Our footsteps distractingly resounded through the silence as we followed our guide Steve, our eyes still struggling to adjust to the darkness. He switched on his flashlight, guiding our way he asked, “Are you guys okay, back there?” Ankit and I ambled along, trying to shake off the exhaustion of the three-hour long drive from Auckland that had brought us to Waitomo. Lucky to be the only people on the tour, we were eager to make the most of this private tour of the Ruakuri Cave, New Zealand’s longest guided underground walking tour. We descended into the cave by a brightly lit spiral walkway, stepping cautiously on the damp floor. At the end of the walkway, a grand tunnel led us to the interior of the cave. It was getting cooler; I pulled the zipper of my jacket all the way up and rubbed my hands together.
Maori legend has it that the cave was originally discovered about 400-500 years ago by a Maori hunter who was attacked by a pack of wild dogs at the entrance of the cave. Hence the name ‘Ruakuri’, from the Maori ‘rua’ for den and ‘kuri’ for dog. Tane Tinorau, the elder of the tribe and Chief of Kawhia arranged for the wild dogs to be killed and settled down with his people near the cave. The cave holds significance in Maori culture because the original entrance was used as a burial ground by the tribe. It was first opened to the public in 1904 by James Holden but following a legal dispute in 1988 involving the Holden Family Trust and the Government, it remained closed to visitors for 18 years. After an agreement with the Trust and more than a year of redevelopment efforts which involved construction and repairs on walkways and bridges, the cave was reopened to the public in 2005. Additionally, the dramatic spiral walkway and ‘The Drum Entrance’ were constructed away from the original entrance to protect the sacredness of the Maori burial site.
Talking about the geological processes that had been at work, Steve led us deeper into the cave, through winding passageways flanked by limestone formations, stalactites, stalagmites and columns that formed over 30 million years. As a result of once having been completely under sea level, the cave is home to fine shawl like limestone formations sculpted by the action of flowing water, and fossilized seashells, and marine life. Steve reminded us not to touch the formations and told us of how a tourist had once tried to break off a piece to take home as a souvenir. Not that we would dare to touch the impressive formations knowing that these delicate structures had formed over millions of years. It was fascinating to think that the walls of the cave bore witness to a time I hadn’t even read about in history books and that perhaps a young girl in the early 1900s had stood on the exact spot as I did and marveled in amazement.
“Now, for my favorite part”, said Steve excitedly as we crossed a bridge through a narrow corridor into a passage where thousands of luminescent glowworms hung from fine threads, illuminating the walls of the cave. Steve clapped loudly, “Makes them shine brighter”, he said with a grin. These glowworms are unique to the subterranean cave ecosystem of New Zealand and are scientifically known as Arachnocampa Luminosa, though other types are found in Tasmania. The light attracts flies and small insects that the worms feed on and gets them trapped in the web like strands of the worms. The hungrier the worms are, the brighter they shine to attract their prey. Talk about beauty being deadly!
As we walked along the dimly lit walkways suspended above the Huhunui river, Steve pointed out and waved to a group of rafters on the ‘Black Abyss’ Tour, a high adrenalin adventure activity spanning five hours that involves abseiling 35 meters, climbing and cave tubing in the river. “The kind of adventure where you don’t know what to expect”, he remarked and winked at us mischievously. The walking tour suited us just fine; neither of us could imagine ourselves in a wetsuit hanging from the roof of the cave.
He led us through a slightly wider passage of stalactites and stalagmites. At the end of the corridor, there was an ‘Exit’ sign. “Here we are”, he said, “I hope you enjoyed the tour”, his eyes shining with the enthusiasm of a proud homeowner who had just finished showing off his swanky apartment. A few seconds later, we were out in the sunshine, climbing into his shuttle to be dropped off to the Glowworm Caves for the next part of our tour.
Over the past year I had seen countless images of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves with their illuminated ceilings, right out of a fairytale. After seeing the impressive glowworm colonies in Ruakuri Cave, we grew even more impatient for the tour of the Glowworm Cave.
Led by our local Maori guide, our group of six slowly trickled into the upper level entrance of the cave. As he explained the history of its discovery, he pointed out distinct formations called the Catacombs, the Pipe Organ and the Banquet Chamber, each of which formed over millions of years.
These caves were first explored by candlelight on a raft by Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace in 1887. They made their way into the lower level of the cave by the underground stream of the Waitomo River that runs through it. Amazed by the spectacular sight of glowworms in the Glowworm Grotto, they returned several times to explore the other areas and the upper level of the cave that had a land entrance. Chief Tinorau opened the cave to the public in 1889 and started to lead tours along with his wife. Much of the present-day Maori staff at the caves are descendants of Chief Tinorau.
On the lower level is an impressive cavern called The Cathedral. Its name comes from its remarkable acoustics, as a result of its enclosed shape and rough surface. World-class singers, musicians and choirs have performed here and there have also been a few Maori weddings in The Cathedral.
To make our way into the Glowworm Grotto, undeniably the most awaited part of the tour, our guide asked us to step onto a wooden boat and maintain silence so as not to disturb the natural ecosystem of the glowworms. As our boat slowly glided along, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I looked up to the ceiling and gasped. Not even the glowworm colonies in Ruakuri Cave had prepared me for what came next. I was looking at millions of luminescent glowworms hanging by fine threads, their glittering formations looked like faces, maps and fantastical shapes against the dark roof of the cave. The intensity of their luminosity varied and flickered and the entire roof seemed alive and breathing. With nothing but pitch darkness all around, so much that we couldn’t even see each other, there was nothing else but the brilliantly lit roof of the cave to gaze at.
Photo by Jerrah Biggerstaff via Trover.com
The next few minutes were spent in a state of awe-struck amazement that was evident from the group’s absolute silence, even as the boat gently moved along the river. Our eyes remained transfixed upon the ceiling for it was the kind of sight that has the power to make you forget the concept of time or the need for conversation. Photography is strictly prohibited inside the Glowworm Grotto, so there wasn’t even the distracting need to take photographs. Then, we returned to the passage from where we had boarded and got back onto the walkway. Blown away by what we had just witnessed, we followed our guide around the other passages towards the end of the tour. But nothing could now compare to what we had just seen.
I left the Waitomo Caves that day, almost in a daze, feeling blown away by the surreal celestial experience. The pictures had led me there but none of them came close to the real thing that I had been fortunate enough to experience. There are few places in the world that can evoke such a childlike sense of wonder and appreciation for the creative genius of nature and Waitomo is undoubtedly one of them.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes suitable for damp ground.
- Bring a warm jacket, as it can get quite chilly inside the caves.
- Ruakuri Cave has full wheelchair and pushchair access whereas the Glowworm Caves are not wheelchair friendly.
- Touching the formations is strictly prohibited to avoid discoloration or damage.
- Photography and videos are allowed in specific areas only, please ask your guide for more information.
- Smoking inside the cave is prohibited.
Planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out my other posts about Geothermal Wonders & Maori Culture in Rotorua, Kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park, Paragliding in Queenstown or Visiting Milford Sound. Or check out my itinerary for two weeks in New Zealand.
Have you been to the Glowworm Caves in NZ? If yes, what did you think and if not, would you like to go?