The Magic of Waitomo Caves

Growing up in Britain, I visited some pretty magical places – the Lake District, Tintagel, Lindisfarne – but there’s one place in New Zealand that out-magics them all: Waitomo Caves.

Waitomo’s in the Waikato Region, south of Auckland. It didn’t look too exciting when we were driving up to it in our NZ campervan hire – just a lot of moist, green farmland, not dissimilar to views you get driving elsewhere in the North Island – and Waitomo Village isn’t that interesting either, being so small. There is, however, an old hotel on a hill.

As is the rule with old hotels on hills, Waitomo Caves Hotel is said to be haunted. Funny thing is, my house in England was far older – in New Zealand, ‘some parts of it are nearly a hundred years old’ is considered impressive. No. What’s impressive about Waitomo is the geology.

One of Waitomo's wonderful surface rock formations

One of Waitomo’s wonderful surface rock formations

I suppose the Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is worth a mention. There’s an i-SITE in practically every town in New Zealand, but this one is quite good. It has a nice shop, and there’s a sort of museum dedicated to the caves. In this museum, if I remember correctly, there’s a pretend rock tunnel you can crawl through and, let me tell you, it freaked me out no end.

I used the word ‘crawl’ incorrectly. You have to pull your way through on your belly, just like those extreme cavers, and, even though this model cave was quite short, about halfway through I got scared I was stuck. My head started to spin and my heart was suddenly taking up so much room in my chest I couldn’t breathe properly. Plus, someone had stuck some chewing gum to the wall, which wasn’t nice.

Anyway, I got out eventually, but let’s just say that cave crawling isn’t for me. And the caves where you have to do that but underwater, not knowing when you’ll next be able to breathe – that’s the stuff of nightmares.

Waitomo 7

Inside the mouth of a cave

Luckily, most of the guided tours through various sections of the Waitomo cave system don’t require any crawling. The only safety equipment you need is a hardhat, a head torch and covered shoes (and a jumper, unless you’re from somewhere like Newcastle.)

You can do the extreme stuff as well. There’s even an adventure attraction where you can go rafting on a rubber ring down an underground river at a thrilling speed, which I was rather keen on doing one day, until I read my own description just then. All of a sudden it seems like a dangerously stupid thing to do.

Waitomo 5The caves are beautiful – not quite ‘magical,’ I haven’t got to that part yet, but they have a certain otherworldliness to them. There’s something in the cool, damp air. Your breath is hushed. You can hear a powerful waterfall somewhere behind the rock, but the echoing makes it impossible to tell exactly where. The torchlight gives eerie illumination to the stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites, over thousands of years, have formed fascinating structures that ripple like cloaks. They sparkle with minerals and moisture.You want to touch them – to stroke them – but it’s forbidden. You just have too look on in awe. And pay attention so you don’t bang your head.

In one of the caves, you can see the skeleton of a moa that fell through a hole in the forest floor to its death centuries ago, complete with the gizzard stones it had swallowed.

Waitomo 4

I remember wondering if it broke its neck in the fall, or if it wandered around in the darkness, unable to find a way out, and starved to death.

The opportunity to see the bones of an extinct animal – not in a museum, but in the place where the creature fell – is fairly awesome, but what makes Waitomo magical is the glowworms.

Something you absolutely have to do if you come for a holiday in New Zealand is go on a Waitomo glowworm tour by boat. It. Is. AMAZING.

You’re taken into a cave, down into a tunnel that has a gentle river flowing through it, and helped onto a boat. You are told to be very, very quiet and to take no flash photos. Then the lights go out.

The boat floats away from the side and into the blackness. For a while, all that accompanies you is the breathing of the tourists in the boat, and the soft sloshing of the water. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Above you, and reflected perfectly in the water below you, are thousands of blue stars. You feel as though you are drifting in space, but you suddenly realise that you can’t be: you are merely in an enclosed passageway that feels as big as the universe. It’s unreal – dreamlike.

Each one of those blue lights is a glowworm. You have to be quiet not just to add to the atmosphere, but so you don’t scare them. If they feel threatened, their lights go out.

Seriously, that place was like Lothlorien. I felt my heart swell just being there. It was so inspiring, and I know I have to go there again before I die.

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Waitomo Caves are consistently rated among the top tourist attractions in New Zealand and I completely agree. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the world!

Walking in Waitomo

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17 thoughts on “The Magic of Waitomo Caves

  1. Claire says:

    I went tubing in the caves and it was one of the best things I have ever done…great post 🙂

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    • kiwipom91 says:

      And you didn’t die? That gives me hope. 🙂

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      • Claire says:

        It is not that scary, the river is slow one lady fell asleep halfway through. There are a lot of small holes to swim through and gaps to climb over but it is amazing…If your still in NZ you need to make sure that you do a day climbing Franz Joseph or Fox Glaciers on the South Island, it was the only thing that was better than the caves in my opinion 😉

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      • kiwipom91 says:

        Is ‘tubing’ the same as the white water rafting i kept seeing advertised? My parents wouldn’t let me do it because my little sister was too young to do it, and it wouldn’t have been fair if I got to do it and she didn’t. This was a few years ago. I’ve lived in New Zealand with my family since I was ten, and we;ve been all round the South Island, including both glaciers.

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      • Claire says:

        no, they call it black water rafting or tubing but it is nothing like the extreme sport, you just float down a stream but in the glow worm cave its actually quite relaxing 🙂

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      • kiwipom91 says:

        Ooh yeah I really wanna do it now.

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  2. Cath says:

    Another place you can see glow-worms are in the caves across Lake Te Anau down in Fiordland. (or the Te Ana-au caves which translates as ‘Caves of Swirling waters’). It’s a little wilder than Waitomo being in Fiordland and all, but of course just as spectacular.

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  3. blade3colorado says:

    Wonderful post! I loved visiting this place . . . My expectations were low, so I was quite pleased after seeing this place. When the tour guide asked for someone to sing a song, I sung Zippity do dah (from Song of the South) and even wrote about it on my blog . . .

    http://aroundtheworldwithblade.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/waitomo-caves/

    I think I shocked everyone. 🙂

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    • kiwipom91 says:

      Oh, I’d forgotten about that! Much to my teenage embarrassment, my dad sung Pippin’s song from Return of the King. And when I was little kid back in Britain, my dance class had to do a whole song and dance number in ridiculous costumes to Zippity Do Dah.

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      • blade3colorado says:

        If your dad did that, I ALREADY LIKE THE GUY. He lives life OUT LOUD and that’s how I am. I’m certain that you appreciate him doing that now, right? Grin . . . Take care, Steve

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  4. […] Waitomo on a New Zealand campervan holiday, the walks are pretty good too. I’ve raved about the Waitomo Caves on this blog in the past, but I didn’t talk about the awesome rock formations on the surface, the ones we […]

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  5. […] to experiencing real magic – magic as the raw force of nature I write about – was in one of the Waitomo Caves. It was with a tour group. We’d been led through a dark labyrinth, had many fascinating features […]

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  6. […] of Hamilton. It’s very touristy, but I had the most magical experience of my life there. The Waitomo Caves are breathtaking. As well as simple tours there are lots of different adventures to go on, […]

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  7. […] world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White […]

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  8. […] closed when we were there, Kihikihi might just be worth visiting – on your way down to Waitomo, […]

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