Waitomo: A Galaxy of Glowworms

Published: Weekend Herald – January 2016

Ignore your parental instincts to avoid damp, dark spaces – Debbie Griffiths and family fall in love with the world famous Waitomo Caves and their unique inhabitants

It’s enough to stun the kids into uncharacteristic silence.

Then a small voice breathes “woah”.

Nate,7, clutches my hand as we tread carefully down, down, down into Waitomo Cave. He’s goggle-eyed at the softly lit yellow-white limestone ceiling, stretching into a gigantic arc, and the ground falling away beneath the steps. The enormous scale of this ancient cavern makes us feel like hobbits venturing furtively below ground.

Massive toothy-looking stalactites drip water and minerals to create stalagmites below. Our guide points out formations that resemble a family complete with “Rocky” the dog, a parachuting kiwi and Bob Marley’s dreadlocks before wryly quipping that she’s obviously spent too long underground. She’s captured the imagination of the kids, though, who see a rock elephant and a cocker spaniel. They’re delighted to learn the nifty mnemonic: “stalactites hang tight to the ceiling and stalagmites might reach the roof one day”. Some are close to joining to form a column. It’s an exciting prospect as these rocks take 100 years to grow just one cubic centimetre.

We’re silently fizzing with excitement as we shuffle further underground to the boats. Once seated, our guide insists on absolute quiet. He shines his torch at one visitor and deadpans “If I fall in, you’re in charge” before pushing off from the jetty into the inky black of the glowworm grotto.  We’re enveloped in darkness and it’s a moment before I remember to look up. We’re beneath a magical galaxy of white-blue lights – each bright pinprick surrounded by a soft haze. The cool, dark open space gives the surreal sense of gliding on a magic carpet beneath a velvety night sky studded with stars. Nate hunches close to me, worried he’ll get sticky strands in his hair, but soon relaxes when he realises they’re up out of reach.

Our guide doesn’t give commentary, he simply pulls us along the cave using ropes. All we hear is the soft slap of water and it’s as if time has paused. The spell is broken when we see daylight and emerge blinking into the lush green forest.

Pic 4 - Waitomo Stream flows into a cave beneath Ruakuri Bushwalk

A short drive up the road is Ruakuri Reserve with its spectacular bush walk featuring bridges and limestone cliffs. Waitomo Stream meanders demure and lazy beside us and then thunders over – and through – the rocks. It has carved tunnels and caves that we explore with a torch. One cavern has steps down into the darkness to a lookout. The stream is rushing below and there, in amongst the stalactites above, is one lone glowworm. The kids can’t wait to see more of them in Ruakuri Cave.

Pic 2 - Nate, 7, and Asher, 11, explore a tunnel on Ruakuri bushwalk

This is the longest underground tour in Waitomo. It has a jaw dropping dramatic entrance – a massive 15 metre-high spiral ramp. This impressive engineering feat makes it wheelchair accessible and gives the feeling we’re on a journey to the centre of the Earth. Orange lights flick on level by level before illuminating a slab of limestone at the bottom.

It’s a two-hour tour past diverse limestone formations helpfully named for what they resemble. Curtain looks like swathes of cloth and bacon has streaks of colour. Each section has its own lights so we are treated to a big ‘reveal’ after our group arrives in darkness.

At times, we can hear a ‘hidden waterfall’ and look down from our suspended walkway to see black water rafters far below. At one point, we simply pause and enjoy the dark stillness. Hundreds of glowworms are above and the water below is sparkling.

“The name glowworm in Maori translates to reflection on the water,” our guide, Meike, tells us.

Further along, the glowworms are at face height. The sticky strands from the match-stick sized pupae shine in our lamp light.

“They’re actually more like maggots than worms.” Meike laughs: “But that name would be hard work for the marketing department.”

I find her enthusiasm contagious: “It’s pretty special down here.”

“Yeah,” she smiles. “It never gets old.”

Copyright Discover Waitomo
Copyright Discover Waitomo

Where to Eat: There’s no supermarket in Waitomo, so take supplies from home, stop in Otorohanga on the way or enjoy the fantastic local eateries …

Huhu Café: Modern and airy with a brilliant view of rolling hills from the deck and a great kid’s menu. Crispy buttermilk chicken and mini lamb burger got the thumbs up. Us adults chose the award-winning rump steak and lamb shoulder rack and walked out happy. Match your meal with a beer from King Country Brewing Company.

Long Black Café: Situated at the home base of the Black Water Rafting Company, don’t be surprised to see people in wet suits strolling through. Grab a picnic table either out front watching the tour buses roll by or in the shaded forest area out back. We love that kid’s ice cream cones are just $1.60.

The General Store: Dating back to 1910, this was originally the community’s one-stop-shop for food, clothing and farm supplies. It stocks emergency groceries but it’s now more of a café and a cool place to chill out. Enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner on the verandah overlooking the valley. We loved the eggs benedict with potato cakes, spinach and salmon.

Curly’s Bar: This pub burned down three years ago and one regular was so devastated that he wrote a poem. It’s now framed and hangs pride of place over the new bar. We loved the generous kid’s meal – fish and curly fries – and the steak and stout pie’s rich gravy.

Waitomo Caves café and restaurant: Despite being regularly slammed with large tour groups, the café staff are efficient and calm. The soaring arched canopy of sail cloths is spectacular and kept us dry in the rain. The glow worm kids snack box included a good sized ham roll and our breakfast bagels were freshly made and delicious.

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