New Zealand  #04 – Auckland, Huntly and Waitomo Glowworm Caves

April 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

February 2017

New Zealand  #04 – Auckland, Huntly and Waitomo Glowworm Caves

In this installment we’ll get more information about Auckland, talk about Mining and electrical power, go by the residence of the Maori king and explore the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.  This day’s travel ended n Rotorua but we will leave our exploration of that town for the next installment.

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Leaving Auckland

Today we said goodbye to Auckland and headed south on route 1.  As we traveled through the extensive suburbs of Auckland and admired the traffic heading into town during the rush hour commute we gathered some more information about the town from our guide. 

Similar to Manhattan, what is now Central Auckland was purchased from natives, the Maori in this case.  This occurred in the early 1840’s shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi which gave the British Crown control over what is now New Zealand.  Of course the Brits paid for the land that would become their capital a year or so later.  Here’s what the British paid for those 3000 acres:

  • 50 blankets
  • 20 pairs of pants
  • 2 shirts
  • 10 waistcoats
  • 10 caps
  • 4 casks of tobacco
  • 1 box of pipes to smoke it with
  • 100 yards of gown material for dress making
  • 10 iron pots
  • 1 bag of sugar
  • 1 sack of flower
  • 20 hatchets
  • and $110 in cash. 

Of course the Maori had no concept of either land ownership nor of “selling” or “buying” things.  They just thought they were getting all this stuff as presents and it had nothing to do with them continuing to live on the land.  The British had other plans and shortly thereafter removed the Maori from the area.

The city now stretches about 50 miles North to South and has a population of around 1.5 million which is one third of the population of the entire country.  But it is not the capital. As we’ll find out later Auckland was the capital for only around 20 years after which it was moved to Wellington (south tip of the North Island) in 1865.

When one visits other countries, sometimes it is interesting to see how their society is doing in comparison to our home country with the hope that our home country is doing better.  In many cases, though, it turns out to be the other way around.  Every year or so the New Zealand Salvation Army produces a “state of the nation” report which contains societal metrics and trends.  While this report is not the entire picture it does give one a sense about how they are doing and if things are headed in the right direction.  Here are some of the things the latest report showed:

Downward trend items

  • Child poverty has gotten worse
  • Homelessness has increased
  • Number of prisoners has gone up


Upward trend items

  • Teen crime has dropped
  • Teen pregnancy is also down (by 50% over 10 years ago)
  • There are more jobs
  • More real wages
  • Decline in Alcohol consumption
  • Decline in drunk driving
  • Fewer people on welfare (lowest since 2007)
  • In school fights are down as is bullying
  • Binge drinking and use of tobacco and pot are also down
  • Suicide rate is on the decline.
  • Income has risen 14% in last 5 years
  • Average pay is $1,000/week
  • Minimum wage is $15.75 but if you’re in training it is $12.50

The countryside south of Auckland is for the most part unremarkable.  In many ways it is similar to Northern California.  Rolling hills with farms and small towns every 40 miles or so. Most of these towns are losing population to the cities and the main streets are predominantly dollar and thrift shops plus a cafe, bank and several taverns.  Both in town and in the agricultural areas between these towns, some of the homes are well kept even though they are modest but some are pretty run down.  The farms look to be family owned rather than mega scale corporate farming.  All in all it has the look of a good middle class farming based existence that is doing okay. 

Huntly, Power Generation & Coal

One town we came to had a bit of a different story.  This was Huntly (pop 7,067).  Huntly is larger than most of the small towns we went by and has a large Maori population most of which is also of a lower socioeconomic class.  This stems from the main employer being a major power plant which is situated in town on the Waikato River. 

It seems there was quite a bit of coal in the Huntly area which, along with access to a good river, made it an ideal place for a power plant.   There was also a steel mill in another nearby town that took advantage of the abundant coal not to mention the power generated at Huntly.   As one would expect the power plant was built as a coal fired plant. 

The Huntly area hosted numerous coal mining operations but the last coal mine closed down in 2015.  In its heyday that one mine employed over 200.  More recently the mining had been converted to “remote controlled continuous miners” rather than by miners so by the time the mine closed it only employed 68 people.  With the mines all shut down, the only major employer left that isn’t farming is this power plant and the steel mill.

When built the power plant was a ‘progress in action’ sort of thing and highly touted by the politicians of the day as a gigantic jobs creator that would move the country forward and bring economic advancement. When it opened it was capable of providing between 20 and 30 percent of the electricity needs of the entire country.  Of course it was a coal fired plant which was not considered as a problem back then.  It was designed to house 4 generating units which were installed between 1973 and 1985.  In 2004 and 2007 two more generating units were added but these were gas fired.  By 2007 some of the original units were able to run on gas, and the plant was pretty much only using gas.  But a dry winter in 2008 cut the availability of hydroelectric power so to make up the difference the Huntly plant boosted production and started using some coal again.  More recently the Green Party pushed for the use of less coal so as to protect the environment and ever since then they have been using more and more gas at Huntly and less and less coal. 

What’s interesting is that these days if they do need to use coal it is cheaper to buy it from Indonesia and ship it in than it is to mine it in Huntly even though there are massive amounts of coal still within easy reach of the Huntly mines.  Since 2012, two of the original coal units were decommissioned – one could be brought back on line with 90 day notice but the other was permanently done in.

Typical farmland south of Auckland

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Area south of Auckland

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Prosperous farm houses typical of the area

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Maori Cemetery near Huntly

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Huntly Power Plant

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Marae (Maori Royal Meeting Grounds)

In the 1850’s, many of the disconnected Maori tribes decided they needed a king to provide a role similar in status to that of the monarch of the British colonists.  This person would help promote the well being of the Maori with the British Crown.  So, most of the tribes got together and elected a king.  Today, the Maori monarch is a non-constitutional role with no legal power from the perspective of the New Zealand government. Reigning monarchs retain the position of paramount chief of several important tribes and wield some power over them.  As with the British Crown, the title of king is passed down within the royal family.

The current Maori monarch is Tuheitia Paki who was elected in 2006 and his official residence is Tūrongo House at Tūrangawaewae marae in the town of Ngaruawahia. Tuheitia is the seventh monarch since the position was created and is the continuation of a dynasty that reaches back to the inaugural king.

The royal Maori residence has hosted many foreign leaders over the years such as Jimmy Carter, William and Kate, and the Queen of England.  Unlike our Whitehouse, this is not a tourist attraction.  Unless you are an invited guest you cannot enter the grounds and they take a dim view of you wandering around outside the walls.  So, our bus just slowed down as we drove past so we could admire the gates and roof adornments visible from the road.


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Waitomo (Glowworm) Caves

The word Waitomo comes from the Maori language and consists of ‘wai’ meaning water and ‘tomo’ meaning a doline or sinkhole and thus becomes ‘water passing through a hole’.  As is the case with most popular caves around the world, these are limestone caves – in this case Oligocene Limestone whatever that is.  There are actually a series of caves which may or may not interconnect underground with each one having its own name, entrance and tourist trade.  The most famous and popular one is the Waitomo Glowworm Cave which is the one we went to.

Limestone caves typically form through the dissolution of limestone. When rain water percolates down through soil it picks up carbon dioxide from the air which turns into a weak acid. This acid slowly dissolves limestone along cracks and layers.  If there is a big enough area of limestone a cave forms.  Larger caves have usually gotten a boost from an underground river which helps carve out large subterranean ‘rooms’. 

Once an area has opened up underground, the acidified rain water continues to seep down from the surface through consistent little channels in the rock layers above the cave.  When this water hits the cave it can drip down from the ceiling or flow down the walls. Either way, once it hits the air inside the cave it forms calcium carbonate (or other similar minerals).  The typical calcium carbonate is a product of the carbon dioxide in the water and the limestone through which it has traveled.

If the water drips down from the ceiling, each drop deposits a miniscule amount of this calcium carbonate where the drop hangs waiting for enough mass to collect to break the surface tension allowing the drop to fall to the floor.  Over time, these deposits form a stalactite which is like a finger of rock hanging down from the ceiling.  On occasion these are hollow and called soda Straws.  Then when the drop hits the floor, more calcium carbonate precipitates out where it landed and this forms a stalagmite which is a finger of rock growing up from the floor.  When the two meet a column is formed going from the ceiling all the way to the floor.  But water can keep coming.  Now the water flows down the sides of this column leaving calcium carbonate as it goes and making the column thicker and thicker.

However, if the water coming into the cave flows down the side walls instead of dripping off the ceiling, a different kind of formation is formed.  These are mostly called flowstone and are quite a bit more varied depending on water volume and flow rate, speed of water down the walls, what minerals is in the water, and the contours of the rock it is flowing over.  Many of these different flowstone formations have been given whimsical names such as draperies or curtains, cave bacon, frozen waves, Gypsum Flowers, Organ Pipes and many others. 

If the water in such caves is still coming in, the cave is said to be a living cave.  However, if for some reason water is no longer seeping into the cave then the formations stop growing and the cave or portion of the cave is said to be dead.  The Waitomo Glowworm Cave is a living cave but not one of the larger occurrences of such caves in the world.  But it does have several rooms and passageways and features stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and several different flowstone formations – all of which were given clever names by guides over the years.

The guided tour enters at the top of the caves and meanders down on a paved pathway through several rooms.  In one place you descend a metal staircase to get to a lower level.  Near the end of the walking portion of the tour is low ceiling room where you can see a colony of glowworms hanging from the ceiling.  From here you board a boat which takes you through Glowworm Grotto where the ceiling and walls are literally covered with these little glowing critters.  The boat then exits the cave and you disembark and hike back up to the gift shop (what else).

The glowworms are Arachnocampa Luminosa but commonly known as New Zealand glowworm or simply glowworm and is a species of fungus gnat.  The species was first described in 1871 when collected from a gold mine in New Zealand's Thames region. At first it was thought to be related to the European glowworm beetle, but in 1886 a Christchurch teacher showed it was the larva of a gnat, not a beetle. The species was called Bolitiphila Luminosa in 1891, before being renamed Arachnocampa Luminosa in 1924. 

These guys are the larval stage of an insect called the fungus gnat. Just as maggots grow into common houseflies, glowworms grow to become fungus gnats, which are similar to mosquitoes. The New Zealand glowworm is one of many creatures that are bioluminescent (produce their own light). The light of the glowworm comes from small tubes ending around the glowworms anus, as a byproduct of excretion.   When the guide turned on the lights we could not see the larvae itself but we were able to see long strands of this slimy excretion hanging down from the ceiling – some as much as 2 or 3 feet in length -  like strands of snot.   It was really somewhat disgusting.   But then he turned off the lights and we again saw these dots of beautiful blue-green light like thousands of stars crowded into a very small universe on the cave ceiling. 

As is usually the case, the bioluminescent light is used to attract insects lost in the dark cave which the glowworms catch and eats. If a glowworm is hungry its light will shine a little brighter and is even more effective! When the female glowworm becomes an adult the light is used to attract males for mating. 

Unfortunately photography was not permitted inside the cave.  So the only glowworm image I have is that of a poster by the gift shop

Waitomo Glowworm Cave Exit

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Cave exit.

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Photo of a poster of the Glowworms

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I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our New Zealand trip.  The next installment will include the town of Rotorua and the Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

This blog is posted at: 

Or, this whole series at:

These and other Images of this trip can be found here

Or here for just my favorites

Thanks for reading – Comments Appreciated – Dan

(info from Wikipedia, Road Scholar Lectures, pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way and attraction websites)


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