The Caves at Waitomo

Leading you deep into an underworld, the Waitomo Caves are your chance to see amazing underground formations and experience total darkness and deafening silence. It started some 30 million years ago, when the Waitomo area was buried by sea. The remains of creatures living below the surface, reef and rock began to harden and accumulate. With the help of Calcium Carbonate, the accumulation slowly formed the limestone visible today. Volcanic eruptions pushed that limestone up from the sea floor. Overtime, seismic activity has caused cracks allowing water to flow in and eventually carve out the Waitomo Caves of today.

If you’ve seen the caves once, most likely there is no need to see them again in your lifetime as they rarely ever change. The beautiful stalagmites and stalactites mounding from the floor of the caves and grasping to the ceiling will look the same as they did years ago. In fact, it takes approximately 100 years to form 1 cubic centimeter of stalactite.

While the geological formations are part of the attraction of the Waitomo caves, it seems they are not the main attraction. The spotlight instead shines upon the hundreds of glowworms grasping to the ceilings inside. Arachnocampa Luminosa (aka glowworms) is a species unique to New Zealand, although you can see similar glowworms in Australia. Either way, these little creatures give off an iridescent light during their lava stage to help attract food, which eventually becomes trapped in sticky lines draped from the larva. Insects can easily become trapped in the lines before the glowworm draws in its line devouring its prey.

While the process may be revolting to some, the result is a magnificent star-like light display on the top of the cave. A handful of caves across New Zealand house the interesting insects; however, some of the most concentrated populations easily accessible are within the Waitomo Caves.

Visitors can explore three main caves at Waitomo including Aanui Cave, Ruakuri Cave and the main Waitomo Glowworm Cave. Guides will tell you the Aranui Cave is a rare geological combination and is one of the most beautiful caves in Waitomo. A guided tour wanders a series of boardwalks into some very narrow areas boasting pink, white and tan stalactites. Ruakuri Cave has similar limestone formations as well as glowworms, waterfalls and rivers perfect for cave tubing.

The downside of visiting these natural wonders is the cost. The easiest and therefore most popular tour is of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave itself. It costs 48.00 nzd per person for a 45-minute tour comprised of a short walk with several stops to sing in a room with perfect acoustics, a look at several stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as a five to 10 minute boat ride out of the cave beneath what they call ‘Glowworm Grotto’, a large concentration of glowworms. Floating beneath the bright lights of the glowworms in total silence is wonderfully relaxing and give you time to reflect upon the natural wonders of the world. While it’s something to see, the price is absolutely outrageous. In addition, if this tour is on your itinerary, leave the camera in the car. They don’t allow you to take photographs, and although they don’t take your camera at the entrance almost all tourists abide by the rules. (It’s why I borrowed the photograph above from the Waitomo Caves promotional page.)

Many chose to tour more than one cave and combination packages are available and can range up to 100.00 nzd per person. If extreme caving, or adventure caving, is what you’re interested in, the price ticks up substantially. There are a couple companies that offer adventure caving packages which include a combination of walking tours, cave tubing, waterfall climbing, flying fox (zip line) and abseiling into tubular formations. Blackwater Rafting Co. is probably the largest extreme caving company. Their top package which includes a little bit of everything will cost you 220.00 nzd per person, but there are some less expensive options.

For a complete list of pricing and options, stop at the i-site in Waitomo (you can’t miss it, it’s just off the main road). There a guide can run through the options and even book all tours and obtain the necessary tickets. Make sure you don’t stop at the Blackwater Rafting Co. building leading into town unless that’s what your looking to do. The company has done an amazingly good job and making it look like the main visitors center.