Waitomo and Wai-O-Tapu: Glowworms and Mud Pools

November 25, 2017

Glowworms at Waitomo

The next stop on our road trip through New Zealand were the Waitomo caves, where you can see glowworms. This is again one of these places where you have to go in as part of a group, with a guide, and groups enter the caves in 10-minute intervals. The whole tour takes about 45 minutes. The first 35 minutes we spent in a part of the cave where the guide told us some of the history of the cave and gave us some information about the glow worms. Or well, to be more exact, about half of that time we spent getting more or less interesting information, while the other half we spent waiting for the group in front of us to go on. We were getting annoyed and bored, but then we finally got to the interesting part of the tour: while still in the cave, we got into boats which, in absolute silence and with mobile phones and all kinds of photography forbidden, were moving through completely dark caves, in which you could see the glowworms on the walls and ceiling just like big stars in the night sky.

There was something truly impressive and special about this experience, not just because of seeing the beautiful glowworms, but also because of being in a dark cave, in absolute silence, in a boat that was moving apparently on its own (actually, the guide, who was standing up in the front of the boat, was pulling on fixed ropes to move the boat through the water). Of course, we don’t have own photos from here, but a quick google search finds some beautiful photos.

Mud pools and other geothermal activity at Wai-O-Tapu

On the next day, we headed to the Wai-O-Tapu area, which is famous for its geothermal and volcanic features. During a 3 km walk through the park (called the “wonderland”), you get to see bubbling mud pools, different craters, sulphurous springs, waterfalls, small sulphur caves, and, of course, geysers.

The most famous geyser in the park is called Lady Knox. She (as the park employees refer to the geyser) erupts at 10.20 AM every day. If you’re wondering, as we did, how come she erupts so reliably and at exactly the same time every day, well… The answer is that a park employee puts soap water into her at 10.15 AM every day. And there is a whole show for the tourists around it!

No, really, I’m not joking. Every morning, up to 200-300 tourists gather around in a purpose-built amphitheater around the geyser, and at 10.15 the show starts. A park ranger tells you a few funny stories about the geyser, then he puts water with soap in it, and then gets to a safe distance from the geyser, because it starts bubbling and after 1-2 minutes it erupts. The ranger said the eruption has been known to last anything between 30 seconds and an hour and a half. On the day we were there, it was very close to the 30 seconds end of the interval.

We’ve seen geysers erupting before (in Iceland, where it happened naturally, with no intervention from anyone), so maybe that’s why we were not really that impressed. And you have to wonder how good it is for the geyser to get soap in it every day and how much sense this makes from an ecological point of view. But it was certainly interesting to see the other 200-300 people gathered there. And to see how one can organize a whole show around a provoked geyser eruption.

Highs and Lows

This time, I’m combining my highs and lows into one point. Both at Waitomo and at Wai-O-Tapu, we alternated between feeling like the whole thing is not worth it (when always waiting for the tourist group in front of us to move ahead at Waitomo, and when watching the Lady Knox show at Wai-O-Tapu), to loving what we’re seeing (the glowworms were indeed beautiful, and the rest of the Wai-O-Tapu park was really very impressive). I have the feeling this may happen to us more in New Zealand, where all tourist attractions are very intensely marketed, but, if you strip them of the “show” organized around them, what remains is nonetheless very beautiful and impressive.

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