Waitomo Town

In May 2019, we were lucky enough to enjoy a road trip of New Zealand’s North Island including a Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour.

Waitomo is a tiny township with barely 50 residents. However, it is home to hundreds of caves and thousands of glowworms!

30 million years ago the entire Waitomo region lay far beneath the sea. Today, both above and below ground, it stands as a revealing testament to a landmark period in New Zealand’s, and the world’s, natural history.

The glowworms are actually a form of larvae that glow in order to attract their food into their chain-like webs. These bright little guys hang out over pools of water until they pupate and fly away.

As we found out, they are extremely tricky to catch doing their thing on camera so if you wish to take photos then a slow shutter speed is an absolute must.

We arrived into the tiny town of Waitomo and parked up outside the Cave World office. The caves in Waitomo actually belong to the families who own the land above. This means that farmers who have been farming the land have become involved in the tourism industry.

Our tour guide told us that nearly everybody in Waitomo now works in the tourism industry that has sprung up since the caves became accessible to tourists.

History of the Caves

The name “Waitomo” comes from the Māori words wai, water and tomo, hole or shaft.

The caves were first explored in 1887 by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau accompanied by an English surveyor Fred Mace.

The local Maori people already knew of the caves existence, but the subterranean caverns had never been extensively explored until Fred and Tane went to investigate. They built a raft, used candles for light and floated into the cave where the stream goes underground.

Upon entering the caves, they discovered a myriad of tiny bright lights dotting the cave ceiling. As their eyes adjusted, they discovered that the ceilings were dotted with the lights of thousands of glowworms.

By 1889 Tane Tinorau had opened the cave to the first tourists. Visitor numbers soared and Chief Tane and his wife Huti escorted groups through the cave for a small fee.

In 1906 the cave was taken over by the government. In 1989, almost 100 years later, the land and the cave were returned to the descendants of the original owners.

Many staff employed at the caves today are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour

We met our tour guide, Kyle, at the Visitor Centre on Waitomo’s main street. We were a small group of 10 which added to the intimacy of the tour. Saying that, it was still 10 new people for Kyle to get to know and he remembered everybody’s names!

Pretty impressive in my opinion.

After hopping into a mini bus we headed out to the countryside and to the cave. Kyle gave us a bit of an introduction to the area and the history of the caves as we drove towards them.

We drove past a variety of farm animals as well as some alpacas on a local farm, where you could book to stay at the farm house! You simply wouldn’t know that the caves were underneath you.

We pulled up at the car park and headed into the bush. As we did, Kyle pointed out various different types of fern and other plants and explained to us what their uses would have been when the Maori people still lived in these areas.

The group walked through the bush, through different varieties of fern and a unique tree called the Kawakawa. The Kawakawa plant would have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes. Some leaves of the Kawakawa had lots of little holes in them, which signified the most concentrated medicinal properties, so these are the ones to go for.

Kyle explained that we would later be trying a traditional tea made from these leaves, that would have been used to treat all sorts of ailments such as digestive, circulatory and rheumatic complaints. Kawakawa leaves were also chewed for toothache.

The entrance to the Footwhistle cave recently became famous by photographer Stephen Patience who won the titles of 2018 and 2017 New Zealand Geographic time-lapse photographer of the year! You can watch his time-lapse of the cave entrance and glowworms in the link below.

Isn’t it incredible? Take me back!

The entrance to the caves was impressive in itself and was green and lush. We started our descent into the cave via superbly built hand rails, gravel paths and cave lighting powered by the sun that turns on and off at key moments.

We even saw some small animal skeletons on the way down!

We entered the caves and the big wooden door was closed behind us leaving us in complete darkness. Kyle then switched on some ambient lighting so that we could see our first glimpse of the cave.

Our guide shone his torch on one of the glowworms and showed us the larvae up close. It was about the size of a match stick and surrounded by beautiful sticky silken traps which the use to trap their prey.

As we entered the main cave, in the dark, the glowworms were difficult to see properly at first because our eyes hadn’t properly adjusted. However, Kyle then took us to an area with a ledge over a body of water and switched off all of the lights.

The room lit up again but this time with the blue light of thousands of glowworms.

Better still, the glowworms were reflected in the pool below so the effect was pretty mind blowing. It was like looking up at the stars on a clear night, only the stars are almost within reach! It really is a most mesmerising sight.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour
Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour

Stalagmites

After visiting a few other areas of cave, our guide took us to the far corner where there were some pretty impressive stalagmites and stalactites.

Kyle had an original torch which would have been used when the very first guided tours of the caves commenced. He lit the wick of the torch and the entire cave lit up for a few seconds so that we could really get a sense of the size of it and some of the stalagmites.

The rock formations are limestone which is composed of fossilised corals, seashells, fish skeletons, and many small marine organisms on the sea beds.

Over millions of years, these fossilised rocks have been layered upon each other and compressed to create limestone and within the Waitomo region the limestone can be over 200m thick!

The stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations grew from water dripping from the ceiling or flowing over the walls and leaving behind limestone deposits. The stalagmites form upward while the stalactites form from the ceiling. When these formations connect they are called pillars or columns and if they twist around each other they are called helicti.

These cave decorations take millions of years to form given that the average stalactite grows one cubic centimetre every 100 years!

Glowworm Cave Facts

1. These caves are a steady 16 ºC year round.

2. The Glowworms are actually a species of gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa which are only found in New Zealand and Australia. The adult Arachnocampa are a type of flying gnat, and what you see in the caves are the larve.

These maggot-looking larvae cluster together and, although they are most spectacular in caves, glowworms are also quite common outside – they can be found wherever conditions are damp, food is in good supply and there is an overhanging wall.

3. The New Zealand glowworm is one of many creatures that naturally produce light in a process called bioluminescence. The light is the result of a chemical reaction that involves several components that react with oxygen to create the famous blue light. The gnats do glow as well – though not as brightly.

Insects are naturally drawn to the glowing light. The glowworms spin sticky threads that hang from the roof of the cave and trap any flying insects that get too close to the light.

Glowworms only eat other insects and their appealing glow and clever traps makes them very successful hunters! If a glowworm is hungry its light will shine a little brighter and is even more effective.

5. Glowworms love caves because they are perfect hunting-grounds. Because their method of catching prey needs dark and sheltered areas, caves like Footwhistle are perfect.

The natural darkness of being underground means that the glowworms can hunt around the clock, and protection from wind and rain keeps the sticky silken traps from breaking or becoming tangled. Glowworms also require a lot of insects to eat, and the streams and still water found in caves offer a perfect breeding ground for these.

We visited Footwhistle Cave, with ‘Cave World’ however, there are several different options to see the glowworms in Waitomo (including caves that are accessible as well as boat tours!)

Contact Us and we’ll help you find the perfect tour for you.

You can also catch up on the rest of our road trip by clicking the link below

Our Kiwi Road Trip