Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand
Located in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand, is a natural wonder to behold. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves should be on every traveler’s bucket list. I first discovered it when I was researching a week-long trip to the North Island for my college spring break and I was so excited to find my first opportunity to see bioluminescence in action!
So why exactly are the Waitomo Glowworm Caves so special?
While the caves were known by the local Maori people, it was first explored in depth in the late 1800s by candlelight. To the explorers’ surprise, they quickly discovered the turquoise glowing worms on the ceiling. After only 5 years, the cave was opened to visitors in 1889!
Visitors today still take tours to see the famed glowworms, which are actually a species of fungus gnat that in their larval stage glow via bioluminescence!
When I first heard about the caves I couldn’t wait to see the incredible blue glow. I had been spelunking in many caves before, but I had never gone into a cave that can illuminate itself.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves Experience
What I was truly most excited about was an extra special feature of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves – the ability to raft inside the cave! Water travels through the main grotto that has the glowworms, so rafting is part of many tours. The raft is attached to a rope so it can only move on that path so visitors don’t even need to steer.
I was a little nervous to be spelunking without any flashlights and being on a raft that was out of my control. I quickly learned to trust in my tour guides and trust that any waterfall sounds I heard were beyond where we were going.
Once I got over my initial fears of being out of control of the raft, I really started to become emotional with just how magical the glowworm caves are.
It takes 20 minutes without external light for our eyes to fully adjust to the darkness. In that time, all I could sense was the sound of the water. I was desperately trying to see the glowworms but soon enough, it naturally got easier and then it was pure wonder. I saw hundreds and thousands of glowworms all around me, lighting up the underground river and walls. It’s a surreal experience to have no external lights while floating along a river with the turquoise glow above. It’s impossible to describe the tranquillity and magic! Everyone in the group got silent to take it all in.
It’s one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had while traveling and will forever be a bucket list item that I’m so grateful to have checked off! If it’s not on your radar, it definitely should be!
Useful tips to experience the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The easiest way to get to Waitomo is to drive. It’s about 2.5 hours south of Auckland and 2 hours west of Rotorua. From Auckland, take State Hwy 1 for 110 km to State Hwy 39 and go 75km to Waitomo.
InterCity also has a bus that runs between Auckland and Waitomo daily or there are day tours from Auckland that include transportation.
There are a few caves that travelers can visit – Waitomo itself, Ruakuri, and Aranui.
While it may be possible to explore independently, I highly recommend a guided tour for a number of reasons! First, the expert tour guides share valuable history, science, and stories about the caves.
Most importantly, this is the safest way to explore the caves. There’s no trespassing on a tour and exploration will only be via safe pathways in the caves and secure rafts along the waterways.
There are a number of tour companies that cover a wide range of experiences – rafting, black water rafting, multiple caves, etc. I took the Glowworm and Cave Explorer tour by Spellbound Tours for $65 NZD, which covered the Glowworm Cave and a smaller one called the Cave of the Spirit. It also came with the boat ride and refreshments halfway through the tour.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and a warm jacket. Inside the caves can be chilly. Visitors will also need to check-in to tours 30 minutes early, so don’t be late!
I definitely recommend adding the Waitomo Glowworm Caves to any North Island itinerary, but the town of Waitomo is best explored as a day trip as there isn’t a ton else to do nearby.
One other fun activity is the Otorohanga Kiwi House where you can see the country’s namesake bird and other beautiful animals! I tacked this onto my day trip as I was leaving the area and I was so glad I did.
Hamilton makes for a good base camp to explore the Waitomo Glowworm Caves as it’s only an hour drive and has many more options for accommodation. Overall, despite its isolated location, Waitomo Glowworm Caves are one of the most amazing experiences and natural wonders around the world!
About the Author
Alanna is a part-time traveler based in Georgia, USA, who considers herself a hyper-planner. Her blog, Periodic Adventures, is full of travel planning tips and detailed travel guides for inexperienced travelers and those that just don’t have the time to do the research.
She also travels mouth first and loves tasting her way
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