Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand is home to a sight so beautiful and unique, it draws thousands of curious visitors from around the world every year. Hop aboard a boat, meander down the Waitomo River into the Glowworm Cave, and gaze up in wonder at the brilliant cave ceilings that are illuminated by hundreds of thousands of glowworms found only in New Zealand. Located on the North Island of New Zealand, Waitomo is about 2 ½ hours south of Auckland, the island’s largest city.
History of Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Almost 130 years ago in 1887, two explorers set off on a trip down the Waitomo River in hopes of discovering what lies inside the mysterious Waitomo Glowworm Caves. While the local townspeople knew of the cave’s existence, no one knew what lie inside the caves, as no one had ventured close enough to find out. Native Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and an English surveyor named Fred Mace were about to change this. Constructing a homemade raft of flax stems and adorning it with candles for their only source of lighting, they shoved off into the unknown darkness of the subterranean caves. Surrounded by blackness on all sides, they were in for a brilliant discovery! Once their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they looked around and saw thousands of tiny lights above that also reflected in the waters below. What they saw were hundreds of thousands of tiny glowworms that clung to the ceiling of the cave. Their bioluminescence created a stunning display of lights not only on the cave ceiling overhead, but also in the reflecting waters below. They were overjoyed with their discovery!
Having found one of the most glorious sights they’d ever seen, they returned many times to see what else they could discover in the caves. On a lone trip inside the cave, Chief Tinorau discovered that the cave had an upper level and an easier access point. Subsequently, many trips later, the two explorers discovered that the Waitomo Glowworm Caves had an access point on land, sparking the idea that they could offer tours to visitors who wanted to see the caves for themselves. In 1889, Chief Tinorau opened the caves to tourists and he and his wife escorted loads of interested visitors through the caves for a small fee. Even though the New Zealand government took over the administration of the cave in 1906, the land and the caves were returned to the descendants of the original owners in 1989, over 80 years later! If you visit the caves today, you will meet many of the descendants of Chief Tinorau and his wife, as many of them help manage and run the caves.
The Levels of the Caves
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves consist of both dry and wet areas. The upper level of the caves, where visitors enter, is dry. This is where you’ll find three distinct features known as the Catacombs, the Banquet Chamber, and the Pipe Organ. The Catacombs are at the top level of the cave. Next comes the Banquet Chamber where the smoke on the ceiling is evidence that early visitors stopped to eat here. From here you can possibly travel back up to see the Pipe Organ, the largest formation, but it is often closed on busy days due to high levels of carbon monoxide. As you travel to the lower level of the caves you’ll find the streams that flow through the caves and the Cathedral. The Cathedral is the largest cavern at almost 60 feet tall and is known for having some of the best acoustics in the world. Famous singers and choirs have performed in here including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, an international soprano opera singer from New Zealand.
Tour the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
To experience these spectacular caves, hop aboard a boat and glide silently into the illuminated caves with tour guides who are native to the area and often related to tour guides of past generations. They will bring the history of these amazing 30 million year old caves to life by retelling the legends and historic details that surround the caves. People of all ages can enjoy this 45-minute, starry-skied tour. Kids under four years old are free and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are equipped with handrails and paths for safe walking. While the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are not wheelchair accessible, the neighboring Ruakuri Cave is. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves hold tours every day of the year from 9am-5pm. It’s recommended that visitors bring comfortable shoes and a warm jacket. Check out the Waitomo Glowworm Caves website for current tour prices.