Sunday, 24 February 2013

An underworld adventure

The early bird catches the worm, as they say. Getting up early certainly paid off for us as not only did we get amazing early morning views of the coast, but we were the only two on our Underworld Rafting tour. We'd wanted to see glow worms at some point during the trip, and this experienced combined that with some caving and floating down rivers on a rubber ring.

Once we'd wetsuited and booted up, and grabbed our webbed gloves, we had a short drive in a minibus to the start of the tour. What we didn't expect to find at the end of the road was a small railway station complete with wooden platform and benches, with a tiny railway leading off into the forest. All became clear when a metal container was opened up and 'Dorothy', a small diesel engine emerged, pulling some rudimentary carriages behind her. We got on and were driven for 2km through the temperate rainforest, with a running commentary on the gold mining history of the area and that it featured in the Lost World documentary series.

At the end of the railway, there was another mini-station where we disembarked, and our guide Maria, led us on a short walk through the forest to a swingbridge, picking up our rubber rings on the way. Once over the bridge some steps led steeply up to the cave entrance. The caves are not open to the public, and you have to get a permit from the Department of Conservation to enter them, to protect the fragile environment. They were only discovered 50 years ago, by a local man and his dog - the dog's footprints are still preserved in the sand in part of the cave.

The caves were fairly low - you often had to stoop to avoid hitting your head on the low roof - but wide, so you never felt particularly claustrophobic. Once deep inside it was totally dark (Maria made is turn off our torches to prove this) with absolutely no slivers of light. I don't think I have been anywhere before where you couldn't see the slightest thing, not even your hand in front of your face.

The stalactites were beautiful and varied in size from tiny 'straws', to thick pillars. In the light of your torch the water droplets on the end of the stalactites and roof of the cave twinkled, looking almost like glow worms. The formations varied in colour from brown to pure white - there was a particularly beautiful section where the water had formed thin 'sails' of calcium carbonate, which hung down from the ceiling. It was great to have the caves to ourselves, and as we were a small group we got to explore some of the side paths to the main route through.

As we got nearer the end of the cave system, Maria got us to turn off our torches again and this time tiny lights twinkled above us - just a few at first, then more joined them - we had reached the glow worms. This was a warm up for the main event and we turned our torches back on to have a close up look at the glow worms and the tendrils of sticky thread they use to catch any insects that venture into the caves.

We walked a bit further on until water covered the floor of the cave - this was where the rubber rings came in handy. Lying back in them, we joined in a line and floated through a tunnel in the dark. Suddenly we emerged to glow worms - millions of them covering the roof of the cave. Floating through the cave in the dark with the glow worms above was a truly peaceful, amazing moment. It ended all too soon as we reached the entrance to the cave, the glow worms faded and we emerged into the light.

But the fun wasn't over - once out of the cave we had to get back down the river. More floating in the rubber rings and even a couple of mini-rapids! Eventually it was time to get out and get back on Dorothy to rattle through the jungle and back to the start.

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