Exploring New Zealand’s Waitomo Glow-Worm Caves

“We are all worms.  But I believe that I am a glow-worm.” — Winston Churchill

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The Waitomo Caves (at least two of them) are home to a special fungus gnat known as Arachnocampa luminosa or the New Zealand Glow-Worm, found only in New Zealand.  The luminescence takes place in the bugs’ larval or imago stage, in which the glow-worms spend the better part of their very short lives.  The Waitomo Caves offer a chance to visit and learn about this fascinating creature and also have an exciting adventure at the same time.  

I made it to Waitomo from Auckland around noon, which left some time for exploring at least two of the three cave systems in the area: the Glowworm Caves, the Ruakuri Caves (which also has glow-worms) and the Aranui Caves (no glow-worms).  I decided to book a trip with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., which conducts tubing and rappelling adventures in the Ruakuri Caves.  I decided on the three-hour tubing and exploring tour called the Black Labyrinth Tour.  They also offer some longer tours, but I figured three hours would be plenty of time.  Because I was also interested in seeing the Glowworm Cave, I was able to get my ticket to that cave for half price. The total combined cost was $150 NZD.

I visited the Glowworm Cave first.  Unfortunately, you’re not able to take photos inside the cave, but it contains a massive cathedral-like room.  The acoustics in the cave are suitable for recording music.  The Vienna Boys Choir, Sting and many others have recorded music there.  After passing through the cave and admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, the guides lead you onto a somewhat crowded boat which passes along an underground river into complete darkness and (hopefully) complete silence.  Eventually you could see the greenlish lights of the glow-worms on the ceiling of the cave which resemble constellations and galaxies of stars.  In fact, the luminescence is used by the worms to fool their prey (flies, midges, mosquitos and moths) into thinking that they are flying into the night sky.  The glowing comes from a chemical reaction taking place in the bugs’ execretory system– it’s glow worm poo!  In spite the somewhat nasty biological reasons for the glow-worm’s light show, floating quietly through a cave lit exclusively by these creatures is a sublime experience.  Photography is not permitted in the Glowworm Cave (until the cave’s exit), but it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the moment.

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After visiting the Glowworm Cave, I had to have a quick lunch and head down the road to the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company.  They outfitted me and a few other tourists with unsexy wetsuits, boots, headlamps and innertubes, took some goofy pictures, piled us into a van and drove us to a river flowing from the cave.

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The most cringe-worthy part of the trip was having to practice jumping into the cold river with our innertubes, which we did outdoors in the rain before entering the cave.

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Once in the cave, we floated down rivers, jumped over waterfalls and small rapids.  At times, it was a little scary with seemingly bottomless holes just steps away and not knowing where the river might take you if you didn’t get the guide’s instructions right, but our knowledgable guide helped us navigate through the tunnels and streams of the cave, offering fun commentary along the way.

The cave also offered an opportunity to float in darkness and admire the glow-worms on the ceiling of the cave.  Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the glow-worms, because they also don’t let you take cameras with you (although the guide on the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company trip takes pictures of the group and offers them for sale, though not any of the glow-worms).  Nevertheless, you wouldn’t want to worry about taking camera equipment on such a trip and a photograph simply can’t capture the experience.

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Visiting the Waitomo caves was one of my favorite experiences in New Zealand, a country with plenty to offer in the way of nature and adventure!

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