Deep in the New Zealand countryside, south of Auckland, there is a place where you can head underground into a cave that literally sparkles all around you. What is it that makes the Waitomo Caves glow so brightly?It's not what you think.

Glow in the dark bugs in the Waitomo Caves

We were sitting on a boat deep in the middle of New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves when my friend Adrienne turned to me and said, “We just paid money to look at bugs.”

“Yes,” I replied. “But they are bugs that glow in the dark!”

The Waitomo Caves were formed more than 30 million years ago and now make up one of the most popular tourist attractions on the North Island. Located in the picturesque countryside south of Hamilton, this is a great stop on the way to or from Auckland. The area is picturesque and rural, but there are some charming hotels and great campsites nearby.

We stayed in the appropriately named Waitomo Caves Hotel, which is a grand early 19th century hotel that looks as if it could be the setting for a deliciously scary Stephen King novel. Don’t worry. It’s not haunted. It’s grand, comfortable and very welcoming.

Exploring the Waitomo Caves

Our guide was a massive man of Maori descent. It turns out that many of the guides here are descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau, the first person to explore these caves with English surveyor Fred Mace. In 1989, the land all around the caves and the caves themselves were returned to the descendants of Chief Tinorau after it had been taken by the government at the turn of the 20th century.

Our guide outlined the few rules. Don’t touch anything. You’re also not allowed any photos, which is a shame. He also asked us to keep our voices down. That could have been aimed at just Adrienne, Kieryn and me, but I’ll assume they tell everyone that.

Exploring the Glow Worm Caves

You enter the caves on foot, and you leave by boat. You walk through the upper level of the cave exploring the areas colourfully named the Catacombs, the Pipe Organ and the Banquet Chamber.

You’ll also see the Tomo, a 16 metre shaft made of limestone where an ancient waterfall still flows when there’s heavy rain in the area. The hole is lit so you can see the gorgeous limestone walls.

Then, you descend to the lower level of the Caves and get into a small wooden boat to explore the Cathedral. The Cathedral is the largest cavern in the complex and is utterly spectacular. The ceiling is 18 metres above your head, and it sparkles with the famous glow worms. All around you, the underground river also sparkles with the lights thousands of tiny glow worms. This cavern is also famous for having perfect acoustics.

More about the worms

Apparently, glow worms are unique to New Zealand. The larvae hang from the ceiling of the cave on threads of silk, and when thousands of them are covering the ceiling together, it looks like a starry sky at night. The glow worms that glowing most brightly are the hungry larvae, or female glow worms trying to attract a mate.

You have to be quiet and photography is banned because the larvae are sensitive to light and sound. They will retreat into their nests and stop glowing if they are disturbed.

Where there’s one cave, there are others

Of course, the Waitomo Caves are not the only caves to explore in the area. You can get very close to the glow worms here, and you can hear the rumble of underground waterfalls. The Ruakuri Cave is also wheelchair accessible.

You can also explore the Aranui Cave, a five minute drive from the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. This is the smallest of the caves in the area, but the formations in this cave are delicate, lovely, and steeped in myth.

If you’re adventurous, you can sign up for a black water rafting experience with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, which will bring you floating, climbing, and jumping through underground caverns and rivers. I’m told it’s quite exciting if you enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t, so I took a pass.

What do you think? What’s a better way to explore a cave? Walking, floating gently on a boat below a glittering ceiling of glowing bugs, or screaming as you rush down an underground river in a wetsuit?

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