Waitomo Caves – Lighting up the caves after dark

There aren’t many reasons to visit the sleepy town of Waitomo however, the chance to experience the glow worm caves is all the reason you need.

Waitomo Glow worms

The name Waitomo is Maori for ‘water hole’ and glow worms aren’t actually worms but fungus gnats. Glow-worms need places where the air is damp and humid so caves are ideal but they can also be found in the forest near streams or ravines.

This largely unchartered network of around 1000 caves has been created by water running through soft limestone and is a haven for these bioluminescent creatures. The water slowly flows down from the land and into the caves creating stalactites as the lime in the water drips and solidifies. They begin as hollow straws which become blocked with impurities and so begins the beginning of a stalactite. There are very few stalagmites as the ground is mainly mud so its tough for them to take hold.

The main reason for climbing into middle earth and getting wet, cold and dirty is of course the thousands of glow worms which light up the underground caves. It is a truly unique experience and the highlight of a trip to New Zealand (one of them at least).

A bit of important background
Any farmers lucky enough to find a cave on their property own it and can charge caving companies to enter. I visited the caves with Waitomo Adventures who have been in business for over 30 years. They are a small family run New Zealand business and combine the relaxed kiwi banter with a polished experience. Emma was our guide who was about as Kiwi a girl as you’re likely to find but with some world class jokes and amazing people skills.

Glow worms may be some of the most peaceful creatures on the planet but they at the epicentre of a business war. Tourism Holdings Ltd. who own many of the caravan rentals, Kiwi Experience, Ruakuri Cave system, Aranui Cave and Black Water Rafting Company have the largest business set up in Waitomo. They have many different businesses throughout New Zealand and as many different ways to channel customers into the companies they own whether visitors realise it or not. It has been alleged that they tell customers that Waitomo Adventures have gone out of business when they haven’t…not exactly healthy competition.

I enjoyed the personal glow worm experience with Waitomo Adventures and the smaller group size (max 6). It’s nice to support a family owned business, they are after all one of the reasons that make New Zealand such a wonderful place to visit. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to my readers.

Waitomo Adventures

They have loads of different options ranging from the shorter trips to full day adventures. I chose the Tumutumu Toobing which combines the best elements of blackwater rafting with walking, climbing, swimming and tubing through distinctive sections of the spectacular TumuTumu Cave. There are some spectacular glow worm displays where you can just lie back and float through the watery caves as you take it all in.

This tour is a four hour round trip and in my opinion is perfect for those that want a decent experience without challenging themselves more than they feel comfortable with. I could have gone for a bit more adventure but this was at my partners upper comfort zone.

After suiting up we began our day by climbing downstairs to the base of the cave. From here we navigated on foot, climbing through holes on our stomaches, swimming through water-logged slot canyons and drifting on our backs looking up on inflatable rubber rings. There are sections where you can take the tougher route which involves climbing through tight spaces or taking the easier option of walking around. Even though the water is super cold, I found the wetsuit did the job although you’ll want to make sure that the suit is tight and make sure you bring socks to keep the gumboots (wellington boots) from rubbing. My favourite part of the day was when we were sitting on our rubber rings drifting through the cave tunnels. We were on our backs and following the snaking waterways looking up at a blanket of glow worms. It was a wonderful experience, even more than I though was possible.

Don’t get lost in the details
– Must be at least 12
– Minimum weight of 40 kg
– Bring: Swimwear, long thick socks; a towel & toiletries for a shower afterwards and a smile!

Where to stay
There aren’t many places to stay but if you’re looking to stay in more comfort and happy to pay approx: NZD180 for a double room with breakfast, then the Abseil Breakfast Inn is the place for you and right beside the caves. It can be a bit noisy but you get that in any shared house, the shower is amazing, there are DVD’s to use and books to read, and the breakfast sets you up perfectly for the day.

Where to eat
There really aren’t many choices so chances are you’ll end up at HuHu Restaurant. The steak was delicious and wine on the expensive side but you’re on holiday so treat yourself. I don’t really write a budget blog these days so it should come as no surprise if you want quality then you’re going to have to pay for it.

Because words can never paint the picture as well as pictures, I’ll leave you with the professional ones (as no cameras are allowed in the caves).

Photo credit: Ripleys.com

Photo credit: Daily mail

Photo credit: Christopher Jobson

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