Waitomo Caves: Returning After 28 Years

”They” say its not a good idea to return to a place of happy memories. My memories of Waitomo’s Caves were vaguely happy, they may indeed have been very happy, but thanks to a rather large amount of alcohol that was consumed on that trip, the details are fuzzy. Twenty-eight years later I figured it was time to return.

The Victorians were keen on caves, and caves with lighting natural systems must have been the Disney-land experience of the day. described proudly, but incorrectly, Waitomo was described in early tourist films, as the “world’s only glow worm cave”. In fact there are hundred caves near Waitomo and, the worms are technically maggots (young of arachnocampa luminosa.) which can also be found in plenty of other places in New Zealand and overseas. But even today’s jaded tourist, i.e. me, came away impressed.

approach to the Waitomo glow worm cave

Walking down to the Waitomo Cave entrance

Returning, Waitomo was indeed spectacular even, to my surprise, when visited with a guided tour. I’d never done a guided tour. In 1984, I’d been part of a group of geology students on a field trip, who crawled and slithered through the “organ grinder” did a bit of abseiling, and got very dirty. Now however, I was neither fit or thin enough to squirm through narrow gaps. If I’d wanted to be a spelunker I’d probably would have taken up caving by now.

This time I didn’t need an adrenaline experience, I didn’t need to abseil, float through an underground river on an inner tube, or generally get wet and dirty – however all these opportunities are available to the young or keen tourist.

At the visitor’s centre we signed up for the next tour from Spellbound. They claimed in their sales brochure that David Attenborough had flimed with them, and as Attenborough is neither young nor small, if he could do their tour,  I decided I could too.

Waitomo is not a big village, in fact the old photos in the shop come cafe confirm that it hasn’t got a lot larger since the 1930’s. The law of small place accommodation pricing was in play, and we paid more for a cabin without a kitchen or ensuite than we would have paid for a self-contained motel 20km down the road at the turn off.

Nevertheless It also meant that all we had to do was walk all of across the road to check in and then walk next door to find the tour.

Norm is our trip guide, and with nine others we head out of town – the guide pointing out where up to 30 buses park for the standard tour cave.

Our mini-bus navigates the narrow country road before turning off to a farm track where we’re given the option of walking down the hill – a chance fo foreigners to walk through New Zealand farmland for the first time. To me it looked like typical rolling Waikato dairy country. I think they really expected a Hobbit village around the corner. With our hardhats and LED lamps on, we listen as  the guide reminisces about going underground with carbide lights “in the old days”.  But I knew about carbides:  their noise and smell, and poor light emission. Those were the lights that I’d used on the first trip to Waitomo!  Odd  when your own memories are  suddenly part of the “bad old days”.

Heading through the caves, we see stalactites stalagmites and glow worms. In several places, it was an easy walk along well graded boardwalks and gentler steps. So far – nice trip – wouldn’t write home about it.

Then we got to the boat on the underground river. It’s an inflatable run-about like you sometimes see rescuing the clueless from the local surf beach, once in the boat we turn off the lights.

In absolute darkness we cannot see our hand in front of our faces of course I also couldn’t see my partner beside me or the 3 rows of people in front of me.

But the “sky” glowed. The glow worms lit up thecave above and on both sides

It was like the Milky Way on the darkest night, but closer – I felt like you could reach up and touch them (you probably could but of course you’re not allowed to). we are silent as we’re propelled by the guide hauling us along by overhead wires strung around a loop.

It could be a scene out of Phantom of the Opera, when the Phantom serenades the heroine as he kidnap’s her, and improbably, escapes with her through the underground river.

Waitomo does the scene better – though none of us could remember the words the acoustics were quite good.

The lights got brighter and brighter, but by the time we returned to the subterranean dock we could clearly see everyone in the boat – the wonder of night vision are one of things forgotten by those of us who live in an electric-lit world.

It was magical, and entirely natural, and the Victorians were right – Waitomo is a natural wonder.


  1. Eileen Ludwig on March 28, 2012 at 8:33 am

    It is hard to return to a place and hope for a better or at least equally good experience. Going through the cave on the boat sounds fascinating though apprehensive of the unknown. Your having been there before would make it less unknown.

    • Elisabeth on March 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      Oh I’ve worked underground – so being underground doesn’t bother me at all – but it was kinda fun going back after so long!

  2. Nick on March 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    “float through an underground river on an inner tube”

    I did this a couple of years back – was a great experience. Waitomo Caves are definitely a great destination, not much else there though 😉

    Glad you enjoyed it as much on your second go!

    • Elisabeth on March 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      Yeah there is really VERY little to do in that town – even compared to other small NZ towns! The area is very pretty though!

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