On the North Island of New Zealand, there are caves where you can look up at the night sky while deep underground. No, this isn’t a fairy tale; it’s the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
Photos of the blue-ish glow from the worms look like something out of Avatar. You hardly even care that you have to go into underground caves in insulated wetsuits to get to them!
I ventured into the Glowworm Caves a week ago and may never be able to go into a cave again; what’s the point when there aren’t beautiful blue glowworms on the ceiling?
A trip to Waitomo is not complete without a trip to these famous caves to see the starry blue sky created by the glowworms.
What Are Glowworms?
Arachnocampa luminosa or the New Zealand glowworm is a species of fungus gnat unique to New Zealand. Neither the word “fungus” nor “gnat” would usually inspire you to visit damp caves, but the glowworms definitely will.
These tiny creatures are larva that dwell in damp, sheltered places. The Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, call them “titiwati” or “projected over water.” It’s a fitting name for the blue reflection the glowworm cast through the dark caves.
Glowworms only glow while they are larva. They spend 6 to 12 months in their larval state before growing into less appealing fungus gnats.
The adult gnats only live a few days. During this time, they try to procreate as much as possible. And they don’t eat (can you imagine not eating for your whole adult life?!).
As larva, they eat by hanging silk threads from the ceiling. They can spin as many as 70 strands that are up to 30 to 40 cm long. These threads act like a spider web and trap prey. It is believed that the glowworms glow is meant to attract prey to their threads, because the light tricks the prey into thinking they are flying towards the night sky.
Glowworms are sensitive to light. They only glow in undisturbed and in dark places. That is why the Waitomo caves are the perfect habitat: the dark, moist environment is peaceful for the baby bugs.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The Waitomo caves were formed by geological and volcanic activity over 30 million years ago beneath the sea. So far, 300 caves have been discovered.
The glowworms live in the aptly named Glowworm Grotto within the caves. To access Glowworm Grotto, you have to go through the underground Waitomo River. Tour companies offer boats, abseiling and tube rides through the river to see the underground galaxy of glowworms.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Black Water works in the Ruakuri Cave, the longest cave in Waitomo. (Interestingly, it is the only wheelchair-accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere.) They are the only tour operator that works in this cave.
Black Labyrinth is their original tour, where you explore Ruakuri Cave on a rubber tube. You jump backwards over waterfalls (they’re only a metre or two high, but it’s still pretty legendary!), climb through the limestone caves and float beneath the living lights of the glowworms in the heart of Ruakuri cave. An adult ticket costs $147 NZD, which is well worth the three hours you spend exploring the cave.
Black Abyss is a five-hour experience that includes abseiling or rappelling, ziplining and climbing underground waterfalls. You will satisfy your adventurous spirit by climbing down a 35-metre hole. Halfway through, your guide gives you hot chocolate and a snack in the caves. Groups for Black Abyss are smaller, which helps justify the $255 NZD price.
The tours are very popular and aren’t weather dependent, so book ahead. They run every hour in the summer, but many tour groups use Black Water for buses for up to 60 people.
Going into the Glowworm Caves
Before you head into the cave, your decks you out in a fleece (optional but use it! The water is so cold!), a damp wetsuit with a jacket and socks, boots and a helmet with a light.
The river is freezing; you can’t avoid the water when going through the caves. You don’t get gloves, which means your hands get cold—it took me about an hour before my fingers regained their full colour.
A few of my friends shelled out for the Abyss trip, but I stuck with the Labyrinth. Their group got to squeeze through crevices and go deeper into the cave to see more glowworms. Our group got to jump backwards off waterfalls with tubes and float lazily beneath the shimmering blue lights.
At the end of both tours, you can look forward to a hot shower, and complimentary soup and bagels. We got tomato soup that warmed you from the inside out.
Is It Worth It?
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves will definitely pop up if you search must-do activities in New Zealand. After doing a tour with Black Water, I can now see why. It really is an incredible experience that you can only have in New Zealand. While it wasn’t as relaxing as I had expected, the sight was so spectacular that I didn’t care.
The best view of the glowworms was in the middle of my tour. You get to lie back in your tube and gawk at the ceiling where hundreds or thousands of blue specks shine above you. Floating through that field of indoor stars took five to ten minutes, but water the best part of the whole experience.
After that, jumping off waterfalls and being told to navigate the river in the dark were less enjoyable. You also start to feel the cold.
By the end, my hair was wet from the water rushing up into my helmet when we jumped in the water and my boots were sloshing. I felt like a proper adventurer until we got out of the cave. Then, I just felt like I needed a hot shower.
If you aren’t sure which one to do, I’d stick with the Labyrinth tour. To spend five hours in a cave, you have to really want to do it. I also recommend doing this in the summer, as the water temperature drops in the winter.
I hope you get the chance to experience these natural marvels on your next trip to New Zealand. The blue glow of the glowworms really is worth the trip, even if it means jumping backwards off small underground waterfalls.
Would you venture underground to see glowworms?
Photos taken by Black Water Rafting Company and purchased in a photo package.