Waikato: An underground movement

Whether it’s native tree planting, energy efficient buildings or sensors to protect fragile cave ecosystems, Waitomo’s tourism businesses are deeply committed to sustainability.

The caves beneath Waitomo have drawn visitors to the Waikato for decades. Hundreds of kilometres of subterranean passageways twist and turn their way through the region, providing a home for glowworms, eels, frogs and a vast array of unusual insect and plant life—some of which can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

The tourism companies guiding visitors through this vast underground world place a premium on protecting the unique environment they operate in. It matters for their own livelihood, as well as for future generations and the health of the cave ecosystem.

Two such business owners, Waitomo Adventures chief executive Nick Andreef and Caveworld owner Kyle Barnes, have led tours in the area for decades, delighting visitors with unforgettable experiences, tales of adventure and local Māori legends.

Tourism is their core business, but they are also deeply committed to conservation. Over the past 25 years, Andreef and the Waitomo Adventures team have worked with local farmers to plant more than 50 hectares of native trees around the entrances to the Lost World and Haggas Honking Holes caves that the company guides, abseils and blackwater rafts through.

Similarly, Barnes and the Caveworld team have planted and maintained 70 acres of native forest around the entrance to the Footwhistle Cave it operates within. The land around the cave entrance has been placed into a QEII Trust covenant, protecting its native biodiversity forever.

Both proudly tell you that they did sustainability before it was trendy.

“Once you cover a stream with native trees it improves the oxygenation of the water, which means the water carries more insects,” says Barnes. “All of that good stuff is really important—there are benefits for the caves and benefits for nature. Sustainability is so much more than a corporate buzzword or just something trendy to mention in marketing materials—it makes a real difference on the ground.”

Andreef agrees, saying he has noticed significant changes during his years guiding people through the caves. More plants are growing in areas exposed to sunlight and he’s seen an increase in the populations of the unusual creatures he comes across on his tours.

“Down the bottom of the caves we have peripatus, or velvet worms, which are a primitive caterpillar-like creature that is the missing link between ancient annelids and insects. In the water there are eels, and in Lost World we often see frogs.

“It’s a really fragile environment and we know we have to look after it. We have a special fern in Lost World that occurs in only three places in New Zealand. It’s called Asplenium cimmeriorum and it’s the lowest light-tolerant land-based plant in the world.”

Waitomo Adventures opened a new multimillion-dollar office just outside Waitomo Village in 2019. The building was constructed of sustainably grown pine and its high-thermal-mass design means it requires no ambient heating—even in winter. Solar panels on the roof provide power, including underfloor heating in the day spa area of the building.

Caveworld also had sustainability front of mind when it opened a new office beside the Footwhistle Cave in 2020. The office is entirely solar-powered, as is the energy efficient LED-lighting used to guide visitors into the cave itself.

There the showers fed by water-wheel-driven pumps at the end of Waitomo Adventures’ Lost World tour, and traditional kawakawa tea grown locally and served to guests by Caveworld, and you see there’s a whole world of sustainable innovations being pioneered by Waitomo operators.

Another caving operator committed to environmental sustainability is Discover Waitomo, which provides tours and underground experiences in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave. The company employs an environmental manager, Shannon Corkill, who works every day to preserve the cave and enhance the surrounding streams and forests that are crucial to the cave’s ecosystem.

Sensors have been set up throughout the three caves, monitoring everything from carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity to wind speed and direction, water temperature and water levels. The data gathered is used to make decisions about management of the cave environment, including the number of tours they can run on any given day.

“In the past we have cancelled tours because carbon dioxide levels may be too high,” says Shannon. “The environment and our commitment to our role as kaitiaki comes first and foremost, always.”

If carbon dioxide levels or temperature in the caves gets too high or low, the sensors open or close an automatic door at the entrance to the cave system to help bring the area back into balance. This helps protect the spectacular stalactites and stalagmites that have naturally formed within the caves over millions of years.

Photos taken every 30 minutes by cameras within the main glowworm cave are used to monitor glowworm population trends over time. The photos and sensor data is regularly shared with an environmental advisory group made up of scientists from New Zealand and Australia—helping to improve management of the cave ecosystem and contributing to science.

Impressively, the sensors and lighting throughout Ruakuri Cave—one of the longer caves in the Waitomo area—and its visitor centre are solar powered. “It’s amazing to think that lighting and sensors 60 metres below ground are being powered by the sun above,” says Corkill.

Like other tourism operators in the area, Discover Waitomo is heavily involved in environmental initiatives—including along the banks of Waitomo Stream. When COVID-19 hit, many of the company’s staff were employed part time to clean up reserves, control pests and plant native trees as part of the Department of Conservation’s Kaimahi for Nature scheme.

Discover Waitomo has also introduced a range of other measures to reduce its carbon footprint. These range from stocking only New Zealand-made products in its gift shop, reducing the use of plastic bags and creating a herb garden and worm farm at the restaurant found within the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre.

These initiatives are just a taste of the quiet underground revolution taking place in Waitomo. With fresh ideas and science being unearthed regularly, the future of the cave system—including hundreds of underground passageways and caverns that are thought to be out there but have yet to be explored—looks to be in good hands.

  • For more information on Waitomo’s caving activities and other attractions in the Waikato region, visit www.waikatonz.com

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