Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The Waitomo glowworm caves were at the very top of my list as soon as I began planning this trip. It is such a wondrous, unique and gorgeous experience. I would definitely recommend you try to fit this into your itinerary or check out my New Zealand itinerary for how I made it work.
Transportation and Planning
The drive from Auckland to Waitomo is 2.5 hours of absolute beauty. The drive takes you through rolling green hills dotted with fluffy white sheep. Picturesque country houses are the perfect backdrop to a solid road trip playlist. Since New Zealand is not largely populated the roads are wide-open as soon as you leave Auckland. Once you get used to driving on the opposite side of the road you might just find the “road trips” are one of your favorite aspects of your New Zealand vacation.
It is a good idea to book your tickets in advance especially if you are going in busy season and if you are using one of the more popular companies. We had originally booked through The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. I found their tours to be unique because they were a little more adrenaline pumping than the others. They are very popular so if you want to book with them definitely do it in advance. Unfortunately, upon reaching the Black Water office we were informed that our tour had been canceled. Because of all the rain they had the last 2 days their cave system was flooded. We were also informed that their other glowworm tours were completely booked.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave: Tour Booking
I was totally heartbroken because I desperately wanted to see these glowworms. After killing some time in Aranui cave we decided to try to info center in Waitomo to see if we had any other options. It turns out that most tour companies have their own set of caves that they use to run their tours. So just because the Black Water companies caves were flooded did not mean that they all were. The info booth was awesome and set us up on another tour on the spot. Our new tour was with Haggas Honking Holes and it would be 4 hours long.
Haggas Honking Holes and The Best Day Ever
On arrival at the tour company we signed some paperwork and made sure everyone had socks. We took a jerky 15-minute drive to the cave, which is on private farmland. The farmers get paid by the tour companies to lease their cave and also get a cut from every booking made. Those must be some RICH farmers!! The land was beautiful and had super cute sheep! Our group of 10 people and 2 guides got changed into very thick wetsuits, jackets, helmets, tall rain boots, and harnesses with swimsuits underneath. Outside on a nearby hill we practiced with our abseiling equipment learning how to weave the rope through and lock it in place. Then it was time to enter the cave…
AJ and I ended up at the very back of the line so we had to wait outside the cave while everyone in front of us did their thing. To enter the cave we had to squeeze through narrow passageways. There were some absolutely terrible, large spiders on the rock ceiling above our heads. I tried my best to ignore this fact but AJ was no help.
The first activity was a 20 meter abseil, which means our harness was hooked to a rope on the ceiling of the cave and then we slowly lowered ourselves down the rope into complete darkness until we hit the ground. It was crazy to only be able to see whatever your helmet light lit up and you could just barely see the ground from the top of the cliff. It was more difficult than I expected to keep my feet on the wall because it was rocky and uneven. You would end up swinging to a side and running into the rocks with your shoulders. In conclusion…it was awesome.
Non-Stop, Action-Packed, Adrenaline Pumping Madness
At the bottom of the abseil everyone turned their lights off and we could see some glowworms above us. We were all standing in about 1 foot of cold water as we walked through the cave to our next abseil, which would be over a waterfall. Mind you, it had been raining HARD for a couple days so this was no small waterfall. This abseil was not as long as the other one, maybe only 7-10 meters but you got drenched. The water was hitting you in the face and splashing everywhere and it was even harder to keep your feet on the wall. This time if your feet slipped and you hit the wall you also got completely drenched in freezing cold rain/river water!
Once you hit the bottom and got your bearings straight you were standing in 1.5 feet of water and they told you to crawl through a teeny tiny little hole that did not look like it could fit you. What else is there to say in the bottom of a cave but “That hole? Are you sure?…..OK!” So there we went head first on our bellies into a very tiny dark hole.
Interested in learning more about New Zealand? Check out my other New Zealand Travel Tips & Tricks
The Part Where You Question What You Signed Up For
Ok now shake off that ridiculousness and finally stand up and gather yourself again and here comes another rushing waterfall. One of poor guides was literally standing in the middle of the waterfall completely soaked and getting splashed in the face and almost washed away. We had to stand on the very edge of the waterfall, then lower one foot onto a rock ledge that was in the waterfall so you couldn’t see it. We just had to trust the guide that the hidden ledge was there and we would in fact have a place to stand.
Once on the hidden ledge, holding on for dear life as the rushing waterfall tried its best to wash you away, the guide hooked a rope to our harness. Slide down the waterfall a little ways, then step off the drenched rocks and dangle in the air. As if we weren’t already frozen, she lowered us through the waterfall, through a deep dark hole to land in another deep dark hole.
When You Find Yourself In A Deep Dark Hole And Other Such Things
So where were we? Oh yes, a deep dark hole full of cold water. Once all 10 of the people got through the epic combo we got our next instructions. “Sit on this ledge and keep your legs straight with feet together, place your hands on your helmet and you’re going to slide down this waterfall/hole. It’s a very small hole so make sure you keep your elbows in”. What’s at the bottom of the hole you ask? Just complete darkness, definitely some rocks and a lot of super cold water.
I think everyone screamed a little when they got pushed down this hole. The guide even turned our helmet lights off so you really couldn’t see where you were going. The drop wasn’t far at all, maybe 10 feet but since you didn’t know what to expect it felt scary. It dropped us into a very tiny hole that was barely big enough for 4 people. Next up? Cross under the waterfall you just slid down (brrrrrrrr) and then a nice walk and crawl into a larger room.
All About Glowworms
This is where we all turned our lights off and saw hundreds of gorgeous glowworms on the ceiling above us. One of our guides taught us about the worms explaining that they are the larvae stage of a fly and can remain as glowworms for up to 9 months. They create tiny thin strings that hang from the ceiling. Their light attracts insects that get caught in the slimy strings allowing the worm to consume them. They were absolutely beautiful and it was a pretty magical experience to be sitting in a pitch-black cave looking up at these guys.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
When we turned our lights back on we learned that we were about 80 meters underground and would now start to head back up. The exit began with a rock scramble and a climb up a wet wall. Next we had to walk on top of a ladder and then jump down and duck under an arch. At the top of a 10 meter ladder the guide told us to “just follow the rope”.
When I saw the rope it looked like it was just sticking out of the wall. The hole it was going through, that I was supposed to climb through, was SO TINY!!!!! I did it anyways and also made it through the next 4 tiny holes. Every time I swore I was stuck and would have to wriggle out and try again from a different angle. In a large cavern they had spread out some chocolates and cups of Gatorade to snack on while we waited for everyone else to make it through.
Always Say Yes To Caving, It’s Worth Every Penny!
Just a couple more squeezes and a walk up a 20m ladder and we were back outside where we started! It was absolutely exhausting! All of the climbing, crawling, ducking and trudging, my arms and legs were exhausted! It was such a fun experience and completely different than anything we have done before. I found it to be a very unique experience and something I will remember forever. If you ever get the chance to go on a caving tour DO IT!!!!
We stopped at a little pizza place in Waitomo before heading out on our next drive.