvae build a nest, put down lines and feed.
Sticky substances on the feeding lines trap insects and these are drawn up and devoured.
Even at this small size, less than 3 millimetres long, they emit a strong visible light and slowly grow over 9 months to the shape and size of a matchstick.
PUPA - The pupa is the same as the cocoon stage in the butterfly lifecycle; it is the stage between the larva and the adult fly. This will last about 13 days with the pupa suspended by a thread from the ceiling.
ADULT - The adult glowworm looks like a large mosquito. They have no mouth and their only function is to reproduce and disperse the species. Usually a male is waiting for the female to emerge from the pupa, mating takes place immediately and the cycle continues. Adult glowworms live no longer than a few days
Info from Waitomo.