After returning from Australia to New Zealand, we were due to head south towards Wellington almost immediately. But there was one thing on my North Island bucket list that I was itching to check off first:
Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
Though we had caught glimpses of glowworms previously here in New Zealand, we’d never encountered anything close to the magic of Waitomo. Read on for an account of our cave tour experience…
Both of the stunning images above are by Spellbound.
Our tour was with Spellbound. It cost 75NZD each, which may sound a little steep, but in our view it was well worth it for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We booked by phone a few hours before and then headed to their office in person to pay and wait for the tour to begin. There were only two other people in our group with us, meaning it was easy to ask questions and chat with our guide if we wanted. We piled into a minivan and headed into the countryside…
Touring the glowworm caves
The van stopped a little ahead of the cave entrance and allowed us to go for a scenic walk for the last stretch. Once on site, we got hard hats (with headtorches attached) and made our way inside the mouth of the cave.
I had very little understanding of glowworms prior to this tour, so I learnt a lot. The guide provided lots of interesting details about what glowworms are, their use of silk threads to draw prey (their Latin name arachnocampa means spider-worm), how the bioluminescence works etc.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt was how long they stay in their larval form relative to their life as an actual gnat. 6-12 months as a glowworm/larva vs. a mere couple of days as a gnat; in their adult form they don’t even feed – they simply reproduce and then die!
There are plenty of impressive stalactites and other natural features in the caves too, of course. It’s just that the glowworms are so remarkable that they rather overshadow them!
A canopy of lights
Without a doubt the highlight of the tour was the next part: floating down a river beneath a glittering canopy of glowworms. We were in an inflatable raft, but the guide pulled us a long a guiding line so it was very steady. Then we simply sat back and drank in this jaw-dropping display of turquoise “stars” adorning the roof.
Though it was tranquil for the most part, the guide would sometimes clap loudly to demonstrate the way the glowworms react to sound (they glow more brightly).
Note: the low light and movement combined to make exceptionally blurry photos! See the above shots taken by Spellbound for a clearer view of glowworms. 🙂
The photo below gives a glimpse of what the cave roof looks like illuminated, compared to in shadow. (Obviously the glowworms show up much better in darkness!)
Further cave exploration
After disembarking from the boat tour we made our way back out of the cave for a short break outside (complete with biscuits and hot drinks!). We then ventured into a separate part of the caves.
Honestly, following up a glowworm experience is pretty tough. There were definitely some interesting features, including the remains of a moa that sadly fell into the cave and to its death centuries ago. (These enormous, flightless birds have long been extinct, but are a source of fascination for me since first learning about them in New Zealand!) On the whole, though, it paled in comparison to the glowworm lights.
Travel tips: Waitomo Glowworm Caves
- We chose Spellbound as we were after quite a basic, non adrenaline-fuelled tour! But there are plenty of other options for exploring the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, e.g. CaveWorld (a cave tour or cave tubing) and The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (various tours of Ruakuri Cave, including black water tubing and abseiling).
- Check out the Spellbound website for directions to their meeting point. Waitomo is just off State Highway 3, heading south from Hamilton and Raglan.
- As with any cave environment, you’ll want to wear enclosed, comfortable walking shoes.
- Bring a warm layer as it can be a little chilly in the caves.
- Photography is encouraged, though understandably you can’t use flash inside the caves. (The other people on our tour did make use of a red focussing light, however, which seemed to be acceptable.)
- The drive from the meeting point to the caves is along windy roads, so if you suffer from motion sickness (as I do), you might want to take medication ahead of time.
- Spellbound provide a hot drink (including hot chocolate!) and biscuits in between the two cave tours. There was a café right next door to the meeting point/Spellbound office (The General Store) that served lovely food for lunch.
Over to you
Have you encountered glowworms before? Is it an experience you’d seek out on your travels? I’d love to hear in the comments.
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