Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 20: North Island, New Zealand: The Magic of Millions of Glowworms in the Caves at Waitomo

This is the twentieth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the fourth of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about one of New Zealand’s most iconic attractions: the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata where all who visit may believe themselves in the heart of The Shire, that pastoral idyll which JRR Tolkien‘s hobbits call home. For all The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts this was indeed a heartwarming experience, which exceeded all our expectations.

Our next experience was to be another one full of magic: a visit to the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo.

We drove south west from Matamata through the green and picturesque rural landscape so characteristic of the North Island, which reminds me of The Shire. Our destination was the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo Caves Village.

The Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Cabin in the Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Across the road was the visitor information centre, where we booked our tour of the caves.

Visitor information centre at the Waitomo Caves Village

Spellbound Cave Tours departure point

We found our Maori tour leader, Haihei, gregarious, chatty and full of encyclopaedic knowledge about the history, geography and biology of the region, its wildlife, landscape, caves and glowworms. Our group of twelve included visitors from Switzerland, the USA, the UK and Australia.

Map of the Waitomo Caves Region

The landscape of the region is striking: both pretty and rugged, with many hills, steep valleys and rocky outcrops; we were told several sink-holes exist above the caves, and during the course of time hapless animals such as goats and cattle have fallen down these sink-holes into the caves, there to perish.

Here I felt, as before in the North Island, that the landscape appeared ‘designed’ by a landscape gardener; it was so appealing to the eye, moving in ripples and furrows and bumps, hills and valleys. Perhaps this is the consequence of volcanic activity in the past.

We drove for twenty minutes through the Waitomo Caves Region to reach the first cave we were to visit, where we would see stalagmites and stalactites.

walking through Cave 1 at the Waitomo Caves

Once in the cave, our knowledgable guide explained to us that we would find the bones of animals which had fallen through the sink-holes into the cave: and some in the long distant past. We occasionally saw the remains of a cow or a goat which had met this fate; and in one area we saw the ancient bones of a large bird thousands of years old.

the bones of a creature which had perished after falling through a sink-hole into the cave
inside Cave 1 on the Waitomo Caves tour – photo credit Jamie Robinson

Following our visit to Cave 1 we had a tea break in a little hut among the hills, and there the ‘stranger-silence’ was broken and we all started chatting and finding out where each other had come from.

on the way to our tea break after visiting Cave 1

After that we walked down to the river where members of our group were fascinated to see large black eels in the water.

Looking for black eels in the river by the Waitomo Caves

Then we donned white helmets with lights before entering Cave 2 to see the glowworms.

donning our caving helmets before entering the glowworm cave.
entrance to the Waitomo glowworm cave

As we walked through the cave, we learned that glowworms emit their pinpoints of light from the bio-phosphorescence on the tips of their tails: they send down fine silky threads to catch flies and other insects which breed prolifically in the water and rise up to the pinpoints of light to be trapped and eaten.

After we had walked for some distance through the cave we found a boat landing stage; we all boarded the boat which would glide along the underground river in the direction of the waterfall, and where we would see the millions of glowworms.

This was indeed a magical experience; as we glided along in the silence, the water reflected countless pinpoints of light in the roof above us. They shone brighter when our tour leader created a loud booming noise (which he only did briefly, lest you think he was cruel to the glowworms!)

It was amazing to reflect upon the fact that this wondrous fairy-like display was really all for the worms to catch their food. In fact, the caves are a giant 24-7 running buffet for glowworms.

As we glided along we heard the thunder of the waterfall ahead.

Not stars in the sky, but glowworms in the Waitomo Caves

Finally we left the caves, awed by our experience here, and the sense of having briefly entered another world.

leaving the caves

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.