Angus Stubbs - modern day caveman

Meet Angus Stubbs, the visionary behind New Zealand’s secret underground wonderland.

He is not called a caveman for nothing. Angus Stubbs spends much of his life in a subterranean world, sharing with visitors the mysteries that lie beneath the earth.

Usually, only cavers and adrenalin junkies get to experience grand underground wonderlands of glowworms, stalactites and limestone formations. Scientist Angus Stubbs helped engineer an eco-friendly construction miracle to share this otherworldly beauty with the rest of us.

For the best part of two years, Angus Stubbs’ daily commute to work involved swimming 600 metres with his tools strapped to his back, sliding over a waterfall, and hanging off a rock face, his route lit by the low-wattage beam of glowworm tail-lights. His workplace (“no whiteboards or overhead projectors, but plenty of strategy meetings with fellow workers”) was a limestone cave, 80 metres beneath the land his family has farmed for five generations. 

“Pretty fantastic, huh?” he says. “Some people think it’s weird. But sitting in an air-conditioned office, working on a computer all day … to me, that’s weirder.” 

Black Water adventures

Stubbs is operations supervisor for The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co in Waitomo, established in 1987 and New Zealand’s first “black-water” (think underground rivers) adventure tour company.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the re-opening of Ruakuri Cave, following a major construction project that created a new entrance and system of suspended walkways, allowing the less intrepid – as well as adrenalin junkies – to experience the underworld in different ways. Stubbs has been with the company as a guide since its inception and was one of the crew who worked on the construction. 

“There was no blueprint for the job. You can’t call 0800 CAVE CONSTRUCTION. We basically learned on the job.” Every tool had to be floated in, including a concrete mixer which was bounced over the waterfall. “We did learn that you shouldn’t jump off a waterfall with sacks of cement.” 

The result is a labyrinth of intricate ramps and steel gantries suspended from the roof, spiralling into the depths of the cave through delicate tapestries of limestone formations, stalactites and twinkling glowworm lights. The suspended tracks give visitors a dramatic close-up view of the cave, but also protect the fragile underground eco-systems. Stubbs – an earth scientist – says the construction is a marvel in environmental terms: “That was pivotal in its design.”

Range of experiences

It was also important to provide a range of experiences for visitors. The Black Labyrinth tour begins with a sedate stroll down the staircase and finishes with some gentle black-water tubing while the adrenalin-pumped Black Abyss and Black Odyssey adventures include abseiling, taking a flying fox above the roaring dark streams, or spider-walking through ancient rift passages. 

Caves have been the backdrop to Stubbs’ life. When he was a child, his grandparents donated a house on their farm to a group of Auckland speleologists – “incredibly weird and strange people who were passionate about drip rates from stalactites and sub-fossil bird bones” – who visited most weekends. 

Stubbs first visited Ruakuri Cave on his fifth birthday. He can remember the thrumming roar of the underground waterfall. When he was seven, he was lowered by cavers into deep cavities to check what lay around the corners.  

The underworld, he says, is like a home. “It feels natural to be there.” He wouldn’t mind living there.

Into Middle-earth

A devoted Tolkien fan as a child, he loves the parallels in the fictional and natural worlds. Many sound effects for The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy were recorded in Ruakuri Cave. Two cave eels are named Gollum and Smeagol. Stubbs says he was delighted when New Zealand was chosen as Middle-earth. His daughter, Pippin, is named after Frodo’s Hobbit companion. 

He says the pleasure of his work is sharing the world with others. The Lord of the Rings director Sir Peter Jackson, Hillary Clinton and Katy Perry have visited. He tried to tempt other ‘Rings’ stars with a sighting of the rare peripatopsis invertebrate. “Basically it’s a 400- million-year-old cross between a worm and a centipede that spits gum at its prey.” 

But it’s the everyday visitors who give him the greatest buzz. “With mountains, you can see the peaks. Under the ground, you never know what is around the corner.”

Background: Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

Waitomo Caves - in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s central North Island - are an ancient wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, deep caverns, and underground streams bathed in the ethereal light of millions of glowworms. Named by early Māori explorers - Waitomo translates as wai (water)and tomo (hole).  

The caves, which celebrated 125 years of guiding last year, are one of New Zealand's original and most visited tourist attractions. From peaceful guided walks to the extreme black water rafting adventures, there are many ways to explore this subterranean playground. Ruakuri Cave, opened 10 years ago, is the newest of these magnificent adventure playgrounds.

How to Get There

Waitomo is just over 2 hours’ drive south of Auckland, just over an hour south of Hamilton and 2 hours west of Rotorua. From Auckland, travel on SH1 to Hamilton and then south on SH39. Turn right to Waitomo Village. The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co is about 6 kilometres from the turn-off. There are flights to Hamilton from most major New Zealand cities.     

Best Time to Visit

The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co is open all year round. The most popular season with overseas tourists is summer but, because the temperature in the caves remains constant at 14C (57F), and the caves are underground, weather is not an issue. Very high rainfall may affect the operation of some tours.  

How to Book

Book online or phone +64 7878 8228. Bookings can also be made through tour companies and the Waitomo I-Site Visitor Centre

What’s Nearby

The spectacular Waitomo Glowworm Caves tours include a boat trip through the starry Glowworm Grotto. 

Nearby walks include the Ruakuri Bush Walk, a 30-minute loop through a forest-covered gorge, passing through small caves and the Ruakuri Natural Tunnel. The Waitomo Walkway is a 2½-3-hour return walk through forest and farmland, with a variety of limestone features. 

Woodlyn Park, two minutes’ drive from Waitomo Village, has a Kiwi culture show and up-close experiences with animals, including the small, hairy and very cute locals: kunekune pigs. 

Huhu Café is a great place to eat. 

Tolkien fans should also visit Piopio, for a Hairy Feet tour through locations used in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.