There's a dark reality behind the bright, pretty lights of glow-worms in the Waikato, learns Jane Jeffries.

Deep beneath the Earth's surface, the damp and musty smell of the Waitomo Caves is soon forgotten as the magical sight of thousands of glow-worms, radiating their luminescent light, makes the cave ceiling twinkle. These memories created a wonderland experience for me as a child, never to be forgotten.

I visited the original Waitomo glow-worm caves in the 1960s and they are still operating today. But the wooden kiosk with the man selling tickets has long gone and a new visitors' centre with an impressive domed structure, reflecting the curves of the Waitomo River, has replaced it.

When Chief Tanetinorau and Fred Mace discovered these caves in 1897 they became a spectacle, creating fascination for locals and visitors. Binding flax together, they made rafts and entered the caves.

The influx of visitors prompted the government to build a hotel in the early 1900s, which is still standing today. The Waitomo Caves Hotel is an old lady, but still good for a night's accommodation.


Since the discovery of the caves, the enchantment has continued and new caves have been unearthed in the region. Waitomo now has several cave operators offering a menu of activities. You can be as intrepid as you like and take a seven-hour "lost world epic" tour including abseiling huge chasms and black water rafting or, for the more sedate, a glow-worm tour.

The best place to start is the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre, in the middle of town.

It is an interactive centre and has a trove of information on the geology of the area, the development of the caves and a video on the life cycle of the glow-worm. The kids will love it.

It was here I made my biggest discovery. Glow-worms are not worms but insects. When they glow they are in the larvae stage attached to the roof of the cave. They feed by dropping sticky "fishing lines" to catch insects. After about nine months they crystallise and turn into a fly, gravitating back to the light of the glow-worm, only to be caught and eaten by their own.

When I visited the original caves on my more recent trip, these 30-million-year-old caves looked just as impressive as I remembered as a child.

But they were busy - the popularity of this particular tour has grown as it ends with a mystical boat ride back to the outside world. If you are looking for a smaller, quieter experience, other cave operators provide just that.

Beneath the rolling farmland of Waitomo, just minutes out of town, is Footwhistle Cave. The bush-clad entrance to the cave is natural and non- commercial.

The cave opening is lit by candles, so our small group of 12 easily adjusted to the light.


The glow-worms were abundant and in the largest part of the cavern, the Cathedral, our guide ignited a magnesium torch providing a spectacular display that lit up the entire cavern.

Waitomo Caves is a unique part of New Zealand offering all levels of cave adventure, so go and have fun.

There is much to experience for all ages and the kids will remember it.

Auckland to Waitomo roadtrip

The picturesque Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The picturesque Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Zealong is our only tea estate. Make the most of your trip to Waitomo and visit these top attractions along the way:

Hamilton Gardens

Winner of the prestigious International Garden of the Year award, this unique garden tells the story of gardens through time.

Zealong Tea Estate

Zealong is our only tea estate.
Zealong is our only tea estate.

Just north of Hamilton, New Zealand's only tea estate offers a Discover Tea Experience and decadent high tea in their cafe overlooking the plantation.

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari

Sanctuary Mountain. Photo / Supplied
Sanctuary Mountain. Photo / Supplied

South of Te Awamutu, this "ecological island" surrounded by the world's longest pest-proof fence offers a sanctuary for many endangered species - from birds and tuatara to giant weta.

For more information visit

• Waitomo Caves is a small village about 2.5hrs drive, southwest of Auckland. It has a caving system beneath it, providing adventure for young kids to thrillseekers.

• The Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre is situated on Waitomo Village Rd, next to the i-site and is open every day except Christmas Day.

• See for more.