New Zealand is a hotbed (literally) of volcanic activity, and part of the result of that is a giant network of caves spreading out from under the village of Waitomo, just inland from the west coast on the North Island and about 200 kilometers south of Auckland.
A visit to these caves is a must-do for another reason as well: New Zealand is one of only three countries in the world that the Glowworm calls home.
When you arrive in Waitomo, the first stop should be to the Waitomo Caves Discovery Center, the official tourist information site (“I-site” in New Zealand). The center also doubles as a rather informative museum, with the history of the discovery and exploration of the caves in the region, and a science class refresher on geology and the biology of a glowworm (hint: it’s not the head that lights up…).
From here you can also book a number of cave tours with several different companies, varying in length and activity. For the adventurous, I recommend trying a black water rafting trip, which guides you through a cave, mixing walking, wading, and tubing through the underground river of one of the “wet” caves.
Other options include dry cave tours and the classic boat ride to see the largest glowworm grotto.
Our choice was the blackwater rafting with Cave World, located right next to the visitor’s center. They took us first to a base house where we changed into wetsuits (quite chilly in the winter air!) and loaded into a van to make the short drive to the cave entrance.
Located under a functioning pasture, we followed close to a hundred stairs down to what looked like the floor of a jungle, the entrance to the cave. Once inside (carrying our inner tubes), our guide stopped us in the first chamber and instructed us to turn out our headlamps.
As we fell into pitch black, we looked up and saw hundreds of glowworms lighting up the ceiling, looking like hundreds of stars coming to life in a planetarium.
We continued on into the cave (lights back on thankfully) and the water began to get deeper and deeper until it was about waist deep. With our tubes around our waste, it was time for lights out again.
We held onto each other and the cave wall to see more of the ceiling lit up by glowworms, making our way to the first of two waterfalls. I thought the guide was joking as he instructed us to jump backwards over the waterfall onto our bottoms, but it was indeed the safest way down and quite a thrill!
We continued on through the cave for about an hour, seeing more beautiful ceilings full of glowworms and conquering one more waterfall, this time guided by a huge waterslide down to the bottom. As we finally exited the cave it was a welcome sight to see daylight again, but the images of the glowworm-lit ceilings will stay with you forever!
If you’ve got extra time in the Waitomo area, I would also highly recommend doing a quick “tramp” (the kiwi word for a hike) on the Ruakuri Bush Walk. This short 45 minute return hike winds you up through a few walk-in caves and includes wooden bridges over the rivers that flow out of some of the larger caves in the region.
It’s a great post-cave hike to get the blood flowing again after the cold water. While you can’t take your camera blackwater rafting, there are plenty of beautiful picturesque moments in the surrounding cave areas.