Of the all the amazing things to see in New Zealand, seeing the glow worm caves should rank high on anyone’s list. These glowing maggots (glow worms sounds nicer doesn’t it??) light up multiple caves throughout the country with their blue bio-luminescence dotting the roofs and resembling the milky way on a clear night depending on where you see them. In your search for places to see the worms you’ll undoubtedly come across the famous Waitomo Caves, among a few others.
We got to the small town of Waitomo, which we were told has less than 50 permanent residents in the town itself, and went to the company’s office next to the general store where we would meet the rest of the group. From there they drove us in a minibus for about 20 min to the caves. The landscape was amazing, green hills and scattered lime stone everywhere.
Shortly after spotting our first worms, we got to a spot where the ceiling was very low and we were able to see the glow worms close up. As I mentioned, they aren’t worms but long, thin maggots which develop into gnats after 6 to 12 months. They hang horizontally from the cave ceiling inside a nest made of silk and hang threads of silk down in order to catch bugs to eat. It was interesting to see them up close, but they definitely look nicer in the dark shining blue.
We continued walking along the path until we got to the raft. Once seated, we started going down a narrow tunnel. Over our heads were thousands of blue shining glow worms. It’s almost impossible to describe the atmosphere. It was simply stunning and seemed unreal and not from this world. We already had another encounter with bio-luminescence, back when we traveled to the bio-bay in Puerto Rico, with bio-luminescent plankton in the water.
Only about 4 km from Waitomo Village is the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve with a free 45 minute round trip, self guided bush walk. The walk leads to native thick forests, with such interesting limestone formations that they can easily be mistaken for ruins of old buildings or walls. The bush walk leads over a small bridge and past some caves, one being super small but we squeezed in it anyway and another big one with a lookout over the river floating through it. If you’re in the area, this bush walk should definitely be on your list.
While they’re similar to the caves in Waitomo, the experience visiting the Waipu caves couldn’t be more different. The caves are a two hour drive up north from Auckland, situated in between farmland a few kilometers outside of Waipu Town. Unlike the Waitomo Caves, which are owned by a farmer who owns the land over them, the Waipu Caves are on government property and are therefore completely free to visit. The caves themselves are not maintained or fit with any lights, so a headlamp is a must.
A gravel road leads to an open field with a lot of space for parking and camping. There are even toilets and a shower which are completely free. The entrance to the cave is only a few meters from the parking area and there is a 2km walk through the forest as an option, but is not necessary to get to the caves.
We headed towards the caves right away. The entrance of the cave is quite big and right from the start there are amazing rock formations to admire. We had to cross a relatively wide but not deep stream to get further into the cave. It opened up into another big section, where suddenly hundreds of glow worms were visible. There may have been a third to half of the glow worm density compared to Waitomo, but they were very impressive regardless. There were quite a few other people around but at some point everybody had turned their lights off and we enjoyed the glow worms for a while. From that point in the cave on, it looked like the only way to go any further would be wading through water that was up to our hips and crouching under the low cave ceiling. We brought spare clothes which is highly advised due to all the water and mud if you really want to explore the cave system, so we decided to go for it.
We had to wade through the water for about 10 meters before reaching another dry spot. There were a few ways to go further into the cave from there, either continue wading along the stream deeper into the cave or walk around on the rocks and through mud. We chose the second option, and after an hour or so of climbing and scrambling we eventually ended back up in the stream, leading us to another chamber, which was filled with water to our hips and incredible rock formations.
After nearly two hours since entering the cave, we ended up back in the first chamber where we saw all the glow worms, having accidentally found another way out. It turned out we found a nice loop through the cave accidentally, while having no idea where we were for some time.
Even with no maps or knowledge of the cave, it seems hard to get seriously lost while exploring and you’ll run into other people or at least still hear them in the distance – which definitely adds a feeling of safety. We ended up spending two hours exploring the caves and still didn’t see all the turnouts and side caverns, so we’re already planning a return trip.
On the way back to Auckland from Waipu you’ll see a sign for Piroa Falls. If you take the short detour down a gravel road you’ll find a five to ten minute walk from the parking area will bring you to a beautiful waterfall. If you go on a warm day you can swim in the pool at the bottom, and some people even jump from a cliff into the lower pool (not from the falls into the small pool please!). While this isn’t the tallest waterfall in the area, it’s definitely beautiful and worth the short trip.
Positives for Waitomo Caves tour
- There are definitely way more glow worms to admire in Waitomo and you can get very close to them
- The experience of going on a raft on the river adds a new dimension to it
- Easier to access for all ages and a more comfortable caving experience, with no need to get your hands dirty
- Two totally different caves
- Different cave experiences: walking, boat ride, black water tubing or rafting, and abseiling are possible to book
Drawbacks to Waitomo
- Only accessible with a guided tour, which should be booked in advanced
- All of the tours cost money, with some being quite pricey
- Can be closed after heavy rains
- No real adventure or cave exploring feeling due to guides and so many visitors
Positives for Waipu Caves
- The entrance is free and you can access them without a guide or tour
- A little closer to Auckland, if you’re based there
- More adventurous caving experience for the brave – wading through water, climbing and scrambling over rocks, squeezing through narrow openings and tunnels included
- Still accessible with families or if you don’t want to get as muddy, you just won’t be able to go into the cave as deep
- You will still see glow worms
Drawbacks to Waipu
- We didn’t find an option to go with a guide, so there is always the very slim chance of you getting lost inside the cave system
- If you’re just after glow worms, Waitomo Caves might be the better option as there are at least twice as many in the same size area
- Risk of flash floods making it more dangerous, but still shouldn’t be a problem