Caving in Charleston

One of the things I love about international travel (it’s certainly not the flight getting there, I am quite fearful of long haul flights!) is that you know you are somewhere else. It might be the landscapes, the climate or the smells. Your senses tell you the place is foreign. Somewhere different to what you are used to.

I am getting that same feeling here on the West Coast. Not to the same extremes but enough for my senses to pick up the change. There is no wind, which I always find odd. A windless day in Wellington is very rare! The landscape and vegetation here is so different, foreign even. I am loving the tall gangly nikau palms and punga trees that cloak the land. It is so dense, green and lush. I feel like I could be on the set of Jurassic Park!

Breakfast is at the local tavern and we are greeted by the friendly staff. It’s a lovely setting, it’s interrior has lots of timber giving it a warm and inviting feel. The fire is going too. Out of every window I see green. The West Coast is so pristine. It has a very pure and untouched feel to it.

Today we are heading to Charlestown. Population 522. Until recently, I had never heard of the place, I came across it while doing research for this trip. It is a historic gold rush village and in the mid 1800’s it population swelled to 30,000. Nowadays, it is the limestone caves and caving experiences that attract tourists to the place.

That’s exactly what we are here for. Today, we are joining Underworld Adventures to explore limestone caves and gaze upon a galaxy of glow worms. After a safety briefing we kit up in all the gear, jumpsuit, jacket, socks, boots, and helmet. There is a lot of gear to get on. It’s always challenging when it’s made of neoprene!

Our journey begins with a short drive in their van, followed by a ride in Dorothy, a bush tram like train that takes us through The Nile River Rainforest. The forest is stunning, lush, dense and so green I am in awe at it’s beauty. We also past huge limestone cliffs, again I feel like I am on the set of Jurassic park!

We disembark the train and begin our walk, pick up our rubber tyres for later and continue walking some more. We then reach the steps. There is 148 of them! We climb them slowly. Everything is much harder when you are dressed head to toe in rubber!

It’s now time to begin our walk into the cave. I’m slightly nervous, I don’t like being in confined spaces, but am relieved to hear that most of the cave is pretty large and open.

Wow! Just Wow! This place is stunning! It’s hard to believe that treasures like this exists beneath the forest. How many times have the hills above it been walked, without anyone having a clue what lies below?

It’s a secret, magical place.

As we walk through the cave, our guide, Samamra, tells us about the cave’s history, how it was formed, how it was discovered (by a man and his dog, the footprints and paw prints can still be seen.) Super interesting stuff!

Samara also stops to point out all the different types of formations. Cauliflower rocks, thin straws, lace and of course the impressive stalagmites and stalactite all glistening with mineral water.

Absolutely gorgeous!

The cave is super impressive and also very natural. I have been in caves before, at Waitomo in the North Island and Skocjan Cave in Slovenia. What makes The Nile River Cave System so unique is how ‘untouched’ it is. There are no ropes, no barriers, walkways, platforms or permanent lights, it’s very much in it’s original state. It does mean you have to be super careful, the surface is uneven and if you’re not paying attention you could easily trip, but it’s natural rawness is so beautiful.

Well into the tour, we enter into a big chamber and we are instructed to all turn off our headlamps.

Total darkness.

I stand there, looking around, waiting for my eyes to adjust – of course they don’t. There is not an glimmer of light around for my eyes to adjust to. I can’t even see my hand when I hold it up right in front of my face. It’s quite an unusual experience. We stay like this, standing in the pitch black for quite sometime, listening to the quiet dripping sounds of water.

It’s so peaceful.

After a while we start to turn our headlamps back on, starting with the low setting first, to let our eyes slowly adjust. Apparently, if we stayed in total darkness for a long period of time we would start to get disorientated and loose our sense of balance.

Carrying on, we come to a huge, impressive formation, a stalagmite and stalactite that have joined together to create a column. This part of the cave is also full of little droplets on the ceiling that sparkle, giving the appearance of being covered in gold dust.

When we get near the water, we sit down and turn off our head lamps again, only this time, we are not in total darkness. We are in the remarkable presence of glow worms. As time passes, more and more turn on their lights. They use their lights to attract food. When our lights are on, they turn theirs off as they can’t compete with the amount of light and is just a waste of their energy.

Before moving on, I take some time to look carefully at the rocks with my light on. I can see the little worms in their ‘hammocks’ and their ‘fishing line’ that they use to catch their food on.

Now the part I have been looking forward to and the reason why the have walked all this way in wet suits carrying a rubber tyre! It wasn’t just for a laugh! We enter the water, sit in the tyre and turn off our lights. The water feels cold but not freezing. The wet suits are pretty thick.

We then form a long train and our guide paddles us along the river, through the cave. A few glow worms appear on the ceiling. And then some more and then all of a sudden I am staring up at hundreds and thousands of tiny little lights. I have never seen so many before in my life. Apparently, there are somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million glow worms here.

It is absolutely magical. I feel like I am looking up at the night sky, although I am sure I have never seen this many stars in the night sky. Perhaps more like looking up at the galaxy on a clear night in a dark sky zone. It is enchanting and mesmerizing and I can’t take my eyes off them as we float silently down the river.

I don’t want this to end.

But it does. We reach the entrance of the cave, light is streaming in through a large opening in the ceiling. We have emerged from a magical underworld, our faces are once again touched by the warmth and light of the sun. We are a fair way from where Dorothy is, but we are not walking back. We have our tubes so we are taking the river!

Unfortunately a lot of the river is quiet shallow. The West Coast hasn’t had any rain for 3 weeks, which here, is considered a drought! This means there are a few bums scraping on the rocks as we make our way down the river (and I kept getting stuck, impersonating a beached whale) but there are also a few rapids which are fun to go down. We board Dorthy and make our way back to base after an exciting 4 hours of rainforests, caving, glow worms and tubing. This was a pretty unique experience!

It’s mid afternoon but we are in need of petrol so we head north to Westport (We won’t pass any petrol stations on our way back to Punakaiki. We have been caught out before on a previous trip and are keen not to repeat that mistake!) After filling our thirsty bike, we find ourselves at Jimmy’s Bar & Lounge for some tapas and a drink. We weren’t planning to stay long, but ended up chatting to a local for well over an hour. So far, I have found the people on the West Coast to be really friendly and hospitable.

Dinner is back at Punakaiki Tavern, enjoyed in a beautiful garden area, looking out at the lush forest and huge cliffs, while watching the setting sun. I’m pretty sure I am falling in love with the West Coast.

Most of these photos were taken by our awesome guide, Samara which were made available to everyone after the tour for free! How great is that!

If you want to join Underworld Adventures and gaze upon a galaxy of glow worms, check out their website here. They also have a 12.5% discount off their Underworld Rafting and GlowWorm Cave Adventures till September 21. Win Win.

4 thoughts on “Caving in Charleston

  1. Pingback: Planning your West Coast Itinerary – Exploring the Long White Cloud

  2. Pingback: Travel Highlights of 2021 – Exploring the Long White Cloud

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