Waitomo Revisited: Kiwi Cave Nostalgia

​An iconic Kiwi tourist attraction since ages ago. It’s time to re-live the Waitomo Caves nostalgia and discover what’s new in this underground wonderland.

Everyone’s got their own Waitomo Glowworm Caves story, whether it’s the mid-90’s memories of crazy cave shapes, or your 10 year old self being equally impressed by the glowworms and the massive ice creams at the Big Apple afterwards. It’s time to rediscover this local favourite and take a kid-friendly tour down memory lane. The natural beauty has stood the test of time and alongside there’s been a few exciting new additions since you last visited 5, 10 or 30 years ago. Here’s our wrap of all you know and love about the caves and what’s new for the subterranean spectacle.

With Waitomo Glowworm Caves celebrating 125 years of guiding a few years ago, the region’s crown jewels remain as impressive as ever. The classic combination of trailing down into the colossal cave chamber before gliding under the spectacular Glowworm Grotto hasn’t changed much in recent times. The distinctive Cathedral cave and glowworm galaxy-gazing boat ride will sharpen up those vague memories from yesteryear. For younger members of the party it’s not only the visual spectacle, but also the fact that it’s essentially glowworm’s ‘poo’ sparkling away that makes the experience even more memorable for the pint-sized.

While the caves have hardly aged a day since your last visit, arriving at the cave you’ll notice there’s been a big (beautifully built) change outside of the caves. The new award winning Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre was opened in 2010 after a fire in 2005 destroyed the old centre. The impressive timber structure is all lofty beams and curved contours, opening out onto the surrounding native forest and making an awesome starting point for the cave tours. 

For all the newness, Waitomo Glowworm Caves remains very much grounded in its history. Local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau was the first to discover the caves in 1887 and many of the current guides are descendants of Tinorau, including the Head Guide, Huia Davis who is Tinorau’s great-grandson. Descend into the caves and you’ll be following in his historical footsteps. The current entrance to the caves is the very same path used by Tinorau when he first started guiding tourists through the caves in 1889!

If Waitomo Glowworm Caves is the historical big daddy of the cave line-up, Black Water Rafting and Ruakuri Cave represents a new breed of adventure-charged cave tours. The Black Water Rafting team have been around since 1987 but many have yet to cross this NZ Must-Do off their list. Unless of course you’re one of intrepid originals that jumped aboard their ute in the 80’s when they would cruise Waitomo village looking for a few extra tourists to float through the caves with them!

From its grass-roots beginnings, Black Water Rafting has developed into one of North Island’s most highly rated adventure activities. Cue rave reviews from backpackers and adolescents willingly spending five hours straight with their parents. Despite being a millennial crowd-pleaser, the tours haven’t strayed far from their original 80’s format. Created and guided by passionate cavers, the Black Labyrinth and Black Abyss​ tours are the most endorphin-inducing three or five hours you’ll ever spend underground. Climbing up waterfalls, ziplining and floating down glowworm filled tunnels are all part of the deal. If you weren’t intrepid (or old enough) to do this back in the day, book yourself a spot, bring along the big kids (12+ years for the Black Labyrinth, 16+ years for Black Abyss) and get ready for some serious underground fun.

The versatile and incredibly varied Ruakuri Cave isn’t only home to Black Water Rafting. This is where you’ll find New Zealand’s longest underground walking tour. Since reopening to the public in 2005, this geological wonder has opened up the subterranean experience to an even wider audience - becoming the Southern Hemisphere’s only fully wheelchair and pram accessible cave tour. Showcasing Ruakuri’s deep, snaking depths, this is truly one for the whole family. From the 15 metre spiralling entrance, to the kid-captivating limestone structures and gently winding path which cuts above narrow crevasses, it’s all about the thrills without any spills.

More recently Ruakuri Cave has bared witness to the most exciting development since Peter Jackson first started filming, getting its own slice of the Middle Earth action. With more than a few LOTR fanatics amongst the Ruakuri Cave guides, they’ll gladly share all the juicy Trilogy-related cave details. From which sound effects were recorded in Ruakuri Cave, to the quality time Andy Serkis (aka Gollum) spent in the caves. The Trilogy experience is the easiest way to win even more brownie points with the LOTR fans in your midst. Young or old, this is bound to make for some happy elves, combining the caves with a visit to the exceptional Hobbiton and Te Puia.

Back on the sun-dappled surface, it’s not only below ground that Waitomo shines. The surrounding native forest and boulder-dotted valleys remain largely untouched after all these years, adding to its rural kiwi charm. Once the underground wonders have been explored, keep the nature kick going with the plethora of easy and rewarding walks in the Waitomo vicinity. The sturdy tracks are made for kid-friendly exploration. No crazy bush trekking required and enough interesting bits to keep all parties captivated. Our top picks in the area include:

​The Ruakuri Walk - the one famous for the glowworms lighting up the forest at night

Mangapohue Natural Bridge - featuring a huge limestone arch dotted with dangling stalactites

The waterfall favourite - Marokopa Falls Walk, one of the country’s finest towering cascades.

If it’s time for a natural nostalgia fix, pack up the car and head for Waitomo rolling green hills. Share the iconic cave contours with a new generation and remember just how brightly those little glowworms shine! Book your cave tickets here and Black Water Rafting tour here​.

​​Find the right cave experience for you here.