With their overhead galaxies of glittering glowworms, the caverns have been millions of years in the making. They fascinated early Māori and, since the late 1880s, have drawn visitors from throughout New Zealand and from overseas to this rural region.
On one hand it’s about the spectacle with walking tracks and even a short boat ride leading through the labyrinth; on the other this wonderland is a playground with enterprising locals having added all kinds of adventure activities like blackwater rafting and abseiling in the dark depths.
Rising from the sea about 30 million years ago, the Waitomo Caves have continued to evolve ever since thanks to the constant action of water seeping through the earth.
The name comes from the Māori words ‘wai’ (water) and ‘tomo’ (hole or shaft). There are some 300 known caves in the area. Their dramatic formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites and columns are threaded through with the twinkling lights of New Zealand’s native glowworm, the arachnocampa luminosa, which glow to attract food and a mate, giving the caves their spectacular starry ceilings.
The Waitomo’s subterranean world is a magical one and accessible to all visitors – from young children to the elderly – thanks to a range of tours available in a number of the different caves in this remarkable region.
In the Waitomo Glowworm Caves a 45-minute tour reveals this subterranean world in all its wonder.
Guides provide commentary about how geological and volcanic activity has created these caverns over the past 30 million years. They tell of the early Māori history of the area and how local Māori Tāne Tinorau led English surveyors Laurence Cussen and Fred Mace on explorations in the late 1880s. Unlike today’s cavers and visitors, these early explorers had only candles to light their way and a small roughly made raft, which they moved through the underground streams using a long pole.
The guided Waitomo Caves tour takes visitors through three different levels. It includes a boat ride along the underground Waitomo River through the Glowworm Grotto where the only light comes from the tiny glowworms overhead.
Other popular fully accessible Waitomo cave experiences include nearby Ruakuri Cave where a two-hour guided tour showcases the ancient limestone rock formations. This tour is pushchair and wheelchair accessible.
Caveworld offers a range of bespoke private and small group tours of Footwhistle Cave. There is a tour at sunset when glowworms light up the surrounding native forest and the cave entrance, as well as the caves themselves. The perfect picture is promised in two special photography tours, one a workshop-style tour led by Caveworld owner Kyle Barnes, who has been photographing in the caves for three decades. Caveworld tours finish with a kawakawa tea ceremony – made using the leaves of the native kawakawa shrub, the tea is a delicious and refreshing tonic.
Spellbound has readily accessible tours of two caves – one of the Spellbound Glowworm Cave, which features a gentle boat ride beneath the galaxy of glowworms, stalagmites and stalactites, and the other in Spirit Cave, an ancient system that is slowly dissolving and where the bones of now extinct giant birds have been found.
If adrenalin rushes are your thing, there are plenty of adventures to be had in this underground world.
Guided tours range from half-day experiences to a full day of action.
There is blackwater rafting on inflated rubber tubes through the cave streams, spectacular abseiling and zip-lining as well as walking, squeezing and climbing through caves with names like TumuTumu and The Lost World.
Although they may sound extreme, a moderate fitness level and a sense of adventure is all that is needed for most of these exciting tours, and full protection gear such as wetsuits and helmets is provided.
The Waitomo region has much to explore above ground too with highlights including the Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk with its impressive 17-metre 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 tiny, long-tailed bat that makes its home here.
Nearby are the Marokopa Falls, said to be the most beautiful in New Zealand. An easy walk through native forest leads from the well sign-posted car park to a platform where the 35-metre high falls can be best admired.
While the Waitomo Caves are a headline attraction in the Waikato, also in the northern part of the region near Ngāruawāhia are the less well-known Nikau Caves. Tours through these subterranean wonders include oyster fossils, stalactites, stalagmites, glowworms and underground streams.