Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrUnder the verdant green hills of Waitomo, and not far south of Hamilton lies one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions in the form of an extensive cave system of sinkholes and underground rivers known as Waitomo Caves. “Waitomo” derives from the Māori language, combining the words “wai” or water and “tomo”, which loosely translates to a hole. Waitomo Caves is situated some 7 miles (7.5 mile) northwest of the town of Te Kuiti in the King Country region of the North Island of New Zealand, which is also dubbed the land of the long white cloud. The tiny village of Waitomo Caves has a small semi-permanent population, made up mostly of temporary service workers offering cave-related tours.
Breathtaking DiscoveryAlthough the Māori people had long known about the Waitomo Cave system, it was first unveiled to European settlers around the turn of the 20th century. Powerful underground steams cut several courses through soft limestone over several millennia, and the result is an amazing labyrinth of caves featuring spectacular stalagmite and stalactite and formations growing up from the cave's floor and down from the cave's ceilings, and often inter-locking spectacularly. These caves are home to the native Arachnocampa luminosa, more commonly known as the Waitomo Glowworm and what a show they put on for the eager cave travelers.
GeologyEvidence is abundant in support of the theory that volcanic activity was originally responsible for the creation of almost 300 caves in the Waitomo system. Of course, this did not happen overnight but rather over the last 30-million years. Geologists now know that limestone formations in the Waitomo cave system formed while the area lay beneath the sea thanks to the collection of countless fossil remains of many ocean species. Over the eons, various marine organisms fell to the seabed and over time formed fossilized rocks, which in turn created layer upon layer of what became compressed limestone. In some parts of Waitomo, the limestone measures more than 656 feet thick in places.
Caves began to form when tectonic movements in the area resulted in the limestone bending and buckling under the sea. The force was sufficient to force the sea floor upward until it was above sea level, and the Waitomo Caves region became a landmass. Now exposed to air, the rock faces separated in many places and the resultant fissures became caves over time through the action of underground water flows. Cave formations grew from water dripping from the cave ceiling or flowing over the walls and leaving deposits of limestone. The size of the stalactites and stalagmites formations on view in some of the caves, attest to the age of the Waitomo Cave system. In summary, the incredible view on offer today has taken a long time to form. This unique system on view today is the result of the powerful forces of nature colluding to create these magnificent caves.
Biologically ImportantThe Waitomo Glowworm is one of the most populous and famous permanent resident of the caves. Many creeks and brooks have helped form a series of underground freshwater lakes as they flow through the cave systems. The dark damp environment serves as home to a variety of fungi as well as the albino cave ants and giant crickets, which are common residents. The air quality of this subterranean eco-system requires careful monitoring by specialist scientific advisors. Their main concern is to measure the air temperature and carbon dioxide levels at all times as these can negatively affect the Waitomo Glowworms and other residents. Scientists use sophisticated electronic equipment that continually samples the air quality and temperature. The data gathered is carefully interpreted and any adverse increase in carbon monoxide can lead to curtailments in terms of visitor numbers.
Getting there and things to doMost visitors use Auckland as their point of entry to tourist-friendly New Zealand. The locals are appreciative of visitors and always ready to make recommendations. Both North and South islands are world-renowned for the sheer number and variety of tourist attractions they have on offer, many of which are unique and dramatic. The Waitomo Caves fits the “dramatic” destination status convincingly. They are approximately a two-hours drive south out of the capital city, Auckland. Hamilton is a little nearer, being a one-hour drive south to the Waitomo Cave on State Highway 3. This is the main arterial between Auckland in the north and Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island. Once you are there, join one of the guided tours through the caves. One tour takes in three levels of cave, starting at the uppermost level known as thecatacombs. A 16-meters vertical limestone shaft known as the Tomo links visitors to the banquet chamber on level two. Use the Tomo again to descend to the lowest level called the cathedral and so named because the cavernous space before you rises as high as 18-meters from floor to ceiling. The acoustics are certainly authentic and very church-like. For the more adventurous, pursuits such as abseiling, black-water rafting and deeper caving expeditions are on offer.
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Author: robric. Last updated: Mar 15, 2016