Deep under-ground, the damp and earthy smell of the Waitomo Caves is soon forgotten as the magical sight of millions of glowworms, radiating their luminescent light, make the cave ceiling twinkle. These memories created a wonderland experience for me as a child, never to be forgotten.
I visited the original Waitomo Caves back in the 1960s. They are a phenomenon and are still operating today, but the rickety wooden kiosk with the man selling tickets has long gone. A new visitor’s centre with an impressive domed structure, reflecting the curves of the Waitomo River has replaced it.
These caves were first discovered by local Chief Tanetinorau and Fred Mace in 1897. They became a spectacle, creating fascination for both the locals and visitors. Binding flax together, they made rafts and entered the caves.
The influx of visitors prompted the government to build a hotel in the early 1900s, which is still standing today. The Waitomo Caves Hotel is an old lady, but still good for a night’s accommodation.
Since the first discovery of the caves, the enchantment has continued and new caves have been unearthed in the region. Waitomo now has several cave operators offering a menu of activities. You can be as intrepid as you like and take a seven hours “lost world epic” tour including abseiling huge chasms and black water rafting or for the more sedate, a glowworm tour.
But, before you head to the caves visit the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre, in the middle of town. It’s an interactive centre with a trove of information on the geology of the area, the development of the caves and a video on the life cycle of the glowworm.
It was here I made my biggest discovery. Glow worms are not worms but insects. In the larvae stage, they glow when attached to the roof of the cave. They feed by dropping sticky “fishing lines” to catch insects. After about nine months they crystallise and turn into a fly gravitating back to the light of the glowworm, only to be caught and eaten by their own.
The Waitomo glowworm caves are a popular attraction and can get busy. So if you are looking for a quieter and less touristy experience, there are other cave operators that can provide just that.
Beneath the rolling farmland of Waitomo, just minutes out of town is Footwhistle Cave. The bush-clad entrance to the cave is natural and non-commercial with the cave opening lit by candles so your eyes can adjust. Small groups of just 12 people explore the caves at one time.
The glowworms were abundant and in the largest part of the cavern, The Cathedral, our guide ignited a magnesium torch providing a spectacular display lighting up the entire cavern.
The Waitomo Caves is a small village, approximately two and half-hours drive, south-west from Auckland. It has a caving system beneath it, providing adventure for young kids to thrill-seekers.
The Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre is situated on Waitomo Village Road, next to the i-site and is open daily. It is a one-stop-shop for all your Waitomo information and bookings.
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