Underground caverns are like something from science fiction. The strangely coloured light, weird rock formations and eerie echoes make you feel as if you’ve entered a different universe. The Ruakuri Cave, part of the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand’s North Island, is no exception. But Ruakuri is more than just a geological wonder. It is also a sacred Maori site, a place of history and legends. And, if that isn’t enough, there are the glowworms…
Waitomo, a Sacred Maori Site
There are several caves in the Waitomo complex. They have been sacred to the Maori for centuries but the interior was not explored until the late 19th century. The first exploration was by a Maori chief and an English surveyor, and tourism soon followed. It was inevitable that disputes over control of the site would arise, with both the government and the Maori claiming ownership. Finally in 2005 the caves were returned to the Maori owners of the land and guided tours became possible again.
Ruakuri literally means “den of dogs”. The legend is that it was first discovered by a Maori hunter who was attacked by dogs close to the mouth of the cave. After successfully fighting (and subsequently eating) the dogs, the hunter expressed his desire to be buried inside the cave. Whatever the truth of the legend, the cave was certainly used as a Maori burial place and there are still some bodies there today.
Historically the Maori never entered the cave as it was regarded as the entrance to the underworld. It remains sacred today and visitors may not touch any part of the rock (on pain of a $10,000 penalty). The exception to this is a stone with running water at the very bottom of the cave where you are allowed to wash your hands as a mark of respect to the dead who lie buried in the depths of the cave. Although the actual burial place is closed off, we did see the “ghost walk”: this is the route that dead people are said to have followed to the underworld.
Natural Wonders of the Ruakuri Cave
But it is the natural spectacle that draws tourists to Ruakuri. We were shown around by Wayne, himself a keen caver. He started by leading us down a long spiral ramp to the bottom of the cave. (This is the only one of the Waitomo Caves that is wheelchair friendly.) Then we entered a room full of stalactites, fantastical limestone formations that have been created over millions of years. Some of them were covered with a kind of coral (known locally as “popcorn”). We passed underground rivers and in the distance we heard the sound of a tremendous waterfall. “The waterfall is only around one and a half metres deep,” Wayne told us. “But it sounds much louder underground.”
It is hard to imagine that anything could have ever lived down here, but the caves are full of fossils, a remnant from the time when the area was beneath the sea. And Wayne showed us the skull of a moa, which presumably just flew into the cave and didn’t manage to get out again. But there are still living creatures here: the glowworms for which the Waitomo Caves are famous. The walls of the glowworm caves were covered with pinpricks of light, giving the effect of a starry night. (Unfortunately the light wasn’t bright enough for a good photograph so you’ll have to imagine it for yourself.)
These glowworms are actually the larvae of fungus gnats, but they spend most of their lives in the larval state. Amazingly they manage to find food – insects that fly into the caves, or occasionally they just eat one another! Surrounded by life and light, in a place that should surely be dark and dead, I had to agree with the Maori that there was something special about this place.