One of the best travel experiences you can have on New Zealand’s North Island is a journey into the depths of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave. You’ve probably seen the surreal photos of boats passing under thousands of tiny blue lights, but what is a Waitomo Glowworm Cave tour really like? I’ll attempt to describe it and also show you some of the best things to do in the Waitomo area.
Which Waitomo Glow-worm Cave tour should you book?
There are several caves in Waitomo that are open to tourists, but you’ll need to jump on a tour to access them. The more adventurous among us may opt for a black water rafting tour, but for most people a “dry” tour of the caves will appeal most. We chose the the most popular option, which includes a walking tour of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave + a short boat ride and then a walking tour of nearby Ruakuri Cave. You can book this tour (or any of the other ones) online at the Waitomo Caves website (they run from 9 am – 5 pm). In case you were wondering, we were hosted on this tour in exchange for mentioning the experience in this post (and the photos of the first cave were provided as photography is banned inside the cave).
Waitomo Glowworm Cave
The tour takes around 45 minutes and starts close to the main ticket kiosk / cafe. We (a group of around 15) were greeted by our singing guide, George, and started to make our way through the cave. There are lots of stops along the way and you’ll learn all you need to know about stalactites and stalagmites and other sciency cave stuff (which I’ve already mostly forgotten).
It’s a fun cave to explore and George was an entertaining guide. You see some glowworms along the way, but the real highlight is the short boat ride at the end. The guide pulls the boat (using overhead cables) slowly around the river under a blanket of shining glowworms. It’s as magical as it looks in the photos (which you’re not allowed to take yourself) and is worth the price of admission alone.
The second cave on our Waitomo tour was Ruakuri Cave, a five minute drive from the first one. We were shown around by Sass, who turned out to be an awesome guide who kept everyone entertained on the 90-minute tour. There are a few spots where you’ll see glowworms in Ruakuri Cave and there are some impressive formations found throughout. The Ruakuri Cave tour is a little longer and there is more walking, but it should be manageable for most people. The black water rafting tours also go through Ruakuri Cave — we saw some people doing it and it looked like a lot of fun.
Other Things to Do In (and Near) Waitomo
While the caves in Waitomo are the obvious draw, there are plenty of other things to do in the nearby area. Here are some of them, including one of New Zealand’s best waterfalls.
Ruakuri Forest Track
We did this short forest walk while waiting for our second cave tour and you should do it if you have the time (it only takes around 30 minutes). You’ll see several cave openings, a nice stretch of river and some classic New Zealand bush.
The Waitomo Track
This track links most of the points of interest in Waitomo and seems more aimed at people without cars. We saw some sections of it and there is apparently a cool viewpoint somewhere along the way.
The following places are on the road between Waitomo and the West Coast areas such as Raglan. The furthest (Marokopa Falls) is around 40 minutes from Waitomo, so you can either drive there and then backtrack the way you came or take the road less travelled west and then north).
Mangapohue Natural Bridge
Another short forest walk takes you to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. It’s basically a big limestone arch over a river — definitely a nice piece of nature to stop off at on the way to Marokopa Falls.
A short track takes you to the mouth of Piripiri Cave. We didn’t venture too far in, but it looks nice enough (probably not that impressive if you’ve just been to the Waitomo Caves like we had though).
I’d heard rumours that Marokopa Falls is one of the best waterfalls in New Zealand, so I made it my mission to test that theory. There’s a viewpoint overlooking the waterfall and from there you can (at your own risk as it’s not an “official” track) make your way down to the base of the falls. The track is a bit muddy and slippery, so you’ll want to be wearing decent shoes (which you may regret as then you’ll have to clean them).
I managed to get close to the falls and got soaked. It’s exhilarating but the views are just as good from the safety of the viewpoint (which is only a five minute walk from the car park). So, is it one of New Zealand’s best waterfalls? Yip — I’d put it in my top three at this point (the others being Devil’s Punchbowl Falls in Arthur’s Pass and McClean Falls in the Catlins).
Where to Stay in Waitomo
Waitomo is a small tourist village featuring several hotels and restaurants. We stayed at Kiwipaka Waitomo (it was the cheapest option) and it was great. It’s a short distance from the caves (you could say that about most Waitomo accommodation though) and the room was nice for the price. We ate dinner in Te Kuiti before arriving — try Mini India Takeaway if you get the chance!
Getting to Waitomo
Waitomo is located around 2.5 hours’ drive from Auckland and an hour from Hamilton. Lots of buses and tours ply this route so it’s easy place to visit if you don’t have your own transport. In two or three days you could have a cool little trip in this area, including a visit to Hobbiton and a look around the surreal geothermal landscapes in Rotorua.
I was hosted by Discover Waitomo. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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