Of course, Waitomo is all about the caves, but this trip delivers both the region’s prettiest speleothems, plus a surge of genuine excitement while viewing them, in one easily accessed package.
The main cavern is spectacularly beautiful, with a forest of delicate stalactites dripping from the roof and stalagmites growing up from the floor, as well as variety of other formations, all of them well worth seeing on their own. But add to that the thrill of a couple of abseils, a subterranean flying fox and a swarm of creepy cave wētā and you’ve got the complete Waitomo experience.
Discovered in 1962, the cavern’s entrance was an unprepossessing hole inside a small cave, a shaft down into the darkness that only a speleology obsessive would consider worth a second look. John Hobson was that man and, on his second foray into the cave (his gas lamp having given out on his initial exploration), he was the first to view the glories of the cavern, which he named after St Benedict, patron saint of cavers.
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* Whizzing through the dark in Waitomo’s St Benedict’s Caverns
* Waitomo Caving: The black rubber suit, the inner tube and me
Because 30 million years’-worth of drips shouldn’t be ignored – and Waitomo Adventures makes going to see them both fun and easy. Togged up in boilersuits, gumboots, helmets and harnesses, small groups are eased cheerfully down the chimney, abseiling first 20 metres and then another 40.
Next, there’s some clambering and scrambling, a log to walk along, and lots of chat from the guides about the formations, the shell fossils and the history. The tunnel is bare and shiny wet, but suddenly there’s height and space and colour in the first of the caverns.
Another tunnel opens up into St Benedict’s Cathedral: a vast cave 40 metres high, full of all sorts of formations. There are dainty straws, solid columns, flow stones, curtains, rim pools and lots more, all artistically lit. There is so much to see that even the guides, busily pointing out named shapes, are still making new discoveries.
A quick but exciting zipline, whizzing through columns and stalactites, takes you to a colony of cave wētā beside the stairs that lead back up to the outside world, where the colours and sunshine are dazzling after two hours down in the darkness.
You won’t get wet, but you should wear clothes with some give in them for all the scrambling. Jeans are not recommended. You can’t take photos, but the guides will supply you with plenty of free shots for boasting afterwards.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
Waitomo Adventures has a number of other offerings, either tamer, or a lot more challenging. Stay at Woodlyn Park in a train, plane, boat or hobbit hole.
It costs $225 each. Children must be at least 12, and those under 15 accompanied by an adult. Trips run every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day and last three hours altogether.
BEST TIME TO GO
You’re underground, so the weather is irrelevant for the main part of the trip. See: www.waitomo.co.nz