Explore Waitomo's Glowworms Caves.
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Schedule of the Visit.
- 1A Day at the Waitomo Caves.
- 2A Cathedral Carved into the Rock.
- 3Millions of Stars to Contemplate.
- 4Ruakuri Cave Exploration.
- 5Join the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company!
- 6Journey to the Center of the Earth.
- 7You Can Be Hero, Just for One Day!
- 8There Are Still Many Caves to Explore!
A Day at the Waitomo Caves.
The Waitomo caves are enhanced by lighting.
More than 30 million years ago, New Zealand was still lying at the bottom of the ocean. The tremendous water pressure has compressed sediment deposits to create limestone.
You should imagine a rock over 200 meters thick, tall as a skyscraper.
Over the centuries, earthquakes crack the rock, and the infiltrated water dig caves and tunnels.
In the Maori language, the word “wai” means water and a “tomo” is a cavity. This is the true meaning of Waitomo.
The first settlers were aware of the existence of some caves, but most were still to discover. It was not until the easing of tensions with Maori in 1881 to see the Westerners exploring this region of New Zealand.
There are hundreds of caves in the Waitomo region, not counting those still to be discovered.
Today, nearly 300 karstic caves have been listed. Most of them are reserved for professional speleologists. However, some caves have been opened to the public who can visit them safely.
The spectacular caves have been laid out for visitors.
The small town of Waitomo Caves welcomes 500,000 visitors annually. In reality, it is not only the caves that people come to contemplate from all over the world, but a very original natural phenomenon. Waitomo has become one of the main attractions of the North Island.
I will present the two most famous caves to explore. They contain a great deal of wonders, and some surprises are to be expected. If you follow my advice, you will leave with one of the best memories of your trip to New Zealand.
A Cathedral Carved into the Rock.
We'll start our visit with the famous Glowworm Cave? With a name like that, you can easily guess what awaits you in the bowels of the Earth.
This was not the case of the Māori chief Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace, an English surveyor. The cave discovered in 1887 by these two explorers offers a unique sho
In 2005, a fire ravaged the center used to welcome the tourists. The new building dedicated to the caves is one of the best architecture I have ever seen in New Zealand.
Resolutely modern and built mainly of wood, it houses a museum, a shop, but also a restaurant and even a theatre.
To begin our journey into the bowels of the Earth, we must descend into the Tomo.
This is a vast well of 16 meters high formed by erosion over millions of years.
The vegetation filters the light and casts beautiful shadows on the walls carved in the rock. The morning mist adds a touch of mystery to this landscape straight out of “Jurassic Park”. The air is already fresh, remember to bring a warm sweater and closed shoes to avoid getting cold.
Here we are at the first level below the surface. During centuries, the Maoris gave nicknames to the various cave rooms. The “banquet room” that you will reach served as a dining room to the first explorers. Traces of smoke are still visible on the vault.
Foam and mushrooms are still growing at this depth. The geological curiosities are already spectacular..
Erosion creates magnificent wall decorations, and there are hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites.
The descent continues towards the next level to reach the cathedral: a high cave of 18 meters with a ceiling studded with stalactites. The acoustics of the cave is remarkable. The New Zealander soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and the Vienna Choir gave a concert here.
The guide that accompanies our group will interpret the “Pokarekare Ana”. This beautiful love song was composed by a Maori soldier in the trenches of the First World War. The reverberation is extraordinary and you should try to sing a song.
But the best part of the visit is yet to come. A river flows at several tens of meters below the surface. The sound of water drops falling from the ceiling resonates in the gallery. A strange light appears in the distance.
Millions of Stars to Contemplate.
A small boat is floating on the dark water of the underground river. When everyone has boarded, the guide requests complete silence. Don't worry, your view will gradually get accustomed to the darkness of the cave.
While slipping slowly on the water, we distinguish the appearance of small spots of light. The phenomenon increases and the vault suddenly turns into a milky way. The glowworms are at the origin of this soft light around us.
Impossible to estimate their number with certainty. There must be hundreds of thousands, probably even more. Have no fear! These small stars are not larger than a pinhead. They will not fall down on our heads.
At the end of this article, Ben the Kiwi will explain the true nature of this magical show. These tiny creatures fear the noise and especially the light. These are the reasons of our silence and the prohibition to use cameras with flashes.
Once frightened, a glowworm ceases to produce light and it would take several hours until he changes his mind. Controls are performed every day to determine the maximum number of visitors allowed in the cave. If you are discreet enough, you'll get this sensation to be floating in the middle of the Milky Way.
Ten minutes later, you will see the light of the sun again. The river leads outside the cave.
Our underground journey ends and leaves the feeling of waking up in the middle of a dream.
In total, we spent 45 minutes underground, including 10 minutes under the starry sky. You will have the opportunity to observe the glowworms elsewhere in New Zealand, like at Te Anau, Abel Tasman or near lake Matheson but none of these locations can compete with the Waitiomo caves.
The show met our expectation, but there is an even better cave to visit in Waitomo.
Ruakuri Cave Exploration.
Ruakuri Cave is one of the most beautiful caves of the entire Waitomo region. The visit under the surface lasts about two hours and covers 1.6 kilometers..
Being chased by wild dogs, a young Maori hunter found refuge in this place.
History has not retained the name of the man, but it is said that the beasts were found, killed and eaten in retaliation. When you buy your tickets, you will notice that two red dogs are printed on the tickets.
In Maori language, “rua” is the word for a den and “kuri” means dog.
To reach the start of the guided tour, you will travel about two kilometers from Glowworm Cave by car. The trip can be done on foot, but I recommend you to keep this nice walk for the return. Prefer the free shuttle to reach the entrance of Ruakuri Cave.
The presence of a former Maori cemetery might be at the origin of the rumours claiming that the cave would be haunted.
The visit begins with a descent of twelve meters underground. A wide spiral ramp was built to facilitate access to the many visitors (even wheel chairs can use it).
Beautifully illuminated, this entrance helps to put yourself immediately into the atmosphere of the visit. You have the impression to evolve in a James Bond movie set.
Throughout the visit, our guide explains the formation of the cave. The path winds between pink, white or beige stalactites and stalagmites. They were formed over thousands of years. Imagine that to get one cubic centimeter of stalactites it usually takes more than a century!
Underground galleries join vast caves entirely sculpted by erosion. This an amazing place, but despite the temptation, resist the urge to touch these strange sculptures. Some stalagmites are very fragile and can break. You won't be sent in jail, but you will be fined $10.000.
The first British explorers were using candles to illuminate the path! ! It happened that some flames were blown out accidentally...
To give you an idea of the terror they must have felt, the guide switches off the lights for a moment.
Plunged into darkness, all your senses are awakened and your attention is greatly increased.
You perceive the roar of a distant river whose tumult resonates against the rock. This is a strange experience, but the light comes back soon.
If you remember well the beginning of the article, you are probably expecting to observe glowworms.
Inside Glowworm Cave, only the end of the visit allowed you to observe these bioluminescent creatures.
In Ruakuri Cave, the glowworms are more present.
Our guide controls the lighting level to facilitate the observation, and he recommends remaining silent.
Photos are authorized in some parts of the caves. But taking pictures with such a low light requires a bit of training or you'll get blurred results. That would be a pity because the opportunities abound. You will also discover many seashells fixed in the rock. Bear in mind that these fossils dating back several million years!
At the corner of a gallery, we find the skeleton of a Moa! This giant flightless ostrich from New Zealand measured three meters high.
The species has become extinct about 400 years ago, victims of the intensive hunting of the Maori warriors.
The poor animal must have lost its way after entering the cave, wandering endlessly in the darkness, attracted by the light of glowworms until death.
At the end of the journey, the cave river reaches the forest. After more than two hours spent underground, we are reassured to return to the surface. The Maori custom implies you wash your hands after visiting a holy ground (to get rid of Tapu). It's time to go back through the bush.
All the paths of Ruakuri Walk lead to the car park, and it's virtually impossible to get lost. On your way, you might discover small caves.And if you are staying in the area, you should come back in the evening with a flashlight because there are glowworms to be observed in the bushes.
The Ruakuri Cave is a real maze and there are several routes you may follow. Some corridors overlook the underground river Huhunui. If your thirst for adventure is intact, there is a much more adventurous way to explore the Waitomo caves!
Join the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company!
You thought rafting was an activity that is always practiced under a beautiful blue sky? Let me introduce you to the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.
Your mission? Participating to an incredible journey, hundred meters beneath the surface of the earth. Only Kiwis could have such a crazy idea!
I must warn you guys! So far we have explored the caves keeping our feet dry. But if you sign up to be part of the Black Water's crew, you must be prepared to raise your level!
One of the greatest experiences of your trip, and perhaps of your entire life, is waiting for you!
Presentation of the tour with a Black Water guide.
Three different tours can be booked. Labyrinth, the easiest one lasts 3 hours. Odyssey, the intermediate, last 4 hours (it is the only tour where you can keep your feet dry), and finally Black Abyss is the most intense experience and last 5 hours. In all cases, you can deduct one hour of preparations and training.
The Black Water's excursions imply physical activities, but this is truly an outstanding experience.
Let's focus on the Black Abyss tour. If you want to avoid spoilers, I recommend bypassing this part of the article. But if you are still here, we can move on! Our team is a group composed of a maximum of eight people.
The Waitomo information center broadcasts a documentary called “The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co”. It was this film that motivated me to enroll in the first time. Beginners are welcome, but it is necessary to be at least 16 years old and be in healthy and reasonably fit.
Not knowing what to expect, I admit I was a bit nervous. But after all, there was no reason to worry ... I confirm that it is not even necessary to know how to swim. Even if you're a bit claustrophobic, you should be able to participate without trouble.
Even if you are subject to some vertigo, or if you are afraid of the dark and dislike feeling cold at the same time, this is a must-do experience.
Of course, if you suffer of all these problems at the same time, there is no need to be ashamed, you can pass your turn!
It all starts with the preparations at the headquarters of the company. You must only bring a swimsuit and a towel.
The operator will provide a thick suit, boots and a helmet with a headlamp.
Putting a combination over a swimsuit is not a piece of cake. So, do not wait until it isdone to remember that you want to go to the bathroom... And if you are wearing glasses, you must use a cord or chain or you might lose them.
At this point, I asked myself if I was not going to give up. But fortunately, the tour does not begin immediately. An express training is given to all participants. Two guides will accompany us throughout the adventure. We just need to follow their instructions and trust them.
Then comes the distribution of air chambers. You had not expected that! You simply select a model or you cannot pass through. First bursts of laughter of the day occur when the guides pass inspection.
The final step is to learn the basics of abseiling. I guess this is the moment when you might start to be afraid...
Yet with two guides that control the operation, and an additional safety rope, you will soon realize that one takes more risks when crossing the street every day.
This time, we are ready. Everyone boards the bus. Direction Ruakuri Cave and the beginning of the adventure to the center of the earth!
Journey to the Center of the Earth.
We are immediately in the heart of the subject with a descent into a huge pit, at a depth of 35 meters (like an 8-floor building!). The first few minutes are impressive, but the apprehension passes very quickly.
The place is amazing, with gorgeous rays of lights from the surface, and a striking relief.
When you will finally set foot at the bottom of the cave, you might believe that you have done the best part of the tour. But the adventure is just beginning...
The galleries which sink below the surface are filled with stalactites (at the ceiling) and stalagmites (at the ground).
The main difference with the other caves visits in Waitomo is the lighting. Some parts of the track require the use of our head lamps. But often it is the glowworms that diffuse a soft blue-green light.
Predictably, some of the galleries are quite narrow. However, they remain wide enough for a human body. Forget your fears getting stuck, there is absolutely no risk of that happening. We will soon reach a cliff with a waterfall. This is the perfect opportunity to put into practice what we learned during training.
The first jump in the river requires a minimum of courage. The first to jump will be our guide, then a teenager follows his example, and even a senior teammate jump easily. Finally, that's not a big deal, and you will jump like the others. This is basically like jumping into a swimming pool with friends.
This water seems so cold! Fortunately, the combinations are perfectly waterproof. But as we move constantly, we will warm up soon enough. In fact, the temperature of the underground river is between 10 and 14°C, which is not so cold after all. One must be careful not to slip on the wet rock and keep balance. But you'll soon get used to it.
Multiplying jumping and descents in the water all the time gives self-confidence. And we are almost surprised to do things that we would never imagine being able! You will probably regret that there are just few sections to cross with a zipline!
A zipline allows to cross a chasm.
This is a real adventure but easy to follow. When fatigue begins to be felt, you can sit on your air-chamber. You drift quietly on the river, contemplating the vault with its thousands of glowworms.
One of the last steps before the end is to climb a wall to return to the surface (with the help of a secured rope). Don't be afraid, you'll be perfectly supervised by the guides. Then you'll be carried away by the current of a river up to the exit of the cave.
Back at the camp you will certainly need help to remove your waterproof combination. After spending so much energy in the caves, you'll feel happy but exhausted. You can enjoy a hot shower, before having a good soup, bagels and some cakes.
The pride that one feels is worth a few hours of effort.
Imagine the pleasure of telling your great achievement to your friends. This is probably the best activity of your New Zealand trip. You have overcome most of your fears to be reborn into the skin of an adventurer.
You Can Be Hero, Just for One Day!
The excursions of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company are pure products of New Zealand. The country is well known for its “do it by yourself” but this experience is very well supervised and very rewarding.
Many companies use these activities to develop team spirit of their employees.
Even if you come alone, your new teammates will become your friends (I still receive postcards, long after the visit).
The guides have perfectly assigned roles. One of them explain what you are supposed to do, while the other is here to help you do it.
A subtle balance between humour, pedagogy and professionalism.
While giving explanations about the cave and the history of the region, guides ensure that everyone feels confident. The whole team descends from the tribe that was living at Waitomo before the arrival of Westerners. These guides are not only professional cavers, but also experienced rescuers with a strict daily training.
On Kiwipal, we never urge people to practice extreme sports if they don't want to!
If reading this article gave you the envy to book a tour with Blackwater, it's probably because you feel in your guts that you can do it, otherwise you wouldn't have even considered it for a second!
Do not hesitate to seek advice at the welcome center. I myself had the opportunity to discuss with Zane, one of the best guides of the Blackwater company, who organizes the visits since a long time.
I asked him some direct questions to which he answered forthrightly.
It is extremely rare that a visitor expresses the desire to interrupt the adventure at the mid-term.
Abseiling for example, as impressive as it may seem has an incredibly positive effect on your morale.
You will be proud to have passed the test, and you realize that you have unsuspected capabilities..
It is not necessary to know how to swim to join the adventure. You'll never go underwater, and your combination is equipped with floats.
If the tour is open to beginners since 1987 and that there have never been any incidents, this is not by chance.
Ultimately, the challenge will be to leave the team at the end. Wonderful memories and beautiful meetings are to be expected. This is in my opinion, one of the best experiences you can live in New Zealand.
There Are Still Many Caves to Explore!
Such a great time! You cannot imagine how difficult it was to write this article. I had to content myself to mention the most popular excursions.
If you have only one hour to visit Waitomo, Glowworm Cave will do, but expect to share the visit with many people. The overall organization is perhaps too much framed.
Starting early or late in the day will restore a little of the magic. The spectacle offered by the glowworms is stunning and you're unlikely to be disappointed.
If you must visit only one cave during your stay, it should be Ruakuri Cave. Attendance is already more acceptable and you'll see glowworms, even if they are less numerous than in Waitomo Glowworms Cave. Remember to always book through the internet before your trip to get a 10% discount on the tickets.
You should definitely book a tour with the “Legendary Black Water Rafting co”. Their visit combines all the advantages with cave explorations and glowworms, but most of all it is a fantastic activity that cannot be compared to anything else.
The classical exploration modes may seem bland when you are used practicing abseiling in glowworm caves.
There are also combos with guided tours in several caves: Glowworm Cave, Aranui Cave and Cave Ruakuri. Ruakuri being the one that contains the most beautiful stalactites in the region.
Visiting three caves occupies an entire day and one may feel bored before the end. The main reason is that you'll get very similar explanations during each visit.
All these activities have the great advantage not to be weather dependent as they happen underground. Furthermore, the bad weather increases the flow of cave rivers and even enhances the whole experience.
Only execrable weather conditions could lead to the cancellation of a visit.
For once, I will not ask you to send me your photos. Anyway, most of the time, it is forbidden to take pictures anyway. Only professionals are able to achieve beautiful pictures in the dark. This involves professional hardware and a long exposure often incompatible with group visits.
Waitomo is near a famous film location, the village of Hobbiton!
Ben the Kiwi is the king of the explorers. Do not make fun of him, he knows these caves by heart and you would be happy to be with him if you lose your path in the galleries. You can also ask him questions about the rates and the schedules of the visits. But Ben will also tell you the secret of the glowworms' fluorescent light. He also knows ghost stories, but I won't spoil you ...
Waitomo is located an hour's drive of Hobbiton, the famous film location of the “Hobbit” in New Zealand. Tolkien's Hobbits are living in hillside holes, a great way to perpetuate the spirit of Waitomo. We should meet there, and I will guide you in the village. Until then, I wish you a great journey!
Questions & Answers.
What can I do for you? Many of you are asking me if glowworms can fall on the head. I reassure you right away, the answer is no
- All topics ... 30 answers in total
- Practical Information 11 answers
- Aranui and Ruakuri Caves 9 answers
- Transports 4 answers
- Black Water Rafting Company 3 answers
- Weather 2 answers
- Glowworms 1 answer
- Is the place crowded?
Glowworm Cave is very (too much?) frequented during the peak season. Sometimes groups of visitors are waiting their turn before ending the visit by boat. You know the solution ... arrive before everyone else, or manage to be present for the last visit of the day. But let's not exaggerate all the same, the experience remains bearable. The other caves are less crowded, but you should book before coming to New Zealand.
- How to dress to visit the caves?
Warm clothing and good waterproof footwear are not an option.
- Are there restaurants on site?
The visitors' building at Glowworm Cave has a large restaurant. The city has several good addresses that can suit you if you want to flee the crowd.
- How to get to the Waitomo iSite?
Go to the following address: 21 Waitomo Caves Road
- What are the opening hours of the Waitomo iSite?
From 8 am to 8 pm from January to February. From 8:45 am to 5:00 pm the rest of the year.
- Can we use Wi-Fi at the iSite?
Yes, the i-Site has Internet access.
- Is it possible to withdraw money on site?
There is an ATM in the Waitomo Information Center.
- What are the main guides of the region?
- Where can we book activities in Waitomo?
Visit the following website for rates and schedules (you can also book online).Online booking for the caves guided tours
- Should you book your places on the Internet?
This allows you to benefit from a 10% discount if you book at least 48 hours in advance.
- Are there ghosts at the Waitomo Cave Hotel?
It all depends on whether you believe in the ghosts ... This magnificent hotel built in the Victorian-style dates back to 1908. It was built to accommodate the first tourists in the region. The legends speak of bloody bathrooms and unexplained laughter. The ghost of a Maori princess would have been seen several times. TV Reports on the paranormal were shot on the spot. Apart from these "minor details", this is probably the best hotel in the area.
Aranui and Ruakuri Caves
- Can we take pictures in the caves?
In Glowworm Cave, cameras are prohibited. They are partially licensed in Ruakuri Cave and admitted into Aranui Cave.
- Do I have to buy the photos at the end of the visits?
On the site of Glowworm Cave I do not recommend it, because the result is not very satisfactory for the price announced. For Black Water excursions, I recommend buying the photos on USB stick at $30 (nothing prohibits you to group with other participants).
- Why was a ramp installed in Ruakuri Cave?
For 87 years, visitors have trampled on a sacred Maori land. When the cave was returned to the descendants of the tribe, the entrance was finally moved.
- Are the caves accessible to people with a handicap?
The cave of Ruakuri has been completely equipped to allow a complete visit in a wheelchair. Even the spiral access ramp was specially designed for the occasion. It is the only cave in the southern hemisphere to have benefited from such a development.
- Where is Aranui Cave?
This dry cave is 3 km from the Waitomo Information Center. There are no glowing worms but the multicolored stalactites are of great beauty (with a record of 6 meters and 2.5 tons for some!). It takes about an hour's walk to get there but shuttles are available and you can come by car. Inquire at the Waitomo Information Center.
- What does the name Aranui Cave mean?
The cave was discovered by Ruruku Aranui in 1910 and has been named after him since 1911. His first name was Ngutuhihi (The Beak of the Bird).
- Why is forbidden to touch the stalactites?
Because they are fragile and have been deteriorated in the past because of visitors. In the past, we even found tags on the walls of Aranui Cave. The fine is set at $10000!
- Can we reach the Ruakuri caves from Aranui?
You can borrow the "Waitomo Walkway" which crosses agricultural fields along the Waitomo Stream, up to the cave of Aranui.
- What is a Weta?
The heaviest insect in the world is a cousin of the cricket. Perfectly harmless, it is active only at night to gnaw the vegetation except during the full moon. The rest of the time, it is found in some caves of the region, like Aranui Cave. It is a species that has nearly 190 million years!
- Is there a gas station on site?
You will not be able to refuel here. The nearest gas stations are in Te Kuiti (open 24/24) and Otorohanga.
- Can we come by bus from Rotorua?
Waitomo Wanderer offers a daily shuttle between Waitomo from Rotorua.
Tel. 0508 926 337
See the schedules and prices on this page:Waitomo Wanderer Pass Pricing
- Can we come by bus?
Naked Bus offers 5 weekly connections to and from Otorohanga (20 min, $12), Hamilton (1h, $29) and New Plymouth (3 hours, $39). For schedules, consult the official website: Tel. 090-062-533Naked Bus
- Is there a shuttle between Waitomo and Otorohanga?
The Waitomo Shuttle runs 5 times a day, and its departures coincide with the train schedules. A one way ticket costs about $10 per adult and $5 per child. Visit the official website for timetables: Tel. 07-873-8279
Black Water Rafting Company
- How many participants per group for the Black Water activities?
Groups are limited to a maximum of 8 people, not to mention the two guides. Except for the Labyrinth Tour which can accept up to 12 participants.
- What clothes to wear for Black Water activities?
If you decide to participate to Black Abyss or Labyrinth, you will need to bring a swimsuit and a towel. Odyssey is an excursion where people do not get wet, but one must come with light clothes to wear under the exploring outfit (t-shirt, underpants, socks) as well as a towel. The boots are supplied as well as all caving equipment.
- Do we need to know how to swim to register for Black Water?
Knowing how to swim can provide some extra comfort, but is not essential.
- Where to check the Waitomo weather forecast?
Please check this web page:Waitomo weather
- Should we come if bad weather is announced?
Unless the weather is appalling, there is no reason to fear the rain. The level of underground rivers may rise, and guides will decide whether to suspend visits. Such a phenomenon is quite rare, but I must point it out.
- How to explain the phenomenon of glow worms?
The glow worms produce a light to attract insects. They capture their prey with filaments that they hang from the ceilings of the caves. The more a worm is hungry, the stronger it shines. It happens that certain worms devour each other...
On the Country Map
The Waitomo caves are located in the Waikato region of ??the North Island.
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