The caves are one of New Zealand’s original tourist attractions, and have been drawing visitors for over a century, after being discovered by local Maori who also gave the area its name. Waitomo roughly translates as water shaft or hole, while one of the main caves, Ruakuri, is named after the pack of dogs that was living at its entrance when it was discovered about 500 years ago.
But that human timeframe is dwarfed by the geological history. The area rose from the sea about 30 million years ago and has been evolving ever since thanks to the action of water on the fossilised limestone rock, creating a honeycomb effect beneath the surface. There are about 300 known caves of all sizes, and including a natural amphitheatre where opera diva Dame Kiri te Kanawa once performed.
Today the caves continue to be developed to offer something for everyone, with several tourism operators in the area. At one end of the spectrum, visitors can take a 45-minute guided walk to marvel at the formations and glowworms, finishing with a serene boat trip on a underground stream with a galaxy of glowworms lighting the way. At the other end, they can opt for an adrenalin-charged adventure caving experience lasting for either a few hours or a whole day, including black water rafting (tubing), abseiling, waterfall jumping and zip lining.
Unlike their name, the glowworms are in fact not worms at all. The New Zealand glowworms are an unusual and interesting native species called arachnocampa luminosa. They begin their 12 month lifecycle as pupae and emerge as a special type of adult fly belonging to the gnat family. In the larvae stage, they use their glowing lights to attract small flying insects into their snare of sticky threads, and one larva can let down up to 70 threads. In their adult stage, their glowing light is used to attract the opposite sex.
Above ground, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge is a 17m high limestone formation rising above the Mangapohue Stream. Walkers can follow the marker posts to see 25 million year old fossilized oysters exposed in the limestone outcrops. Further on from the bridge, the 35m high Marakopa Falls cascade down the rocky outcrop and a viewing platform can be reached by taking a short track through Tawa and Nikau forest.