Stargazing Underground: Waitomo

New Zealand has many natural wonders and wildlife to amaze and delight the typical traveler. From mountains to rivers, forests to beaches, kiwis to hobbits, there is plenty to take in. But those are all above ground. What lies beneath is stranger, and requires getting a little wet and dirty to appreciate. And that’s exactly what we did in Waitomo to see New Zealand’s infamous glowworm caves.

The details are a little fuzzy to me right now, and you can find out more about glowworms online, but here is the gist that we got from our tour guides Emma and Lisa of Legendary Blackwater Rafting. Glowworms are not actually worms at all, but moth larvae (maggots, to be precise). They glow a lovely greenish blue color in order to attract bugs seeking the night sky down there in the cave. When those bugs fly up to the manufactured starlight, they get stuck and eaten. (Think of it as the Darwin awards for bugs: only the smart survive.) The rest of a glowworm’s life is spent pooping and breeding, and they live no more than a few days. According to Emma, their lives “end with a bang.” Wink wink.

We arrived at the company’s base to learn that I hadn’t actually booked a trip. I thought I had, because I spoke with someone on the phone, and she told me there was an opening, and I said I’d take it, and then she said something else that I clearly did not understand, and I said “Thank you!” and hung up, confident in my ability to talk on the phone. Apparently, I had failed. But we were in luck! There was a cancelation on the 11:30 trip, so we could go after all.

We met Lisa and Emma and began the disrobing, redressing procedure. Since we were going into a cold, wet cave, they gave us wetsuits that smelled like pee (let this be a lesson to you all: peeing in rented wetsuits is gross. Skip that second cup of coffee and go before the tour), helmets and headlamps, gloves, wetsuit socks, boots, and told us to leave anything we didn’t want to lose – like wedding bands – behind in lockers. So, we were single in there for a few hours.

They gave us a brief lecture about safety, and chiefly among the warnings was, “Don’t pee in the wetsuit – go now!” So I did. And then, 45 minutes later, I had to go again. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if you knew what getting into a wet wetsuit was like. Those of you who have ever surfed can attest to the fact that it is really a huge pain to get into a wetsuit in general, particularly one that doesn’t fit very well. Getting into one that is already wet is an even bigger pain and required lots of grunting, pulling and jumping. And everyone was waiting for me before we could walk the trail to the cave entrance. No pressure! But I’m a well-seasoned performer, so I got the job done and we all went on our merry way.

After we got off the bus, we had to pick our tubes, the flotation device to accompany us for the trip down the river. We had to pick one that fit us properly, employing the tried and true “Bend over and see if your butt fits and the tube sticks on your body” method. Naturally, they had to take a picture of us with our butts sticking out of the tubes. (After the trip, they tried to sell us that picture. Did they really think we’d buy that?) Then, they taught us to jump off a waterfall backwards with our tubes in anticipation of doing this inside the cave. I was christened with really cold water up my nose and knew I was ready for an adventure.

The trip down the cave river was pleasant and pretty easy, except for a few places where we had to jump off waterfalls and get cold water into our wetsuits, which replaced the water that had been warmed by our body heat. One unfortunate adventurer jumped backwards into the water only to learn that someone had accidentally kicked her tube away at the last second, so she wound up completely soaked, tubeless, and sad. She got it back and tried again, determined, I assume, to beat the hell out of that guy once aboveground. Anyway, we saw glowworms, which were neat. But the real highlight was the race at the end.

When I say race, bear this in mind: the subterranean passage in which we “raced” could only really fit two and a half tubes, and there were three of us lined up in a row vying for position. I was in the front with a partner behind me, so I was pulling her, and there were two other pairs next to us. I decided my strategy would be to push off the cave wall to move forward, and then yank the person next to me backwards. I was not alone in choosing this strategy, so the “race” really became a race to the bottom. I held onto the tube next to me and tried to push it underwater, or hitch a ride if he managed to get ahead. When that wasn’t working, I would just grab the guy’s arm and pull him backwards. The guy in that tube, Ted from New York, was also a tad competitive, so he did the same thing to me. He said afterwards that he contemplated dunking my head underwater, and then thought better of it. So we crawled along at probably an inch a second while Rebecca and some other guy in the third pair waited for the perfect opportunity to sprint ahead.

Our tour guides, clearly not anticipating the death match they had set up, tried to get us to move it along because we were apparently going to miss our bus back. We promptly stopped trying to drown one another and Rebecca pulled ahead, finishing first. Ted and I ended up losers, but my small victory was getting him to realize that even tiny non-profiteers can pack a punch. “I thought you non-profit girls were soft!” he said afterwards. Sucker.

We got back to the basecamp only to discover that the pictures of us in the cave, taken with a terrible waterproof camera by someone who really didn’t know what she was doing, did not turn out well (shockingly). Disappointed, we used the free wifi, ate our hot soup and bagels, and left. But all in all, we enjoyed the adventure and got a chance to stargaze underground, a perfect honeymoon activity for the untraditional couple. Stargazing outside is so passe.

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