waitomo glow worm caves
We decided we had enough of cute and cuddly animals, so we elected to explore one of New Zealand’s less-than-appealing species. We chose to visit one of the Waitomo glow worm caves.
Pulling into the town of Waitomo, we were greeted with billboards featuring various tours and companies. Some offered tubing down the cave, others advertised rappelling. Which to choose? We read reviews off Trip Advisor and in our Lonely Planet book, and settled on the simplest of tours, focused on the sole reason we were there: strictly seeing the glow worms. If we wanted to go tubing or rappel, we knew we could find other places to go that would be more extreme or worth the money.
We found the Spellbound tour company right along “the main strip,” as it could be described. The tour was highly-rated, and rightly so. Our guide was engaging and informative. He gave us in depth perspective of the history and geology of the caves in the area. As a boy, he used to frequent the caves himself. He even went as far to say that he used to tube down the caves with his friends before it was offered as an activity for tourists. We would believe it because Waitomo was in the middle of nowhere. What else was there to do? The tour guide even joked about the size of the town’s softball team and asked if we wanted to join. Devin was an excellent pitcher in high school and Ryann could throw pretty far. Maybe after the tour…
Joining us were eight other Americans and Canadians. We all piled in the van and made our way to the first cave- the glowworm inhabited one. We took turns introducing ourselves on the way. We figured this less-than-stimulating tour wouldn’t include the typical backpackers you’d run into, and we were right. They were all families there to learn about the glowworms. This was a very “tame” outing and could be done by children and the elderly, in our opinion.
We walked down a grassy hill filled with curious sheep to the opening of the cave. There, our tour guide handed us our helmets and headlamps. He offered to take pictures of everyone donning the gear. Very thoughtful of him. There he continued on about how caves are formed, the number found in the area, and what we would expect after entering the cave.
What we first noticed was how dull our headlamps were. We looked at each other in confusion and regret. We should’ve brought our OWN headlamps! But as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary. Our guide had us turn off our headlamps and then turn them back on, and our eyes adjusted just fine. Silly us.
The second, and much more impressive, thing that we noticed were the glowworms!
The glowworms dangled from the ceiling of the cave, and they were everywhere. On the tour, you initially see what you feel like is a lot. There are a few oohs and aahhs. Devin tried his darndest to capture the worms with his Blackberry camera. But just as the guide had warned, there was little luck without a special kind of camera. So much for that.
Here, the guide told us all about the glowworm. One thing you should know primarily before being so entranced that you spend your time gazing up, mouths open in wonder and awe, is that they are not worms. They are the larval or in the maggot stage of a fungus gnat flat. Yes, a maggot. MAGGOT. You are paying actual money and traveling far to see MAGGOTS. But, very pretty maggots.
But why do these glowworms glow? It’s because of a process called bioluminescence. Basically, they glow for different reasons: for eating and for mating.
To catch food, the glowworm produces sticky silk threads that hang within reach of its “hammock,” or home. The insect will fly towards the light, and badabing, badaboom-dinner.
After learning about the disgusting reality of the glowworms, we had no choice but to ignore the fact that they were maggots and produced sticky threads that could potentially get caught in your face and hair.
A Little Boat Ride
After dodging the sticky silk threads, our guide told us we had arrived at the highlight of Waitomo Caves. We were each carefully guided into a floating raft. Once we were all situated, he instructed us to turn off our headlamps and to sit tight. He pulled our raft further along the water in the cave and what we saw and experienced next made us completely forget our repulsions and uncertainties. Another woman on the tour described the hundreds of glowworms as looking like “a blanket of stars.” We agreed. It was absolutely astounding. Hundreds and hundreds of glowworms hung above us, but the sparkle and twinkle was just amazing. The Spellbound w
ebsite had it right: spellbinding and incomparable. We had both never seen anything like this, and to think that it was all-natural and from teeny tiny maggots is what made us appreciate it more.
After the boat ride, we exited the cave and made our way to enjoy a little snack and refresher before the next cave. This was a nice treat! We had our choice of tea or coffee and endless ginger snaps. We sat around talking, discussing why certain countries drive on the left or right side of the road and also about whether hunting is humane. A very thought-provoking conversation, indeed. Either way, it was a nice little break.
Cave Numero Dos
We walked a little further to the second cave. We both agreed we could have easily skipped this one. We already had our fill of caves for the day, but nevertheless, into the darkness we went. There were more glowworms, but nowhere near as many as the previous. What did make this cave special were the bones of an extinct New Zealand bird, the moa. It was fairly impressive, to see how well-preserved and protected it was. Following that, we were more than ready to return to daylight. And we did.
Was it Worth It?
Before you start the drive, make sure that it’s something you really want to do. We talked about the tour after it was finished and decided that it was between pretty good and okay. The glowworms were fascinating but learned later on that there are places closer to other destinations in New Zealand on the south island. We didn’t do as much research as we should have, but they also may not have been as beguiling, but it’s a thought. The tour, Spellbound, was great for families and about as fun as they could have made it. But, we thought for the price, we wished we could’ve solely just visited the first cave. With that being said, it is a business and we understand they have to stand apart from the others and make their money. All in all, we didn’t regret that we did it.