Waitomo Caves is an iconic New Zealand Must Do. Experience the wonder of the natural stars in caves millions of years old. The glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. They can be found in most parts of the bush, if you know where to look. But if you want a guaranteed Glowworm Experience, Waitomo Caves is for you.
I wish I were a glowworm
A glowworms’s never glum
Cause how can you be grumpy
When the sun shines out your bum
Ma and I decided months ago that it was high-time we went and visited the glowworms so we booked our tickets for April, sat back and eagerly anticipated the small worms with lights shining out their bums. I’d never been to Waitomo before and she hasn’t been since she was a young girl (so quite a while ago. Ha). Pa decided to get in on the glowworm action and join us as well and it turned into quite a wee family holiday (my brother doesn’t count. He wasn’t there).
How much, you say?
It works out quite reasonable cost wise if you do a combo. If you see just one cave it can be rather pricey (Ruakuri Cave is 74NZD, Waitomo Cave is 51NZD and Aranui Cave is 50NZD ). But you can purchase combos that add on another cave (or two) for not much more which makes it more worthwhile. We did the triple cave combo, all three caves in one day for 97NZD each.
Where do we find these glowworm things you speak of?
Waitomo is located in the Waikato Region of the North Island of lil ole New Zealand. There are around 300 caves in this region but the majority aren’t open to the public. The three main caves, Aranui, Ruakuri and Waitomo are the ones you can stop in and have a looksie around. Literally, thousands of glowworms live inside the caves, and around the area.
Ruakuri Bush Walk also enables you to see hundreds of glowworms inside natural nooks and crannies all through the bush. Walk through little caves, under tunnels of trees and gaze at clifftops dotted with glowstars. This walk is free to do and takes about 30 minutes return if you don’t stare in awe at the twinkling lights.
Ruakuri Cave was first up on our list. Our tour guide, Michael was wonderful. She was funny, knowledgeable, passionate and friendly. All things you want in a tour guide. The tour lasted about two hours, so we weren’t rushed through and were able to stop and admire everything as well as ask questions.
A wee bit o’ history
The following is taken from the Waitomo website:
According to Maori legend, Ruakuri Cave (rua meaning den, and kuri meaning dog) was first discovered 400-500 years ago by a young Maori hunting for birds. He was attacked by wild dogs just outside the original cave entrance.
Tane Tinorau the elder, Chief of Kawhia, had crossed the country with a war party to attack the local Ngati Hau Tribe and gain land in the Waitomo area. A hunter was sent to spear birds for food and he discovered the entrance to the cave which was occupied by a number of wild dogs. The wild dogs attacked the hunter who dropped his catch and fled.
Later, traps were set by the war party to capture the dogs and they were killed and eaten. Shortly afterwards on success of his attack Tane Tinorau took his people to live near the cave. The cave entrance was used by Maori as a burial ground (wahi tapu) and it is this sacred area that has now been protected with the construction of the spiral entrance a safe distance away.
Ruakuri Cave was first opened to visitors in 1904 by James Holden, an ancestor of the family that still owns much of the land above the cave system.
It was the second cave in the region to be opened as a visitor attraction and was quickly announced by early visitors to be visually impressive and an experience that was almost spiritual.
The Government claimed ownership of Ruakuri Cave and the attraction was then operated by the former Tourist Hotel Corporation until February 1988, when a legal and financial dispute forced its closure.
Ruakuri Cave was closed for over 18 years and was officially reopened for underground guided walking tours by the New Zealand Prime Minister in July 2005. This followed extensive redevelopment by Tourism Holdings Limited and an agreement with the Holden Family Trust of Waitomo. The re-opening marked the culmination of 18 months of underground construction work on walkways, bridges and a new spiral entrance way.
Re-opened in 2005, this cave is now an amazing example of engineering and natural cave structure.
Going through Ruakuri Cave
Ruakuri Cave was my favourite cave. It had a bit of everything, from glowworms to stalactites, stalagmites, curtains (you’ll see) and fossils. The man-made entrance lies about how natural and beautiful inside the cave really is. As we all huddled around the entrance and got warned about the $10,000 fine for breaking anything inside the caves, I had visions of going home with a rather large fine after either myself (super clumsy), Pa (had a stroke a year ago and is still wobbly) or Ma (who is very good at knocking things over with her handbag without realising it) accidentally broke something.
The stalactites and stalagmites have taken hundreds of thousands of years to grow to where they are now, so I guess the fine is justifiable.
The spiral entrance
As the old entrance into the caves is no longer in use, a new spiral walkway was designed to take you deep underground in minimum time. The disorientating feeling of walking in circles in the darkness with only dull glowing red lights on the walkway grew the further we wound down. As we wound further and further into the depths of the Earth we could hear dripping water getting closer and an old rock sat under a spotlight in the centre of the spiral. This was to commemorate the spiritual side of Ruakuri Cave. We were encouraged to wash our hands in the puddles of water sitting on the rock before we entered the cave.
Stalactites, stalagmites, columns and curtains
Stalactites are the hanging down bits on the top of the cave (official definition), the way to remember that they are the top ones is that they hang ‘tite’ to the ceiling. These bad boys grow extremely slowly, one cubic centimetre per 100 years. Even less exciting to watch than paint dry. Stalagmites are the ones chilling out on the ground (they ‘mite’ get to the top one day). These puppies grow even more slowly, one cubic centimetre per 500 years. Columns form when stalagmites and stalagmites meet together. Curtains (can’t remember what they are actually called, but they look like curtains) are formed not by a drip dripping straight down from the ceiling like the others, these are formed by water running down the side of the cave and they bulk out from there.
Geology 101 completed.
Glowworms are cool little buggers. They aren’t actually worms though. More like maggots. But apparently, glowmaggots isn’t an endearing name. Glowworms (glowmaggots) live near water and often in caves, they use their little glowing bum to trick lost and disorientated insects into thinking that the light at the end of the tunnel is near. Boom, the insect gets stuck in the silky, sticky strands the glowworm has previously prepared and bobs your uncle. Worm food. They have a lifecycle, but the worm phase is the longest and most interesting. Neither of their other phases has glowing body parts.
We were shown the silky strands and informed about glowworm habits along the way. The strands are beautiful, like tiny little pearls hanging from the ceiling. They glistened in the torchlight looking rather magical indeed. We made our way through the cave and stopped near the river. The lights turned off and we were informed that we weren’t allowed to use our cameras until instructed. We had to just be in the moment and marvel at the glowworms. This was easy enough to do.
However, I was starting to get hungry by this point (we had no breakfast), I wondered allowed if glowworms were edible. I mean, there were plenty in supply. Ma quickly replied that it would only be a light lunch.
The noise of shame
To discourage visitors from getting to close to the natural limestone formations in the caves, sensors are set up to go off if someone is playing with fire. Yours truly set off the alarm twice, at the same place trying to get that all important photo. Once on the way in and once on the way back by having the camera a little too far for the sensors comfort over the handrail. Both times Michael called out ‘Shame’ from up ahead. The only other person to set off the sensor was Mum. At the same place. Trying to get the same photo.
Waitomo Cave was second on our list. We had about an hour to kill before our tour so tootled off down the road towards Waitomo and set up camp for lunch. If you have time, pack a picnic and some snacks. It’s a long day otherwise and expensive. Tourist Traps are renowned for fleecing you of your money and Waitomo is no exception, their cafe has standard food but quite pricey for what it is.
A wee bit o’ history
The following extract was taken from the Waitomo website:
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were first explored in 1887 by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau accompanied by an English surveyor Fred Mace. Local Maori people knew of the Caves existence, but the subterranean caverns had never been extensively explored until Fred and Tane went to investigate. They built a raft of flax stems and with candles as their only lighting, floated into the cave where the stream goes underground.
As they entered the caves, their first discovery was the Glowworm Grotto with its myriad of tiny bright lights dotting the cave ceiling. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw a multitude of lights reflecting off the water. Looking up, they discovered that the ceilings were dotted with the lights of thousands of glowworms. Debris and logs littered the waterway, but by poling themselves toward the embankment they were able to leave the raft and explore the lower levels of the cave. Here they found themselves surrounded by the glorious cave decorations.
Jubilant at their discovery, they returned many times to explore further, and on an independent trip Chief Tane discovered the upper level of the cave and an easier access. Only after many subsequent visits did they discover an entry point on land. This is the same entry point used today by thousands of visitors annually. By 1889 Tane Tinorau had opened the cave to tourists. Visitor numbers soared and Chief Tane and his wife Huti escorted groups through the cave for a small fee. In 1906 the administration of the cave was taken over by the government.
Walking through Waitomo Cave
I’m going to be completely honest and say if we had just brought the tickets to this cave as we were going to, I would have been disappointed. It was my least favourite cave of the three. Waitomo Cave wasn’t as intimate, natural or rugged as Ruakuri Cave and not nearly as stunning as Aranui Cave. The tours run every 15 minutes with upwards of 20 people per group. You just see a small section of the cave so you have to walk past the other tour groups. Most of our time in Waitomo Cave was spent waiting for the boat for the boat ride.
Our tour guide wasn’t waiting for no-one, if you stopped to look at something (which of course you are going to do), then you better get yo ass back to that group as quickly as possible before they disappear.
The cathedral is a part of Waitomo Cave that is, well, like a cathedral. It is storeys high and just feels spiritual. The acoustics are fab, our guide sang us a little song in Maori in the darkness. That was probably my second favourite thing about the cave (the first being the boat ride). It felt goosebumpy standing in the dark with the words floating over us, the occasional twinkle of a glowworm. Apparently, you can get married in the cathedral part of the cave now and they even do carols by candlelight during the Christmas season in there.
The boat ride
The boat ride was serene and spectacular. However, it didn’t last very long and I am not sure why we had to be quiet. I know there was a reason, but we stopped to look at something, had to hurry to get back to our group and missed explanation so stood in the dark in confusion at why everyone kept shooshing the small children who were bored waiting for the boat.
As the boat glided along the inky blackness of the water, everyone had their eyes looking up in wonder. The blanket of glowworms (glowstars) spread across the ceiling of the cave was just like looking at the sky on a clear night. I tried to spot constellations in the worms but only found a smiley face. There is no photography in Waitomo Cave so just close your eyes and imagine a smiley face in the sky. There you go. That’s what it looked like.
It was a bit eery being pulled along silently in the boat, the boats moved by the tour guide holding onto ropes attached to the ceiling. It felt like we just drifted across the black water, getting more and more disorientated the further around the maze she pulled us. A good disorientation though.
Soon enough we were ejected into blinking lights, being left to our own devices to make our way up the short path back through the gift shop. Isn’t it sneaky how most tours end in the gift shop?
Obligatory photo op
We had to have our photo taken as we walked through to where our tour started. I thought it would be funny to pretend to be astonished when I saw a glowworm. Turns out I just looked like a twat and ruined a perfectly good family (minus Brother Troy) photo. The photos were waiting for us on the wall of the gift shop as we exited, luring us to spend more money, the green background we had stood against was now a wall of glowworms. Luckily, I ruined the photo and saved myself $40.
Waiting peacefully with the weedwhacker in the background for our guide to arrive, we had another 40ish minutes to pass by the time we got to the cave. A quick nap for Pa, a quick chapter to read for Ma and a quick peruse through the (many) photos I’d already taken that day for moi.
A wee bit o’ history
Taken (once again) from the Waitomo website:
In November 1910, a young Maori, Ruruku Aranui was chasing wild pigs that had strayed into a local reserve. His dog chased a pig down a steep hill and the pig suddenly disappeared and so too did the dog.
The dogs barking led Ruruku to a small hole in the side of the hill. He then crawled inside and with a match found them both in a high chamber that continued into the darkness. Ruruku Aranui went to Waitomo and told the manager in charge of the caves. They both then re-entered the caves exploring it further, absolutely fascinated by its great beauty.
The discovery of a new cave in Waitomo caused much excitement around the country. The cave was much easier to develop than the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and in just over a year it was ready for tours.
In February 1911, there was an official opening by the Minister of Tourism. Originally the cave was to be called Ngutuhihi (the beak of the stitch-bird), but because pronunciation was difficult, it was decided by the Minister to name it Aranui Cave.
Aranui Cave is one of the most richly decorated caves in Waitomo. There is very little of the ceiling in this cave that has not been decorated by the dripping water.
Our walk through Aranui Cave
Aranui Cave is nestled up in the bush, a quick 5 minute walk up the hill through the serene forest warmed us up. This cave was the most spectacular looking of the three we visited. It is adorned with limestone formations beautiful curtains, dramatic looking stalactites, impressive columns and stalagmites ever reaching towards their buddies are seen no matter which way you look.
The cave was formed on an earthquake fault, which means the rainwater that creates the limestone crystals enters a bit easier. As a result, almost every corner of the roof and walls is adorned with fragile, sparkling forms in pale brown, pink and white. There is very little of the ceiling that has not been decorated by the dripping water.
We had the opportunity for our guide to take photos. I had learned my lesson with the last photo and managed to smile (grimace) for the camera. Our guide wasn’t used to manual cameras and it came out a bit dark. As we were first up, everyone was watching. I didn’t really want to explain what he needed to do and take another photo while everyone was watching.
One of the highlights of the cave, besides the awe-inspiring cave itself, was the cave weta colony that live just inside the entrance of the cave. I wanted to take one, but they are protected. And Ma would have refused to get in the car with us all. She’s such a downer.
Cave wetas are native to New Zealand and their name literally means the ‘ugly one’. They have been around since the dino’s so have seen a thing or two in their time.
No glowworms reside in Aranui Cave, this is because there is no river, so their source of food isn’t handy. There used to be a river flowing through the cave but a huge earthquake caused a slip that closed off the water source to the cave. The earthquake was estimated to rumbled about a million years ago. So fairly recently. You can actually see the fault line that runs through the cave. I’m glad there wasn’t an earthquake while we were in there. Imagine Mum being stuck in a cave with cave weta. No thank you.
Top Tips for visiting Waitomo Caves
- Photography is not allowed in Waitomo Cave, but you are allowed to take photos in Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave. Be sure to have a practice taking pictures in low light without a flash first.
- Speaking of cameras, make sure your battery is full or you have a spare one to bring along with you. If you are anything like us, you will burn through that battery quickly.
- Take snacks. You will have about an hour between each tour if you decide to do all three. There is time to go to the cafe, but it is expensive. Take a picnic and sit in the beautiful scenic spots dotted around the area. There is a picnic area by Aranui Cave and plenty of little spots to park up with a feed.
- Be respectful. Don’t touch the limestone formations, listen to the guides and be aware of the other people in your group.
- Check out other sights in the area. There are all sorts of various hidden gems from waterfalls to natural bridges to bush walks to other caves. Make the most of the area while you are in it.
Even though I was a little disappointed with Waitomo Cave, the other two caves more than made up for it. The caves are stunningly beautiful and so interesting. It really is a must do if you are ever in the area.
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