Finding Glow Worms in Waitomo, New Zealand

Adventure rating 3

‘OK, who wants to go Blackwater Rafting with glow worms?’, asked our Stray bus driver, Motors. A lot of people whooped or nodded along. I was a little less enthusiastic. Still recovering from an ankle injury (4 months ago but who’s counting?) I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge. Slippery rocks? Abseiling? Hmmmm… nah.

But as I flipped through the different options available, I was pleasantly surprised to see there were tons of ways you can see the famous cave residents of Waitomo, on New Zealand’s North Island. The more extreme people could choose to abseil over 100 metres down a rock face, whereas the more risk-averse could just jump on a boat and be taken through the caves.

I settled on something in the middle. A two hour caving experience which challenged me to walk and climb my way through, but also had a couple of leisurely float trips on inflatable tyre inners to see the glow worms in all their glory. I was excited, but nervous.

Waitomo caves group

If you have no idea what I mean by glow worms, then let me fill you in. They’re not technically worms at all, but the larvae of a mouthless gnat. When the gnat matures it’s got no way of eating, so it needs to stock up on those calories whilst it’s still a gross little larvae.

It sits in a cold, dark cave and spins out sticky, poisonous threads to capture unsuspecting airborne bugs. To lure in its prey, it illuminates itself with a mesmerising blue light – exactly the kind of thing that flies and mosquitoes just love (think about those blue-lit bug zappers, but in the wild, and you’re kind of onto the right lines). Once the bug is ensnared, there is no way out.

If the larvae is particularly hungry or doesn’t have any luck getting a meal, it will simply move next door and eat its neighbour. Cannibalism doesn’t seem to be a taboo in this social circle.

So why would I want to go underground and see such a nasty piece of work? Well, because it’s so pretty. The combined efforts of all of these ‘glow worms’ creates a ceiling of lights similar to the night sky. It really is beautiful.

caving in waitomo

I wish I could have taken some photos of exactly what I was seeing, but unfortunately there were no cameras allowed down the black hole, so you’ll have to settle for some ‘official’ photos of my sweaty mug taken by our guide. Lucky you!

Our adventure started with a (seemingly endless but probably only a 10 metre) climb down a ladder into a black hole. If that sentence doesn’t scare you then you’re a braver person than I.

ladder to go down to waitomo caves

A quick scramble over a rock and a few minutes adjusting my eyes to the darkness and I was ready to go. Our group of around 10 fellow Stray Busers was eagerly awaiting our descent into the unknown. I was practically shitting in my wetsuit.

We hopped over the first section of rocks with surprising grace – the ‘gum boots’ (wellies for the Brits amongst us) provided ample grip on the wet rocks – until we landed at the mouth of a small cave. Saying our thanks to the cave gods and slathering our faces with mud to show them we meant no harm, we slid down a natural slide into the next chamber.


More rock-hopping, more slopping through water. I was glad that my right boot had a hole in the bottom to drain out the near-freezing water. My left boot was intact and kept hold of the chilly liquid to form a kind of ice pack for my injured ankle… Bonus!

Next up was the main event… Climbing into an inner tube to float down the water, watching the glow worms on the ceiling. We were told to pick a tube to match our bum size, so naturally I picked up the largest and prepared to board.

Let me tell you, there is nothing graceful about falling arse-first into a blow up flotation device. All kinds of ripples (read: tidal waves) were formed, but the glow worms took it in their stride and barely flinched.

glow worms waitomo black water tubing

We bobbed happily along in a string, feet under each other’s armpits, facing up, headlamps off. An eerie silence descended on the group as we stared at the hypnotic blue lights all around us. As our eyes adjusted they seemed to get brighter, and their light reflected all around us on the water’s surface. Spellbinding.

After all this excitement it was snack time at what the guides cheerfully called the ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ (see what they did there?). Hot orange squash was poured and chocolates given to those who could tell the funniest joke. My addition?

“My boyfriend left me because I can’t stop touching pasta. I have to admit, I’m feeling cannelloni right now.”

I reckon I nailed it. The guide did too, and I received a chocolately Freddo for my efforts.

From there we pretty much just did more of the same. More walking, more hopping, more climbing and more floating. There was also an incident with a small stream which narrowed to create rather a strong current. It was mildly scary but probably ranked about 5 out of 10 on the scareometer. Acceptable.

inside the waitomo caves

When we emerged, sweaty and steaming from the ‘Great Beneath’, we all agreed that today was really one of the good days. Highly recommend that you get your butt out to New Zealand and see these cool little glowing buggers for yourself.

I travelled with Stray hop on hop off bus on their JASE pass and ventured into the caves with Waitomo Adventures. Thank you to Stray for hosting me on their wonderful bus network.

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Finding glow worms in Waitomo, New Zealand

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

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