Waitomo’s Glow Worm Caves

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 27th, 2009

waitomo glow worm cavesWaitomo, New Zealand is famous for one thing. Every year, heaps upon heaps of travelers come here to see the infamous glow worms that line the ceilings of the nearby caves. The glow worms emit a phosphorescent glow that shines from the inside of the caves like a starry night.

The interesting thing about the glow worms is that they aren’t really glow worms. They’re fly larvae. And what glows? Well, that’s their waste and snot. The larva glow to attract prey into its threads by making the prey believe they are outdoors as the ceiling of a cave looks much like a starry night. Hungry larva glow brighter than ones that have just eaten.

There are a couple of ways to see the glow worms. There’s the three hour black water tubing trip, the five hour trip that includes abseiling and climbing, or, if you like it easy, a boat. Despite the darkness involved, my fear of heights is too great so I forwent the five hour cave trip to go with the more grounded 3 hours.

Waking up early in the morning, my group headed out to the cold waters of Ruakuri cave. We wetsuited up and practiced jumping into the inner tubes we would ride through the caves. I wasn’t happy that I had to jump off not one, but two small waterfalls. Worst yet this had to be done backwards so I could land in my tube. The waterfalls are only a meter or two high but I really hate heights. Yet, at that moment, realizing a wet suit doesn’t keep you dry, it simply keeps you wet was something I hated even more.

After our practice jump, we, a crowd of 12 wet suit wearing, boot wearing, helmet wearing backpackers, marched gingerly towards our destination. After a short walk in the woods, we entered the glow worm’s dominion and were given a quick tutorial about how the next few hours would go. Sadly, it feels like the tutorial lasted longer than the trip- away from the light, surrounded by darkness and the rushing chill of the water, the hours seemed to pass by in minutes. Just as I was adjusting to the experience, the end of the tunnel came and we were topside again.

black water rafting

But the experience in between was amazing. After our instructions, we began to descend into the cave. We walked through tight openings and tunnels and waded through quick moving and very cold water. Sometimes the water was ankle deep, other times chest height. Eventually, we came to reach the first milestone- waterfall #1. I met the waterfall with trepidation. My group, knowing my fear, encouraged me to go first but that wasn’t going to happen. I went third. My fear is that I’ll never jump far enough to clear the rocks. I didn’t jump far enough. As my tube landed in the water, my foot lightly touched the bottom rock.

From there, it’s an easy cruise through the cave where above you, you begin to see your first set of glow worms. They light up the cave like stars in the sky and seem to be limitless in numbers. It reminded me of my childhood when I used to put those glow in the dark cosmos stickers on my ceiling and stare at them as they lit up my room.

But the day’s biggest challenge laid ahead – waterfall #2. This waterfall was much higher than the first but, to me, it might as well have been Niagara Falls. I had to make them count twice before I was ready to jump. Closing my eyes, I jumped and this time I jumped far enough. But I hated every minute of it. I still prefer to have my feet on the ground.

Yet from here until the end it was smooth sailing…or tubing in this case. The rest of the way was all glow worms. Leaning back in my tube, I floated down the river, marveling at the beauty of the light show and the tranquility of my surroundings. But, the tunnel’s end came too quickly and I was left wanting to go back and stare upwards just a bit longer.

the glowworms of waitomo

I can see why the glow worm caves are one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist attractions. They’re beautiful. The caves are peaceful. Overall, it’s an amazing experience. Three hours seemed too short but five hours might have been a bit too long. I’d go back to see the glow worms again and, whether you abseil, tube, or simply cruise in a boat, the glow worms are not to be missed.

There are a lot of companies that can take you into the cave. You can go with Black Water Rafting (the company I went with), Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock, Spellbound, Caveworld, and a ton of others. There are a lot of operators here and they all offer similar style tours. The price for a three hour tour is around 100 NZD, the 5 hour tours between 150-210 NZD, and the boat tours around 70 NZD. It’s not a cheap activity but one you should make an effort to do.

For more information on seeing and experiencing these caves for yourself, visit my country guide to New Zealand travel.

comments 26 Comments

Wow looks amazing! Another neat idea to add to the New Zealand bucket list.

Geez, that photos is gorgeous. I’ll definitely have to make the trip when I arrive in New Zealand mid-February. Do they have seasons where the glow worms are particularly beautiful and numerous, or is it all year round?

NomadicMatt

It’s year round but the water is A LOT colder during the New Zealand winter.

I did this back in the spring with the same company and LOVED it. Though I was there in NZ’s fall, so it was only about 60 degrees out, the water temp a bit less, and I was FREEZING by the end of the five hours.

Thanks so much for this story and pics — you motivated and reminded me to put Glow Worms back on our itinerary as we travel the South Island. We’ll detour to see them either on the West Coast (by Charleston) or down at the southern end at Te Anau.
Matt or other readers — can you recommend any tour operator that offers a kid-friendly version of this type of tour? (My kids are ages 8 and 11.) Also, does anyone know how the West Coast caves compare to Te Anau down south?
thanks,
Sarah
away-together.com
“One family, one year, many places, no regrets”

Hi Sarah – I have done the glow worm caves in Charleston and Te Anau and I think Charleston is better. Charleston you have the option of tubing or walking in – I did the walk and there were kids around that age and they seemed to do fine. The Te Anau caves are still worth a look as the boat trip across Lake Te Anau is cool, I just found the Charleston caves a bit more natural where the Te Anau caves have had walkways put all through them which detracts a little from the experience. I can’t remember what the company was :( but we booked at the Information Centre in Westport.

Definitely something to look forward to when I finally decide to go to Australia / New Zealand (when my kids are older and can appreciate more…). Thanks for sharing! Will Stumble this and bookmark! Hope you had a great holiday season!!

-Jen

I did this with the same company a year ago in November 2008!! Such an amazing experience! Definitely a must do and like at every place if you pay a few extra bucks you can get some great pics of your adventure!

wow! amazing works of mother nature

Looks awesome mate. I can see how 3 hours can go by so fast, defiantly going on my to do list for NZ.

Great photo of the worms. I’d say that the mullet was actually a bonus above and beyond the free ticket, but after a few weeks in Russia one tends to have a soft spot for mullets. Definitely adding this to my bucket list (mullet included!). Jodi

NomadicMatt

Just ask for Monkey!

Thos glow-worms look worth overcoming your fears for – I wondered how you got those whotos while juggling with the tubes and the waterfalls – did you have a waterproof camera?

NomadicMatt

The guides have cameras. They take the photos for you.

That looks sweet, will add it to the itinery when I visit NZ next year

NomadicMatt

It’s a must.

We did the Waitomo Glow Worm caves too, and loved it but, instead of doing the blackwater rafting, we did the Sounds of Silence rafting tour. It was a less adventurous option but we felt like we got very close to the glowworms and experienced them more in depth than on a rafting adventure. Either way, it’s an amazing site and next time we go to New Zealand, we will try the blackwater rafting version.

Wow, sounds like an amazing experience. I am with you, I hate jumping into thin air. I am not good with it. Dave loves it and doesn’t get stressed about it at all. I can’t understand not having that fear, because for me, I get butterflies. I hate the feeling of falling. But it definitely looked worth it, so when we make it to New Zealand, we will be checking out the glow worms for sure.

Esther

Thanks for the photos and write-up. First time I’m hearing (reading) about this!

Definitely something to check out during our NZ adventure – soon. We’re planning a one year trip soon and NZ’s on the list!

Bec

agree that the 5 hour trip was slightly too long (i was fine until the 4.5 hour mark and the last 30 min were misrable…) but i am still super glad i did it over the 3 hr trip. i am not scared of heights, but force of habit, i screamed bloody murder when i jumped so i can relate, sort of! and the screaming sounds even worse in the cave!!!

highly reccomend to all who travel in NZ:-)

If somebody wants to see only glow warms there are other caves (and it is free) in New Zealand. One place I remmeber is Punakaiki Cavern close to famous pancake rocks in South Island.

Can you tell us more about the free options?

Great write up of black water rafting, brings up a good memory. I did it as well in February this year. Totally love it! Jumping over the falls was really scary for me at first, I rely entirely on the guide guy pushing my chest, as I jump very weakly. Just like you, I touched the rocks (I think by my bum, that close to the rock..) The later on jumps, I was less scared even though still pretty much rely on them pushing me. Want to compare to my experience?

John

Have you tried going to the Ruakuri Natural Tunnel Walk at night? You will see a glorious display of glow worms for free. Torches are essential.

John, have you written about this somewhere? Can you tell me more?

Wandering crouton

Try the ‘Lost World’ 4 hour adventure (Waitomo Adventures). I don’t like heights either but this involved a 100 metre high free – hanging abseil. You are roped up before you even get to the ‘launch’ platform, so it feels really secure. The scariest part is leaning back to sit on the rail whilst the guides harness you to the abseil ropes (and themselves as an extra safety precaution). However, once you relax into the descent – controlled by you, and very safe, it is breath-taking. It was an absolutely spectacular experience and I LOVED it! I’m not so scared of heights now, either. The caving & glow-worms were good – but second to the abseil! By the way, I am 53, overweight and not particularly fit……

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