About two and a half hours drive south of Auckland is the tiny town of Waitomo and its notorious cave system. We were travelling North to South on holiday and it was both a natural stop off point and a place of interest so we booked our campervan in at the Top Ten Holiday Park and went exploring.
There are various companys offering a variety of tours of the cave complex from the serene and relaxing to the "extreme" opposite. We plumped for somewhere in the middle and opted to take our custom to the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (www.blackwaterrafting.co.nz) for our experience. For around 100 NZ dollars per person this entitled us to don a wetsuit and hardhat (all provided), grab an inner tube and take a guided tour of the caves. Our first experience was diving off a ledge backwards with our inner tube to get used to the feeling of jumping off the small waterfalls that lay ahead of us underground! After this, we headed to the caves and climbed down to begin our experience.
The caves themselves were not quite as claustrophobic as I thought they would be with many being fairl open and cavernous. Don't get me wrong, some of the caves bottleneck in to a bit of a squeeze, but as a whole, I found the experience great fun. That being said, its not for everyone, and a number of our party of about 15, didn't enjoy it one bit. It can be a little unsettling throwing yourself off a 10 foot waterfall in the dark underground and if you have a fear of the dark, I really wouldn't recommend this! On the other hand, the part of the tour where all lights go off and you bob in silence through the glowworm lit caves will remain with me as one of the highlights of my entire NZ holiday.
Other packages on offer in Waitomo include an option to abseil in to the cave first or just have a general walk on lit runways through the caves. Other than the caving experience, the area has little else to offer and I wouldn't recommend staying more than one night. To eat, you MUST go to Huhu, right next to the top ten campsite, which provides excellent contemporary food. There are only a couple of bars in town, so don't expect a huge choice of nightlife!
WHERE ARE THE WAITOMO CAVES?
We drove from Auckland to Rotorua and on the way we stopped at the Waitomo caves near Otorohanga on the North Island of New Zealand. The caves are about two hours south of Auckland and two hours west of Rotorua so it made a good break in our journey. I really knew nothing about these caves prior to our arrival and was expecting the typical limestone rock formations and variations on stalagmites and stalactites. When we arrived the first impression was not that welcoming as there was some sort of road work taking place and we had to enter through a wooden tunnel which was not that welcoming.
The caves were first explored in the late 1800s and were even open to tourists as early as 1889 so we are certainly not the first visitors. They are open all year round from 9.30 until around 5.30 pm daily. Prices range from $30 to about $90 depending on what you want to do and see so it is probably best to look on the website if you are interested in visiting.
A BIT OF GEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND:
In the Waitomo area there are about three hundred know caves below the grass covered sheep filled hills. This limestone area was formed 30 million years ago when North Island was under the sea. Limestone is a rock which is formed by millions of dead marine animals built up over many millions of years. This part of the world has also been involved in vast geological movement, earth quakes and volcanoes. Cracks in the rocks created by these great earth movements are weaknesses where flowing water begins to carve the rock away - caves and caverns are eventually formed after many years of weathering and wearing away by water.
Stalactites and stalagmites grow from water dripping down from the cave roofs and building up deposits of limestone crystal which sets hard over years. Stalactites come down from the roofs which stalagmites build upwards from the floor of the caves. Eventually they join together and form pillars or columns and sometimes they spiral round and then they are called helicti. These cave formations grow extremely slowly at the speed of one cubic cm per hundred years.
On entering the Waitomo Caves we walked all through the caves which were quite pleasant and the usual rock formations which are very beautiful with the atmosphere of cool dampness with earthy smells.
From my point of view the exciting part came when we got to see the glow worms. We saw a few on the cave roof as we were walking through but then we got into a boat and we were pulled silently through the cave looking at thousands of these little glowing creatures. The whole roof was covered in wonderful bright patches which reflected in the water too. The boat was pulled along buy high ropes which we could just see but it made it completely silent and enabled you to enjoy the spectacle in relative quiet. It was like floating in space as it was dark, pretty well silent and the glowing worms were like stars in the night. It was an almost magical experience, like nothing I have ever seen before in nature.
WHAT ARE THESE LITTLE CREATURES?
These glow worms are the larvae stage in the lifecycle of a two-winged insect. The 'worms' look a bit like a maggot but can grow as long as a match. The New Zealand glow worm is known as arachnocampa luminosa. Translated this breaks down as:
'Arachno' - like a spider because of the way these glow worms catch insects.
'Campa' is larva
'luminosa' - light- producing.
These little creatures glow to attract their food and also to burn off their waste. The glow is created in the tail and is caused by a chemical reaction between something the glow worms exude mixing with oxygen. This is called bioluminescence which the glow worm can control this light by reducing or increasing oxygen to its light organ. It is an amazing thing that such a tiny creature can produce this bright light in order to attract food to it but the light also puts other creatures off eating the glow worm as well.
They have to live in dark damp places where their light can be seen. They create sticky lines a bit like a spider's web on to which unsuspecting food gets trapped. You could clearly see these lines when the guide/boat driver shone the torch up - they looked like silken threads, or cobwebs on a frosty day, silver sparkly lines spreading amongst the little glowing worms. TheIcaves are a perfect habitat as there is not only damp and dark but there is little air movement to dry out the sticky feeding lines.
The glow worms take about nine months to grow to full size and after this they become a pupa then an insect with two wings. The insect stage lasts only a few days during which time they just mate and lay eggs and the cycle goes round again. The glow worm stage is the longest of their lifecycle and I am not sure what their purpose is in the grand scheme of things in the world but they are very beautiful in this larva stage and well worth visiting these caves in New Zealand to experience this amazing sight.
I think this was an even more magical experience as I had gone with no prior expectations. I knew there were caves and had heard something about glow worms but had not expected anything like this wonderful almost spiritual feeling that I had as we were silently floating around in the caves looking at these special little creatures. We were told that we must be very quiet so as not to upset the creatures and of course you were also not allowed to take photos so there were no flashes to spoil the atmosphere either. It really was a unique visit that I thoroughly recommend if you ever find yourself in North island of New Zealand.
Wear comfortable shoes like trainers as it is slippery, wet and rocky uneven surfaces as well as stairs to be negotiated in partial light.
Wear something warm as it is very chilly and damp in the caves.
Buy postcards as you are NOT allowed to take any photos of the glow worms.
We did buy some postcards so I will find some photos to put on here.
This review may be posted on other sites under my name:
Waitomo caves is a small village a couple of hours drive south of Auckland in the Waitomo region of New Zealand that is home to a system of caves that are world famous for their glow worms.
There are many tours of the caves, with some more adventurous and energetic than others, ranging from sedate boat tours to the blackwater rafting trip we went on: I went on the Rap, Raft and Rock tour, and it was distinctly towards the more energetic end of the spectrum.
We were collected from our hostel and driven over many bumpy roads to a shack in the middle of nowhere that housed all of the gear. We put on wetsuits and helmets, some highly fashionable wet suit protectors (baggy shirts and shorts) and wellington boots with holes drilled in the bottom to let the water out.
A quick explanation of how to abseil followed, then the terrifying descent into the abyss. One at a time, we stepped nervously off backwards over a 27m gorge and were lowered down into the cave system below. Although the entrance was very small, the entrance cave was immense, eerily lit and with vegetation obscuring most of the entrance.
We were issued with rubber rings and took a trek upstream into the darkness with our way lit by our head torches. We quickly got extremely soggy and realised the merits of the holes in the wellies as our boots were soon completely filled. Some way later, we were instructed to switch our lights off and wait in the darkness for our eyes to adjust. As they did, a myriad of pin point green-white lights shimmered above us like stars - the glow worms. Gentle breezes shifted them, so they appeared to twinkle and move.
Our guide explained to us that glow worms are the larval stage of a species of gnat. They stick to the roof of the cave and lower sticky threads to catch their prey and which they lure to them with their light. Eventually, they mature and the adult flies away - usually to be caught by the threads of a neighbour!
After this spectacular view came the really fun part. We sat in the rings and floated back downstream and into the rougher waters beyond the entrance to the cave. We climbed down waterfalls, bashed our heads repeatedly on rocks, squeezed through tight holes and sat and had hot tea. More glow worms, lots of caving exploration and more rafting followed.
Wearily, we hauled our way back upstream, then one at a time rock-climbed out of the gorge. This is easier said than done when you are wearing poorly-fitting wellington boots. This marked the end of our journey. All in all, our adventures lasted several hours and we were extremely happy to have a hot shower at the end of it.
This is a fantastic experience and if you have the chance and you are fit and adventurous enough, you should definitely try it. If it is a little bit too much, try a more sedate tour because the glow worms are worth it.
With the exchange rate at the time, this cost us about 40-50 pounds, which was well worth it.
Waitomo is a very small place surrounded by lots and lots of trees. The caves are amazing and a day trip here is a MUST!
The caves are natural lime stone caves and were firsted explored in 1887 and were opened to tourists by 1889! so they have been well visited and popular over the many years! They are open from 9 am to approx 5.30pm depending on how busy it is and open 365 days of the year.
I spent the day here as part of my backpacking adventure. I went off a full day tour of the caves, which lasted around 7 hours. This was quite a physical day but less physical tours are available to suit all! There are a variety of other trip options from a gentle boat trip down into the caves and half day tours. some tours are not suitable for children, and it is some times a tight squeeze!
The day tour consisted of first practicing abseiling down a grassy hill in preparation for the abseil down to the caves. We abseiled down a hole 35meters into the centre of the cave. This was well supported by the tour guides who simply lowered a couple of the group who were nervous.
We walked around the higher levels of the caves with amazing natural beauty! Then taking the flying fox down to the deepest part of the cave where the river ran through. At this point we stopped and had a hot drink and snack.
We turned off our lights and it was pitch black, absolutely scary! Couldn't even see your hand in front of you! BUT you could see thousands of beautiful glowing glow-worms hanging from the top of the cave; it was an amazing sight, almost like looking up at the stars! This was one of the most spectacular sights I saw whilst backpacking!!
And it didn't stop there! Next we jumped down into the shallow river flowing through the caves and went on donut rings through the caves, very relaxing, laying back and watching the natural cave formations and glow worms.
We continued through the cave, ducking under low walls and climbing up through waterfalls. It was an amazing journey! When we finally reached day light again, we were kindly greeted by a warm shower and hot soup by the tour providers. While this was happening they put all our photographs onto a disk to keep a memory of the special day!
The staff were really helpful and so friendly! going into a dark cave is a bit scary and they were very supportive and didn't rush any of the group, meaning we ALL had a fantastic adventure.
This was one of the very best days in my gap year and i would love to visit the caves again!
The hardest part of my gap year was deciding where to go and how long we'd allow in each place. We definitely made a massive error by only giving ourselves just less than two weeks in New Zealand. We chose not to go to South island, which ultimately was another error we made, however it was because of the Waitomo caves that we decided to stay in North Island and boy oh boy did they deliver!!!
We'd been on the bus all day, stopping at various beautiful places to go on walks through the forests past stunning landscapes. On the bus we had been told about the Waitomo caves and had been given information about them. I had read about them before we had even left England and decided I had to go! There were 3 options, the Black Abyss, which was climbing and abseiling and squeezing through tiny holes, which I have to say did excite me, but they did say if you haven't done any of this before that it would be rather hard. There was a tour where you could just walk around if you didn't fancy any of the others, and there was the Black Labyrinth. This is the one I chose and it was probably one of the best things I've ever done in my life.
We had to sign in dump our bags in our rooms grab our swim stuff and go quick sharp. We driven to the reception of the Black Water Rafting company, where we paid and signed a form, so that they weren't responsible in the case of our deaths, which was rather terrifying, but I was super excited! We were then given our outfits, these partly made the experience. They were hilarious; you had to wear a thick wetsuit, with these silly shorts over then and these comical wellie shoes and a big plastic hard hat. After fits of giggles and many photos we chose our big black tube and set off.
We were taken to a place by the river where we were told what to do and what not to do and how to sit and hold on. We had a practise at jumping backwards with your tube underneath you off of a platform into the water, as we would have to jump backwards off of small waterfalls in the dark! Then we drove to the beginning of the caves. We had to all get in through this tiny gap and then once in everyone turned their head torches on, the sight was incredible! From then on the three hours exploring the caves flew by. Apart form the waterfall jumping one of the best parts of the experience was sitting in our tubes with our torches off looking up at the millions of glow worms on cave ceilings. It was stunning.
The whole experience was incredible, if you are going to New Zealand do not miss Waitomo out, it is awesome!!
There is absolutely nothing to do in Waitomo apart from visiting the Waitomo Caves but I would definitely suggest that anyone stops there for a day. There are a range of different activities you can do in the caves including black water rafting, abseiling down into a cave, tubing (flowing down the river in a rubber ring tube) or simply taking a tour around a choice of different caves.
The Glow Worm Caves are a must - your tour guide takes you through the caves both walking and a short boat ride and in the pitch black the sight and brightness of the glow worms are amazing. There are literally thousands of them.
The Ruakuri Caves are also quite an experience where you are taken deep into the ground through an earthquake line and see many cave formations, an underground river and stalactites and stalagmites.
There's also the Aranui Cave which has many different formations.
If you don't want to get cold and wet in one of the more adventurous activities, or even if you want to do that too, then the walking tours around the caves are a great experience. You can get some good deals if you book 2 or 3 cave trips together.
Fantastic cave system, and one of the nicest places to see New Zealand's real treasure the gloworm! These little guys thrive in these caves and given a little peace and quiet will quite happily shine away. To get to the caves you have to take a boat along a sound which takes about 30 minutes, and then you have a small tour through a visitor centre before being taken through the caves. Pleae note, if you have very small children with you they cannot go through the cave because of noise.
Upon your return to the visitor centre you are given a cup of tea, and then back to the boat for your return journey.
The caves themselves are awesome, however this is really a great half day trip if you have bad weather, and have some time to kill, as it will keep you beautifully dry.
You are fine to book this when you arrive - no need to prebook.