Glowworms in a cave in Waitomo, North Island, New Zealand. (Yes, this is a real photograph—long exposure, some toning in Lightroom to help bring up the tiny pricks of glowworm light.)
Adventures in the glowworm-encrusted underground water caves of Waitomo New Zealand
Waitomo means "water cave" in Maori, and this stretch of courtyside in the western central part of New Zealand's North Island, an hour south of Hamilton, is famous for its 100-meter pothole caves and raftable underground rivers illuminated by millions of glowworms.
If taking a trip to New Zealand is already a bit like time traveling to a piomordial version of Earth, touring Waitomo is like visiting an alien planet.
There are several ways to see the glowworms. The Lost World experience is the only "dry cave" experience (though it does involve a 333-foot abseil down a free-dangling rope to get in).
Black Water Rafting offers the most wet cave options, from simple floats in a boat to adventurous tubing journeys along ungerground rivers. There are also non-glowworm caves to explore amid the Swiss-cheese landscape of Waitomo.
Waitomo cave adventures
Black Water Rafting - I floated gently on the black water of an underground river. I let the slow, peaceful current carry me out of time and thought beneath infinite constellations of glowworms carpeting the tunnel walls. Hard to imagine that soon I would be clambering up underground waterfalls, squeezing through impossibly tight crevasses, and slithering along gushing streams between cave eels longer than my arm...
The Lost World - About halfway down the free-hanging 100-meter rope, I stopped worrying about plummeting to my death and paused to enjoy the view of Waitomo. Shafts of sunlight spilled over the vegetation dripping from cave opening above my head to pierce the mist that slowly swirled around me. The light strafed the cave walls obliquely before dissipating into the inky abyss below my dangling boots...
- How to get to Waitomo: Waitomo Caves is about an hour south of Hamilton on Route 37, just off Highway 3. Unless you have a car, getting to Waitomo can be awkward. There are, however, several variations of bus tours from Rotorua or Auckland—and a few that go one-way from Rotorua to Auckland (or vice-versa)—stopping at Waitomo and a few other sights along the way. These are pretty good deals, including lunch or tea and transport for only about $50–$75 more than the cost of the cave tour, and are listed below.
- Waitomo tourism information: There is an iSite tourist office in the tiny community called Waitomo Caves —really just a string of buildings along a bend in the road (Tel. +64-(0)7-878-7640 or toll free in NZ 0800-474-839, www.waitomocaves.com).
- Lodging in Waitomo: There are only a few places to stay around this tiny community. A few backpackers/hostels charge from NZ$30 for dorm beds or from NZ$70 for a double room; the handful of B&Bs start around NZ$130. My pick: a cabin (from NZ$95) at the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park bang in the center of town (www.waitomopark.co.nz). There is more choice among the motor lodges located within a 15-mintue drive back along Highway 5.
- Dining in Waitomo:I love the Huhu Cafe—which looks kitschy under its two-story teepee, but serves excellent refined Kiwi cuisine and has made the top 100 restaurants in New Zealand. 10 Waitomo Caves Road, Waitomo Caves, Tel. +64-(0)7-878-6674, www.huhucafe.co.nz.
- Black Water Rafting Waitomo Caves Tour (3-hrs and 5-hrs options available)
- From Rotorua: Waitomo Glowworm Caves Discovery Tour (6 hrs)
- From Auckland: Waitomo Glowworm Caves Discovery Tour (8 hrs)
- Auckland to Rotorua via Waitomo Glowworm Caves One-Way Tour (5 hrs)
- Rotorua to Auckland via Waitomo Glowworm Caves One-Way Tour (7.5 hrs)
- Waitomo Caves and Rotorua Day Trip from Auckland (18 hrs)