THE STARS BENEATH THE GROUND

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A trip to the mystical caves of Waitomo near Auckland introduces you to dazzling glowworms, Maori myths and life beyond the comfort zone, says Sonia Nazareth

Even if the idea of wandering through dark caves – where the only friends you’re likely to meet along the way are an army of watchful glowworms – seems an intimidating prospect, look past your comfort zone. A trip to the caves at Waitomo, an approximate two-hour drive from Auckland, New Zealand, draws crowds – and with good reason.

I begin the adventure at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Carved by underground streams pushing through soft limestone over thousands of years, the caves reinforce the fact that water is indeed the Earth’s greatest architect. Stalactites and stalagmites that look forged out of some deep subconscious, and limestone crystal deposits created by water as it drips from the roof or down walls, vie with each other for your attention. In words clearly polished to perfection through repetition, the guide tells us that from ancient times, the Maoris (the indigenous people of New Zealand) have known of the existence of the caves. The name of the area, which was formed over 30 million years ago, comes from the Maori words – wai, meaning water, and tomo, meaning hole.

Armed only with a torch, our guide leads us deeper into the cave’s belly until we reach a cavernous structure in this great, dark cathedral. He points out the deep limestone shaft and the Cathedral cavern, known the world over for its acoustics. Those who are musically inclined in our little group, attempt a spot of singing. Not so long ago, this was where opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performed.

Half an hour later, it is time to board a boat that will soon be ferrying us across a river. As our eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, we are instructed to look up. The transformation from complete darkness to clouds of luminous blue points is as sudden as it is striking. In what looks like a solar system in its own right, is an army of a particular variety of glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa), unique to New Zealand, with lights twinkling from their bioluminescent tails.

They spin sticky threads from the roof of the cave, and use the tail lights to attract insects and trap them for a tasty meal! But at this moment, all details of the meticulous natural engineering that goes into the development of these glowworm habitats are obliterated, and the only thing I can focus on is the magical feeling that this constellation of light evokes.

Following up this boat ride with the Ruakuri Cave walk is the best thing to do. Here, too, everything is more than it seems. This cave has the longest underground guided walking tour and is also the only wheelchair-accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere.

Journey down through the spectacular spiral entrance and marvel at the softly folding shawl-like limestone formations and crystal tapestries. The soundtrack that accompanies any journey through these caves comprises tales that focus not just on cave ecology and the galaxies of glowworms, but also on the myths and legends of these ancient Maori sights.

Depending on your thirst for adventure and how long you want to spend in this ecosystem, you can black-water raft through some caves, engage in underground abseiling in some, do a spot of zip-lining, or crawl, swim and even float through a glowworm-studded subterranean wonderland below Waitomo.

As the 70-year-old grandmother in our group, who relishes these adventures never fails to inform me, life begins outside your comfort zone.

The author writes on travel and the views expressed here are her own

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