Friday, 21 August 2020

Planning a Waitomo Caves Day Trip

While you have no doubt seen pictures of the stunning glowworms and rural landscape, a day trip to Waitomo Caves offers so much more. There really is enough to fill several days if your time allows but we’ll focus in on the best options to include to really experience the area in one day from Auckland or Rotorua.

Cave on Ruakuri walk in Waitomo

The Waitomo glow worm caves are thought to be around 2-million years old and while that makes them a baby compared to the Jenolan Caves in Australia that have been scientifically dated to 340-million years, the glow worms here in Waitomo make them something very special.

Things to do in Waitomo

You won’t have any trouble finding things in Waitomo to fill a day, or several days if you had the time, these are our top 10 picks. They are plotted on the map below to give you an idea of the relative location to each other as they aren’t all located in the village itself. You will need to allow a little extra time to your trip home if you add on the waterfall or the natural bridge cave walk.

1. The Waitomo Glow Worm Cave Tour

The most popular cave tour, and the one you really must-do if you make the trip down here is the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave Tour. You can only visit this part of the cave system on an organised tour and there are quite strict rules for visitors including no photography.

While a lot of people are disappointed by the idea of no photos there are good reasons for it. The glow worms are very sensitive to light, you can’t take a good photo of them anyway without adequate time and a tripod making it impractical on the tour. You will appreciate this rule at the other end, just immersing fully in your time in the cave, not through the camera lens is an incredible experience that will be etched in your memory forever. This cave is recognised as one of New Zealand’s top nature attractions for a reason.

We made it down to Waitomo in time to join the first tour of the day which was fantastic, this is one of the least busy of the day and after the peaceful night I think you really do see the glow worms at their absolute best in the morning.

We had booked our tickets online in advance which was a simple process but not being sure how long the drive down would take I booked us on a slightly later tour just in case we didn’t make it. That was no problem at all, the ticket desk was very happy to switch us onto the next departure, it’s something they are used to doing so don’t be concerned about pre-booking. It’s worth doing to be sure of getting on the tour but you can always change the time if you need to.

A few minutes later our tour leader met us at the entrance of the cave and gave us a bit of a briefing about safety, glow worms and the history of the area. Something I liked about this tour is that many of the guides belong to the iwi (community) that has been the caretaker of this area and the caves for centuries. Our guide was able to share not only the history of the caves but also information about the local area and Maori legend.

This cavern you move into first is large and contains some dramatic examples of stalactites and stalagmites as well as a few glow worms. There is ample head hight and space so it didn’t feel at all claustrophobic.

Our tour guide provided more information while we are in here and if you have someone with a good singing voice in the group you might have the opportunity to appreciate the incredible acoustics. To hear the world-famous New Zealand opera singer, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sing in here must have been incredible.

The highlight of this tour is the boat ride, it takes less than 10 minutes but the guide asks for complete silence throughout and with the blue luminescence of the glow worms creating a galaxy of twinkling bug bottoms above your head it is one of those experiences that will be forever with you.

Check Waitomo Glow Worm Caves ticket price and tour details

2. The Ruakuri Cave Tour

The second major cave is Ruakuri and it also has a river running through it making it again the perfect environment for Arachnocampa Luminosa or the New Zealand glow-worm. The experience here is quite different and begins with a dramatic man-made spiral down into the cave. There’s more walking on this one but it’s still very easy and slow-paced with frequent stops. This is also the only cave tour I am aware of in New Zealand or Australia that is wheelchair accessible.

Spiral entrance to the Ruakuri Cave
The spiral ramp entrance to the Ruakuri Cave

You are allowed your camera with you in here and can even take photos once you stop to see the glow worms but it’s not an easy thing to do without a tripod so perhaps have a few attempts and then just enjoy them. The cobalt blue dots in your photo just can’t capture the beauty and magic.

Strands of New Zealand glow worms
These are glow worm threads, onces it’s dark the view is very different

In addition to the glow worms, Ruarkuri cave also has impressive limestone formations, crystals and fossils.

Check Ruarkuri Cave tour details and ticket price

3. Aranui Cave

The third main cave is Aranui which was discovered by a local man in 1910. It’s different to the other two in that there is no river running through it and as a dry cave it doesn’t have the glow worms.

Limestone and crystal formation in Ruakuri Cave, Waitomo

What it does have are beautiful high chambers decorated with spectacular limestone formations and huge stalactites in a variety of shades. While it’s perhaps the most dramatically adorned of the caves internally it is more comparable to caves overseas such as the Jenolan Caves in Australia so many visitors prioritise the glow-worm experiences offered by the first two tours if they don’t have time to visit all three.

Check Aranui Cave tour details and ticket price

4. Ruakuri Walking Trail

Our pick for one of the must-do activities to really experience Waitomo is the Ruakuri walk. This is a public bushwalk, free to access at any time of day or evening and it is really unique. You’ll pass caves and unique limestone formations along the way including the one below that you walk into and through on the path.

An impressive cave on the Ruakuri Walk

The Sci-Fi fans and kids will have their imaginations exploding with the possibilities inspired by the scenery through here. The walk is only just over a kilometre long and the track is well-formed, you’ll want to allow an hour or so to enjoy it.

The park at the start has carparking, picnic tables and coin operated BBQs. The walking trail starts to the left of the car park.

If you are prepared to drive home in the dark or are staying in the area overnight we highly recommend returning here around dusk with a torch. After dark along the track you will be able to see glow worms on the damp riverbanks and other areas. A good spot to see them is looking down from the bridge, the trail through to here is easy to navigate with the aid of a torch to avoid stumbling. Turn your torch off when you stop so your eyes can adjust to the dark and get the best experience, it’s important to not point the torch towards the glow worms as it disrupts their noctural feeding.

Bridge on Ruakuri walk

5. Blackwater tubing in the caves

This is the cave and glow worm experience for those who want it with an extra element of adventure and an adrenalin rush. New Zealand is the home of adventure tourism and floating through an underground waterway on the inner-tube of a car tyre is a great example of Kiwi ingenuity at it’s best.

Blackwater tubing

There are small group tours that kit you up with all the gear to keep you safe and comfortable for your time in the cave. It’s a bit physical, squeezing through spaces and clambering in and out, and there’s a leap of faith jumping from the ledge to the water below in the dark but what an experience! You then get to float along in the underground river beneath a galaxy of glow worms.

Check blackwater adventure ticket price and details

6. Waitomo walkway

The Waitomo Walkway is 3.3 km long and runs between Waitomo Village and the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve. Cross the road from the Discovery Centre in the village and you’ll find the start of the walkway. It leads through open farmland and native bush with views back towards the village.

Past the glow worm caves, you cross over Te Anga Road and then follow the Waitomo stream through more forest and farmland ending up in the park at the start of the Ruakuri walkway.

7. Mangapohue Natural Bridge

The next three spots are outside of Waitomo village heading towards the coast but are very beautiful and worth a visit if you have the time.

The first is Mangapohue Natural Bridge, a 700 metre loop track through the beautiful gorge including the 17 metre high limestone arch (natural bridge) that spans across the Mangapohue River. The arch is the remains of an ancient limestone cave system and still has the stalectite formations hanging from it. Along the trail you can also see the fossilised remains of 25 million year old oyster shells that have been exposed in the limestone rock.

Located on Te Anga Road, it’s a 35 minute (25 km) drive from the Waitomo Village to the trail head for this walk.

8. Piripiri Cave Walk

Continuing down Te Anga Road for another 5 minutes you’ll come to the Piripiri Cave Walk, this is another short 300 metre walk through native bush and limestone outcrops to a large open cave and down to the bottom. If you have done the cave tours in Waitomo you probably wouldn’t drive out here just to see this one but it’s one of the few that are free to enter, it’s not crowded and is conveniently located with the falls and natural bridge.

9. Marokopa Falls

Just a couple of minutes on from the Piripiri Cave is the Marokopa Falls. I think these are one of New Zealand’s prettiest waterfalls and there’s no strenuous hiking involved to get to them. They formed where the Marokopa River drops 35-metres down the rock wall forming a spectacular veil of water.

You get to the waterfall via a short 300-metre path through native Tawa and striking New Zealand Nikau palms.

The drive back to Waitomo Village from here is around 40 minutes (30 km).

10. Grab a bite or a drink at Huhu Cafe

Every now and again somewhere really surprises you so I want to give a shout out to Huhu Cafe. We stopped in here for lunch and a short rest between the morning and afternoons activities, in a small tourist town with few choices you try not to get your hopes up too much but I have to say they really excelled in both the meal and location.

Meals at Huhu Cafe Waitomo
View from the deck at Huhu Cafe Waitomo

When we got a table out on the edge of the deck overlooking the valley, and a menu featuring local craft beers and ciders from King Country Brewing Co it was a great start! Incidentally, if you like an apple cider theirs is excellent, very refreshing with an old-style bite and not overly sweet.

For lunch, my house smoked ora King Salmon with cream cheese and chive croquettes and a tomato chilli jam was exceptional and Drew was just as happy with his choice of crispy pork hock, kumara mash and an apple coriander salad drizzled with apple syrup. Getting a pork hock to that point of evenly crispy and caramelized without it being even slightly chewy is impressive, not to mention we can never pass up kumara in any form when we are back in NZ.

Andy and Abi have created a great spot to enjoy some genuine Kiwi hospitality and New Zealand inspired dishes made with quality local produce.

Are the Waitomo Caves World Heritage Listed

We were surprised to learn that the Waitomo cave system isn’t UNESCO World Heritage-listed. Given the uniqueness of glow worms in this density, the natural beauty of the area and the extent of the cave system it really is a destination for your bucket list.

Not being listed doesn’t stop it being well protected though. The Department of Conservation together with Waitomo Glowworm Caves work in partnership to improve conservation outcomes for the area.

We recently learned that there are only 3 sights in New Zealand that are on the UNESCO world heritage list, the Tongariro National Park in the North Island, Te Wahipounamu in the South Island and the sub-Antarctic islands. To be honest I think they are just finding it too hard to choose because New Zealand is one incredible experience after another.

Planning your Waitomo Caves day trip from Auckland

A day trip to the Waitomo Caves from Auckland is best done with an early start. Depending on your starting point in the city and the time of day it’s a 2-3 hour trip. Heading south early in the day is against the predominant flow of traffic which saves time and is an advantage to waking up early.

It may also mean that you are in Waitomo early enough to join the first tour of the day which is a little less busy and feels a little special.

The three major caves can only be accessed on an organised tour so you are likely to want to include at least one of those, they are each quite different so there is a reason to include more than one.

Depending on your interests and how much time remains there are three popular options to tack onto your day trip:

  • Continue in Waitomo and drive another 35 minutes towards the coast and visit the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and the Marokopa Waterfall
  • Detour to the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata on your way home, this will make the total return drive around 3.5 hours, or
  • Detour to the Blue Spring in Putaruru which makes the return drive about 3 hours 40 minutes.

Planning your Waitomo Caves day trip from Rotorua

A day trip to the Waitomo Caves from Rotorua is another good option. The scenery between the two is rural and quite special with the limestone outcrops. You could include Hobbiton as a secondary stop on this route but it’s a little out of the way and we’d suggest using a second day if you have the option to enjoy both fully.

Waikato scenery
Road trip scenery between Rotorua and Waitomo

If you did have time for a stop along the way then the Blue Springs at Putaruru would be our suggestion. The water takes 100 years to filter through from the Mamaku Plateau and as a result, it is incredibly pure and clear with a distinctive turquoise hue. There are two options to get to it, the longer 3-hour return route from Whites Road along the Waihou River is recommended for the diverse scenery and small waterfalls but the shorter 30-minute return walk was from Leslie Road will get you to the springs and might be a more practical addition as a side trip.

The drive from Waitomo to Rotorua via Putaruru will take you just around 2 hours.

Where to stay near Waitomo Caves

If you have the opportunity to stay a little longer and not limit yourself to a day trip there are a number of reasons to extend your visit. There’s a lot to see and do in this small section of the Waikato and you won’t fit it all into a day. You can have a great day trip but you’ll not see everything.

Secondly, there are some ‘after dark’ activities that are worth including and given it’s a 3-hour return drive to either Rotorua or Auckland most will want to be on the road back by dusk.

An essential evening activity, if you have the chance, is the Ruakuri walk after dark. You’ll want to pack a torch or arrange to borrow one from your accommodation before attempting this. The limestone rocks and mossy banks are home to millions of glow worms. Keep your torch pointed at the ground so you don’t trip and don’t lift it up toward the glow worms. They are best seen if you turn the torch off once you are standing still and let them and your eyes adjust to the dark.

If a light source like a camera flash or torch is pointed at glow worms it can cause them to ‘switch off’ the bioluminescent effect that makes them glow, this is how they attract food and interrupting their natural rhythm can harm the colony.

Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge

It’s the hosts, Lyn and Richard, that make this property in the heart of Waitomo so popular and highly rated. Beyond offering clean and comfortable rooms at an affordable price point they have all the local knowledge to make your stay extra special.

Check prices and availability for Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge

Waitomo Boutique Lodge

A bit more of a splurge but a very special New Zealand experience is found at Waitomo boutique lodge. Set on 2500 hectares it has views across rural Waikato to the Coromandal Ranges and Ngauruhoe ski fields. Set in immaculate gardens with a pool and hot tub, tennis court and fitness centre there is everything you could want here.

Hosts Leanne and Rodney are widely praised for the friendly experience and excellent meals.

Check prices and availablity for Waitomo Boutique Lodge

An organised tour option

If you don’t have the opportunity to do a self-drive day trip to Waitomo there are a range of day tours that operate out of either Auckland or Rotorua.

You can combine the visit from Auckland with a tour of Hobbiton, the movie set in Matamata used during filming of both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbiton movies. You can read more about our experience at Hobbiton and see options for a joint Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton experience here.

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Waitomo Caves poster
Waitomo Caves poster
Waitomo Caves poster

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