The problem with the Waitomo Caves is that they do not really lie on the direct tourist routes and are a detour at most times – despite not being really far away from some of the main centres.
Auckland is about 200 kilometres or a 2.5 hours drive north of Waitomo.
Hamilton is the nearest centre, just a one hour drive away.
To/from Rotorua, Taupo and Mt. Ruapehu it takes about 2 hours.
There are some back country roads leading to the Caves but the easiest way is to approach them on SH 3, whether from the south or north, and then turn onto SH 37 at Hangatiki (SH 37), between Te Kuiti and Otorohanga. Waitomo is well sign-posted.
You can also join the hordes of tourists who take bus tours, mainly from Auckland but also from Rotorua, but you are better off and more flexible if you have your own transportation.
To give you an idea how much the bus tours cost (price as April 2011):
Ex Rotorua NZ$ 181 with Great Sights
Ex Auckland NZ$ 218 with Great Sights
Also day tours that go from/to Auckland/Rotorua via the Waitomo Caves.
Travelling to Waitomo by public transport is a bit of a mission. Well, not if you intend a return trip to Auckland or Rotorua.
BTW When a bus company lists the i-site at Waitomo township as the bus stop it is at the Waitomo Caves.
The Waitomo Caves are the major drive of tourism in the Waitomo District, a nice green farmland of rolling hills and native forests, but also of forestry – which is less attractive.
The main town and service centre of the Waitomo District is Te Kuiti, 12 kilometres from Waitomo Caves.
Other townships in the region are Waitomo, Mokau, PioPio, Awakino, Marokapa and Benneydale.
The total population is only 9,700 people. Only 2.7 people per square metre live in the district, compared to the national average of 14.1 – which, compared to Europe, is still next to nothing ;-)
The main contributors to the local economy are tourism, farming, mining and forestry.
The official website of the Waitomo Caves is well and truly amazing.
There is so much information on it about everything that you nearly do not find it all although there are links everywhere – which might be the problem LOL
Whether you want to learn about the glow worms, the geology of the caves, the tours, the prices, you find everything on the website and a lot more. There is even a booking site for accommodation in the close vicinity.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves & Aranui Cave enquiries:
Freephone: 0800 456 922
Ruakuri Cave enquiries:
Freephone: 0800 782 587
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co:
Freephone: 0800 228 464
Email via website:
39 Waitomo Caves Road
(All prices as April 2011)
The Glowworm Caves are open 365 days a year
9am to 5.30pm (31 October until Easter Monday)
Additional tours at 8am from 26 December until 28 February
9am to 5pm in winter
Admission NZ$ 46
Ruakuri Cave closed on Christmas Day (25 December)
Tours depart at 9am, 10am, 11.30am, 12.30pm, 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm (2 hours)
Bookings essential because maximum number of 15 people
Admission NZ$ 67
Departures at The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. (585 Waitomo Caves Road, on the road from Te Kuiti before the Glowworm Caves).
Black Water Rafting NZ$ 115 (Black Labyrinth Tour) resp. NZ$ 220 (Black Abyss Tour)
Aranaui Cave closed on Christmas Day (25 December)
Departures 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm.
Tours of the Aranui Cave must be pre-booked.
Admission NZ$ 46
Triple Cave Combo (Glow Worm, Ruakuri and Aranui Caves) NZ$ 118
Glowworm Caves and Ruakuri Cave NZ$ 92
Glowworm Caves and Aranui Cave NZ$ 72
Specials, family passes and passes including lunch available.
There is no wheelchair access at the Glowworm Cave.
You should be able to walk unaided and transfer into the boat without too much help needed.
There are handrails, and the paths are well formed and should not pose big difficulties for someone who is reasonably mobile.
For those in wheelchairs not everything is lost, just the glow worm grotto is out of reach. Ruakuri Cave is accessible for people in wheelchairs.
(This information is mainly from the Waitomo Caves website)
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were first explored in 1887 by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau accompanied by an English surveyor Fred Mace. They built a raft of flax stems and with candles as their only lighting, floated into the cave where the stream goes underground.
As they entered the caves, their first discovery was the Glowworm Grotto with its myriad of tiny bright lights dotting the cave ceiling. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw a multitude of lights reflecting off the water. Looking up, they discovered that the ceilings were dotted with the lights of thousands of glow worms. Debris and logs littered the waterway, but by poling themselves toward the embankment they were able to leave the raft and explore the lower levels of the cave where they found more glow worms.
On an independent trip Tane Tinorau discovered the upper level of the cave and an easier access. Only after many subsequent visits did they discover an entry point on land. This is the same entry point used today.
In 1889 Tane Tinorau opened the cave to tourists. Visitor numbers soared and Chief Tane and his wife Huti escorted groups through the cave for a small fee. In 1906 the administration of the cave was taken over by the Government.
In 1989 the land and the cave were returned to the descendants of the original owners. Many staff employed at the caves today are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife.
About 300 limestone caves lie beneath the Waitomo region. Only three major caves can be visited: the Glowworm Caves, Ruakuri and Aranui Caves.
The limestone was formed about 30 million years ago when the region – like many others in New Zealand – lay beneath the sea. (The most fantastic limestone formations in the South Island, but now above the ground, is Castle Hill between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass.)
Limestone is a fossil rock made up of the remains of marine animals which eventually were compacted.
Thanks to geological and volcanic activity the limestone rose up out of the water. Exposed to the air, the limestone separated into massive rocks which again were weakened by erosion (air and water). Eventually the cracks widened, creating channels and rivers through which the water could flow at speed, over time creating larger caverns and caves.
The process has been going on with the formation of stalactites and stalagmites. These again grow from water dripping from the ceilings, forming hanging stalactites and right beneath them stalagmites growing up from the cave floor.
(Most of this information is from Wikipedia - with a few additions made by me)
The glow worms you find at the Waitomo Caves (and also at Lake Te Anau and other areas, like the Coromandel) are the Arachnocampa luminosa which are found in New Zealand only. The Maori name is titiwai, meaning "projected over water".
When the glow worms were first found in 1871 in a gold mine on the Coromandel, it was thought they were related to the European glow worm beetle but in 1886 a Christchurch teacher proved that they were the larvae of a gnat, not a beetle. The species was called Bolitiphila luminosa in 1891, before being renamed Arachnocampa in 1924.
(In Te Anau you can watch a film and get a lot of printed information on the species - and learn a lot more about the glow worms than in Waitomo.)
Arachnocampa species go through a life cycle of eggs hatching to larvae which later pupate into an adult fly. They spend most of their life as larvae.
The larval stage lasts 6 to 12 months, depending on food. The larva emerges from the egg only about 3 to 5 millimetres long, and through its life grows to about 3 centimeters.
The larva spins a nest out of silk on the ceiling of the cave and then hangs down as many as 70 threads of silk (called snares) from around the nest, each up to 30 or 40 cm long and holding droplets of mucus. The larvae can only live in a place out of the wind, to stop their lines being tangled, hence caves, overhangs or deep rainforest. In some species, the droplets of mucus on the silk threads are poisonous enhancing the trap's ability to subdue prey quickly.
The larva glows to attract prey into its threads. A hungry larva glows brighter than one which has just eaten. Prey include midges, mayflies, caddis flies, mosquitos, moths, and even small snails or millipedes. When prey is caught by a line the larva pulls it up (at up to about 2 millimetres a second) and feeds. If prey is scarce the larvae will turn to cannibalism, eating other larvae, pupae or adult flies.
The glow is the result of a chemical reaction that involves luciferin, a waste product; luciferase, the enzyme that acts upon luciferin; adenosine triphosphate, the energy molecule; and oxygen. It occurs in modified excretory organs known as Malpighian tubules in the abdomen.
The body of the larva is soft while the head capsule is hard. When it outgrows the head capsule it moults, shedding its skin. This happens four times through its life.
At the end of the larva stage it becomes a pupa, hanging down from the roof of the cave. The pupa stage lasts about 1 or 2 weeks and it glows intermittently. The male stops glowing a few days before emerging, the female's glow increases. The glow from the female is believed to be to attract a mate, and males may be waiting there when she emerges.
The adults (of both sexes) cannot feed and live only a short time. They glow, but only intermittently. Their sole purpose is to mate, and for the female to lay eggs. Adult insects are poor fliers and so will often remain in the same area, building a colony of glowworms. The female lays a total of about 130 eggs, in clumps of 40 or 50, and dies soon after laying. The eggs hatch after about 20 days and the cycle repeats.
The larvae are sensitive to light and disturbance and will retreat into their nests and stop glowing if they or their snares are touched. Generally they have few predators. Their greatest danger is from human interference.
A note for Germans:
The glow worms you find at Waitomo and the rest of New Zealand are not to be mistaken for the glow worms (Glühwürmchen) we know from Germany and other countries of the world. Those glow worms are the larvae of beetles (Leuchtkäfer), or: Lampyridae. In central Europe the flying glow worms are male.