Escape from city life and grey winter days, Waitomo’s caves are a magical winter day-trip from Auckland, Hamilton or further afield!
Waitomo’s caves and native forest are the perfect way to put some sparkle into a chilly winter weekend. In need of a break from the big smoke, Louise and her husband Andy headed to Waitomo for the day. Here’s their tips on what see and do for the best Waitomo day-trip.
In search of a unique outdoor activity to mix up the winter weekends, Waitomo Caves came calling. Swapping the concrete jungle for glowworms and green forest was just what we needed. Plus being an all-weather option, rain wouldn’t stop us from checking out this classic NZ day-trip spot.
Auckland to Waitomo - time for a drive:
Hitting the road on a grey Sunday morning, we wound down through Waikato’s undulating countryside, pulling into Waitomo a little over two hours later. Leaving behind Auckland’s drizzly weather, the Waikato fog had lifted, leaving behind a stunner of a frosty winter’s day.
Our plan for the day:
With an action-packed day on the cards, we wanted to check out the must-do cave tours, while also leaving time to explore the walks and other free things to do in Waitomo. We’d booked our tickets online beforehand, opting for the most popular double cave combo. This meant we’d get to check out both Waitomo Glowworm and Ruakuri Cave, with the afternoon free for our own exploring.
First stop - Waitomo Glowworm Caves:
Kicking off at Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre, we grabbed our tickets and a quick coffee, before joining our group. We were lucky enough have Huia as our guide. None other than the Cave’s Head Guide, Huia is also a descendant of Tane Tinorau who first discovered Waitomo Caves in 1887. Sharing with us the cave’s fascinating history, we descended down into the subterranean structure.
The unassuming entrance made way for impressive limestone pillars and towering tomo, showcased by well-placed lighting. Huia explained that these were all thousands of years in the making - mother nature definitely didn’t build these in a day.
Next was an even loftier chamber, the aptly named ‘Cathedral’. With high-tech natural acoustics thanks to the arched cave ceiling, the Cathedral has been used for performances by opera singers, the local choir and on this day a few vocally-gifted members of our group who put the acoustics to test. Impromptu performance over, we made our way onto the cave’s boat ride.
Waitomo’s unforgettable boat ride:
Anticipation levels were high for the Glowworm Grotto - the famous glowworm cave chamber. Loaded into the boat, we were asked to keep silent - the glowworms like their darkness and quiet, plus it makes the whole experience completely tranquil. Punted along by oar, we drifted into the Glowworm Grotto, eyes adjusting to the ceiling packed with brilliant blue-white sparkling light. Hypnotised by thousands of glowworms doing their thing, I could have spent an hour or two staring up at this cave ceiling!
With the entire group suitably awestruck by these glowing creatures, it was back out into the sun-dappled forest. A short stroll through the bush back to the visitor centre, Andy I both agreed the famed caves deserved their must-do reputation.
Spiralling back underground - Ruakuri Cave:
From one legendary cave to the next, we hopped back in the car and headed up the road to Ruakuri Cave. Another friendly guide awaited, this time it was Leah, a expert on glowworms and the Tikanga Maori of Ruakuri - the culture and customs associated with the cave.
Briefed on the history and background of Ruakuri Cave (‘Rua' meaning den, ‘kuri' being dogs), we also found out that the cave is home to the more extreme cave tours of Black Water Rafting. A few times during our cave tour we spied groups of adventurers whooping and tubing through the underground streams - one for next time we’re down!
Ruakuri secrets - limestone sculptures and glowing lights:
A different set-up to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the Ruakuri Cave entrance is next to the Bush Scenic Reserve, with a sliding door to the cave hidden by some artful rock placement.
Behind the cave’s opening, we spiralled down an impressive man-made pathway taking us into the cave depths. Struck by the difference between Ruakuri Cave and Waitomo Glowworm Caves, this was another type of cave altogether. Less lofty and more intimate with tunnel-shaped passages, we got face to face with some very intricate stalactite and stalagmite limestone formations. With photos allowed in this cave, Leah let us snap a few of these ancient beauties, the limestone looking like sculptures with its curves and shards.
Glowworms - up-close and personal:
Winding above narrow chasms we came across mirror-like pools reflecting the ceiling dripping with stalactites, before checking out where Ruakuri’s glowworms call home. While the display isn’t as huge as the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, we got a different perspective seeing the little creatures close up and observing how the light hangs from very thin delicate strands.
Lunchtime - Waitomo’s eating options:
Back out into daylight, we bid farewell to Leah and decided it was time to see to our rumbling tummies! Back to the cafe at Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre it was, with their tasty cabinet options catching my eye earlier. A hearty steak and cheese pie with another strong flat white for me, Andy got stuck into a crispy golden serve of fancy fish and chips. Refuelled and ready tackle the afternoon, we were ready to see what was hidden in Waitomo’s lush green forests.
Waitomo’s short walks and waterfalls:
Three of the best known walks and sights in the Waitomo vicinity are the Marokopa Falls, Mangapohue Natural Bridge and Ruakuri Walk. Not wanting to be rushed, we opted to visit the first two, both of which are an easy stroll for tired legs.
The thunder of Marokopa Falls echoes along the short track. The rapids feeding the waterfall were in full force after the recent rain, with huge chutes of water tumbling down the face of this 35m wonder. Getting soaked by the misty spray was worth it for the photo-op, before a hasty retreat back to the car to put the heater on full blast!
A little drier and keen to check out the final attraction of the day, we got going on the track for to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. No trekking through muddy forest required, a well-made boardwalk takes you along the limestone gorge, before leading right up to and inside the massive ancient bridge. Craning our necks to take it all in,the limestone arch framed by the sunlight and native bush makes for an impressive sight.
With a whole lot more to this area than meets the eye, the day sped by, heading back to Auckland tired but completely satisfied with an awesome day out amongst Waitomo’s unique sights and forest.
One for next time
With a lot more than meets the eye when exploring your own backyard, on the ride back home we were already plotting what our next city escape might be. Aranui Cave is yet to be ticked off, and we both like the idea of making it a winter weekend get away with Rotorua’s hot pools and Hobbiton’s famous grassy knolls.
Ready to plan your own city-escape this winter? Book your spot on Waitomo’s favourite magical experiences.