Three unique ways to experience the Waitomo Caves and glowworms.
Waitomo, meaning “water hole” in the Māori language, is known for numerous caves that are inhabited by glowworms. Personally, I never heard about glowworms until landing in New Zealand. Similar to fireflies or bioluminescent plankton, these little creatures light up in the dark, mostly to attract insects for food.
With over 300 caves in the area, only a few are open to the public through guided tours. They vary in time and focus, from walking through a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites, taking a boat ride while gazing up at a ceiling full of glowworms, to going on a tubing adventure in an underground river.
No matter which route you pick, you’ll be able to see a lot of sparkling glowworms and learn about caves. My favorite way to experience the cave was a 3-hour trek through rushing cave water and jumping backwards off mini waterfalls in a tube! Below are three options for experiencing the caves.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Our day of cave exploration began with the most famous and relaxed tour of the three experiences–the Waitomo Glowworm Cave. Upon entering the dark cave, our local Māori guide gave a brief overview of the area and told us how these caves were formed over millions of years, with this cave being open to the public since the late 1880s. After walking through a hall of stalactites and stalagmites, we descended into an area called the Cathedral Cave. Famous for its acoustics, she mentioned how professional singers have performed in the cave and even sang a song for us to prove its incredible sound.
After our mini concert, it was time for our boat ride and to me, the main attraction of this 1.5 hour tour. We boarded the 20-person rowboat, with our guide navigating by a rope that was tied from end to end along the river. In silence, we all gazed up at thousands of shining glowworms, like stars sparkling on the cave ceiling. It was both mesmerizing and a bit creepy–floating on a dark underground river with maggot poo shining above (sorry to burst your bubble–glowworms are actually maggots, and they poop out light to attract insects, which they then capture in a thread to slowly devour them).
Regardless of maggot poo, I’m always mesmerizing by God’s creativity and how He much values beauty. He could’ve just made ugly maggots; instead he created sparkly maggots that shine in the darkness.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting
We turned off our headlamps and slowly floated through the underground cave river in darkness–the only light being little sparkles of glowworms on the cave ceiling. The previous 3 hours leading up to this final leg included avoiding stalagmites while trekking through rushing cave water and jumping backwards off mini waterfalls in our tube…
Sounds crazy right? When I first signed up for “black water rafting”, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I’m so happy I did it. For our second cave adventure for the day, we first got suited up in wetsuits and helmets with headlamps at the welcome center with around 12 of our best friends for the next 3 hours. Then we took a mini bus to the cave entrance, which was literally a hole in the middle of the rainforest, with a quick stop at a nearby river, where we practiced jumping backwards into the water. This was the most difficult technique we’d have to do while rafting in the dark cave.
With safety as a top priority, our 3 guides were constantly explaining what was happening next and looking out for us. Even though we were in a dark cave with rushing water and eels in the water, I felt completely safe.
The highlight for me was when we turned off our lights, formed a “snake train” (when you form a “train” by grabbing the person’s leg behind you) and tubed through the darkness while looking up at the sparkly glowworms.
This was the most physically challenging thing I’ve done in awhile, and it felt great. The guides did a fantastic job in keeping us moving but not feeling rushed. After we got back to the welcome center we were able to feast on tomato soup and bagels to warm up from the chilly water. Tomato soup never tasted so good!
After warming up from our cave adventure, we went back to Ruakuri Cave to see it from a different perspective. Upon entering the cave, we had to walk down a long spiral loop, the equivalent of 12 stories, and reminded me of something from LOST.
Reaching the bottom, the guide explained the history of this cave, then led us down a path of stalactites overhead. There were points for looking down into the river below, where we could see people on their Black Water Rafting adventure. It was eye-opening to see the cave from a different vantage point. Since we were much higher than before, we were able to see the glowworms up close as opposed to gazing at them from afar.
I was really intrigued by all the different types of cave formations formed over millions of years. With names like “curtain”, “cauliflower” and “the pretties”, each type is formed based on air flow and humidity levels. It was quite humbling to stand underneath a structure that’s been around for such a long time.
39 Waitomo Village Rd.
Otorohanga 3943, New Zealand
Thanks to Waitomo Glowworm Caves for sharing your mesmerizing natural wonders. Top two photos courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves. All opinions and photos, except as marked, are my own.