New Zealand is full of weird creatures. Birds that can’t fly, penguins that live in the forest and critters that survive being completely frozen for days. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that you can also find glowing worms. The North Island of New Zealand is full of these glowworms and if you look closely, you can spot them in bushes along the street or in abandoned caves. The best place to experience the full magic of these glowworms is in the caves around Waitomo, though. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves near Rotorua are famous for being the home of millions and billions of these fascinating glowworms. It is a truly unique NZ experience that you cannot miss!
Even if damp, dark tunnels are your idea of hell, head to Waitomo anyway. The limestone caves and glowing bugs here are one of the North Island’s premier attractions.
Are the Waitomo Glowworm Caves really worth it?
When reading through the reviews on TripAdvisor, I found to my surprise that the Waitomo Glowworm Caves receive rather mixed reviews. Some of the words being thrown around a lot are ‘overrated’, ‘crowded’ and ‘disappointing’. That’s definitely not how I would describe my Glowworm experience! The words I would choose are ‘magical’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘unforgettable’.
So what happened? Why was my experience so much better? Was I just lucky (or just not as picky…)?
And how can you avoid the same disappointment?
There isn’t just one way to see the Waitomo Glowworm caves. You can choose different caves, different operators and also different ways to explore the caves. The following little guide should help you decide which tour is right for you (Note: whichever tour you choose, make sure to book in advance!)
- Waitomo Adventure offers many options for the adrenaline junkies out there
- Choose between a variety of abseiling and black-water rafting adventures
- Between 4-7 hours long
- Cost: $160-$540 NZD
- What to expect: Although you will see glowworms, this option is definitely more about the adventure than the glowworms
- Discover Waitomo is the most popular tour provider
- Tours leave every 15 minutes with groups of up to 30 people
- Tours last between 45 minutes and a couple of hours (depending on how many caves you want to see)
- Cost: Starting at $50 NZD
- What to expect: This is where most tourists flock to. On busy days it will feel like mass processing and you might wonder whether there aren’t actually more tourists than glowworms in the cave. You are, however, most flexible in terms of time management.
- Spellbound is a small, less-known tour provider
- They only leave 4 times a day with small groups of up to 12 people
- Tours last a bit more than 3 hours
- Cost: $75 NZD
- What to expect: You’ll get to see two caves: One is a stalactite cove, the second one is the glowworm cave. The small groups allow for a close-up look of the glowworms. It won’t feel rushed or crowded. And they offer complimentary coffee and cookies! 😉
Waitomo Glowworm Caves – my visit with Spellbound
Originally, I didn’t choose to see the caves with Spellbound. I wanted a bit more adventure, so I signed up for the black-water rafting. Unfortunately, the days before our visit, it had rained a lot.
It had rained so much, that some of the caves were flooded! The black-water rafting had to be cancelled, which left me with two choices – either I’d grow some serious balls and go abseiling or I’d choose the nice little boat excursion.
Because I’m a chicken when it comes to heights, I bailed on the abseiling. There aren’t enough glowworms on this planet to make me lower myself down a deep dark hole hanging on to dear life by nothing but a thread. Nope, thank you very much!
The tour begins
As I traveled with Stray, they dropped me off at a café where Spellbound has its office. They do have parking spaces in case you travel by car. Inside, I paid for my ticket and was told to wait for our guide. I used those last couple of minutes for a last bathroom break, which turned out to be absolutely unnecessary as they have toilet facilities close to the caves.
When our guide arrived, a very friendly and adorable man, about ten of us got into a minibus. The group was very mixed and included a family with younger children, an older couple and my friends and me. On the short drive to the caves, the guide told us more about the region and how the caves were discovered.
First part: The stalactites cave
We first went into the stalactites cave where we got to see some stalactites and stalagmites, a goat skeleton (!) and some beautiful stone formation. The path through the cave is well maintained and illuminated, so you don’t need special footwear. It does get quite chilly, though, and you might want to bring a jacket.
Now, I want to be honest here… It’s not the most impressive stalactites cave I’ve ever seen. But then, I’ve already been to a lot of caves and some of them were truly magnificent! So, no, this will not leave you in awe but it’s nice enough and the guide tells you more about the caves and their story. You also didn’t come for the stalagmites, did you?
Second part: Preparing for the glowworms
After the first cave, we walked over to the second cave – the glowworm cave! Just outside the cave is a little pond with lots of eels in it. Might not sound terribly exciting but it was the first time, I’ve ever seen eels in the wild, so I thought it was pretty cool. And because we were in no rush whatsoever, we were given enough time to look at them and take some pictures (which turned out horribly, unfortunately…).
At that point, it was time for a break and the promised coffee and cookie! Usually, the group stays outside for the break but because it was drizzling and there wasn’t enough shelter for all of us, the guide decided that we would enjoy our cookie inside the cave.
Before we headed deeper into the cave, we had to put on a hard hat with a flashlight attached to it. There were no lamps in the cave but the flashlights provided enough light to guide us along the way. We didn’t have to wait long, before we encountered our first glowworms. They were right in front of us and we could see every little detail of their strange sticky threads they use to catch their prey. With their light, the worms attract all sorts of insects which get stuck in those sticky threads just like in a spider’s web. We also saw one of those huge nasty critters that survives being frozen… It was about as big as my palm!
After a couple of minutes, we reached the place where we would get into the boat. First, we sat down on some benches and turned off all of our flashlights. To say it was pitch-dark would be an understatement! This step is absolutely necessary for our eyes to adjust to the darkness in order to truly enjoy the full luminosity of the glowworms.
The guide (finally!) gave us our well-deserved cookie and a choice of tea or coffee. And then we just sat there… Sipping our tea, listening to the guide and nibbling at our cookie. And the longer we sat, the more magnificent the worms began to glow!
Third part: The boat ride under millions of brilliant stars
Even though there was no additional light, we saw enough to safely climb into the little boat. Pulling on a rope on the ceiling, the guide gently steered our boat down a little river.
The entire ceiling was covered in glowworms! It was like seeing millions of bright blue stars.
No one said a word… Everyone just sat there in awe. Completely speechless.
The only thing we could hear was the distant rumble of a waterfall. Before we reached the waterfall, the guide skillfully turned the boat around and headed back up the river.
And because it was so beautiful and we all couldn’t get enough, he turned around again and gave as an encore! All in all we spent about 15 minutes on the boat.
You are allowed to take picture (and I tried, I really tried…), but because you can’t use a flash, all I managed to capture was a black picture with some squiggly blue lines on it. Luckily. they send you some pictures when you give them your e-mail address. But no picture will ever do justice to the incredible beauty of the glowworms.
Fourth step: Heading back to the bleakness of the outside world
At some point, every dream has to end and so did this unforgettable glowworm experience. We climbed out of the boat and slowly and with a heavy heart headed back towards the exit.
Outside, we could either hop back on the bus or walk over a little hill and meet the bus on the other side. Everyone chose to take the little walk. It was a great way to slowly reconnect with reality. Still rather unable to put our experience into words, we quietly drove back to the café.
Seeing that we still had to wait for our Stray bus to pick us back up, I treated myself to a delicious scone and a coffee.
When we reunited with the abseilers, all wet and full of adrenaline, they bragged about the amazing adventure they had. They had to jump through tiny holes and climb down steep cliffs. It was so scary and so cool and so amazing. And I just sat there, smiling, spellbound… Thinking that I was quite happy with my cookie, my tea and my magical glowworm encounter.
That night, I definitely dreamt of this most enchanting of all places. A once in a lifetime experience, I will never forget. Ever.
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