Waitomo Caves

Lonely Planet review

The big-three Waitomo Caves are all operated by the same company, based at the snazzy new Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre , which incorporates a cafe and theatre. Various combo deals are available, including a Triple Cave Combo (adult/child $80/39). Try to avoid the large tour groups, most of which arrive between 10.30am and 2.30pm.

The guided tour of the Glowworm Cave , which is behind the visitor centre, leads past impressive stalactites and stalagmites into a large cavern known as the Cathedral. The acoustics are so good that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the Vienna Boys Choir have given concerts here. The highlight comes at the tour’s end when you board a boat and swing off onto the river. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark you’ll see a Milky Way of little lights surrounding you – these are the glowworms. Conditions for their growth are just about perfect here so there are a remarkable number of them.

Three kilometres west from the Glowworm Cave is Aranui Cave . This cave is dry (hence no glowworms) but compensates with an incredible array of limestone formations. Thousands of tiny ‘straw’ stalactites hang from the ceiling. It’s an hour’s walk to the caves, otherwise the visitors centre can arrange transport.

Culturally significant Ruakuri Cave has an impressive 15m-high spiral staircase, removing the need to trample through the Maori burial site at the cave entrance (as tourists did for 84 years). Tours pass through 1.6km of the 7.5km system, taking in vast caverns with glowworms, subterranean streams and waterfalls, and intricate limestone structures. For as long as this cave has been open to the public, people have described it as spiritual – some claim it’s haunted. It’s customary to wash your hands when leaving to remove the tapu . Tours depart from the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company .

Adjoining the Waitomo i-SITE, the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre has excellent exhibits explaining how caves are formed, the flora and fauna that thrive in them and the history of Waitomo’s caves and cave exploration.