Weird and wonderful limestone formations emerge from the underground darkness which is also punctuated by the twinkling lights of thousands of glowworms. Simply stand and admire, or if you’re feeling more adventurous try the myriad of abseiling, climbing and black water rafting trips available. The Waitomo Caves are one of New Zealand’s original tourist attractions and everyone who visits can see just why that is, while less well-known but equally inspiring subterranean wonders can also be found near the coast of the North Waikato area.
Operating near Ngaruawahia, Nikau Cave and Adventure Waikato both offer caving tours which include glowworms, stalactites and stalagmites, fossils, underground streams and caverns while Waitomo Caves has the largest range of activities on offer providing something to suit everyone, regardless of ability or adrenalin level.
Rising from the sea about 30 million years ago Waitomo Caves have continued to evolve ever since thanks to the constant action of water seeping through the earth. The name comes from the Maori words “wai” (water) and “tomo” (hole or shaft) and there are around 300 known caves in the area. Their dramatic formations of limestone including stalactites, stalagmites, columns and natural caverns are threaded through with the lights of New Zealand’s native glowworm, the arachnocampa luminosa which give the caves their spectacular starry ceilings.
For those looking for a magical but easily accessible caving experience the 45-minute tour of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves reveals the subterranean world in all its wonder including a gentle boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto and commentary on the caves’ history. Experience the Cathedral cavern where world-class choirs and singers, including New Zealand opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, have performed due to the amazing acoustics. Another popular experience is found at Ruakuri Cave, where guides take a two-hour walking tour, including telling the myths and legends associated with the area and showcasing ancient limestone rock formations.
For the adventurous, there are plenty of adrenalin-fuelled options for exploring the cave system. Guided tours range in duration up to seven hours and include black water rafting (on inflated rubber tubes) through the caves’ streams and spectacular abseiling and zip-lining as well as walking, squeezing and climbing through caves with names like TumuTumu and The Lost World. While they may sound extreme, a moderate fitness level and a sense of adventure is all that is needed for most of these exciting tours.
Above ground highlights include the Mangapohue Natural Bridge walk near Waitomo, with an impressive 17 m high limestone arch which is all that remains of an ancient cave system. At night the track lights up with glowworms and visitors may also catch a glimpse of the elusive long-tailed bat. Glowworms can also be seen on serene night kayak tours through natural canyons on Lake Karapiro, near Cambridge, with Lake District Adventures.