Try this at your next social event. Say to your friends – “Guess what I did on my recent trip to New Zealand? I went Black Water Rafting in a cave filled with glow worms!” That should grab their attention & draw a crowd.
So, if you’re looking for a truly unique & fun experience when touring New Zealand, be sure to visit the famous glowworm caves of Waitomo on the North Island. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, take the Black Labyrinth tour of Ruakuri Cave offered by The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, like I did.
The area around Waitomo is a wondrous maze of subterranean limestone caves, canyons, and rivers. The three main caves – Ruakuri, Glowworm & Aranui – have welcomed visitors for over 100 years. The first two are “wet caves” with rivers flowing through them & they are home to thousands of glowworms casting their luminescent greenish light into the darkness.
Black Water Rafting
I’ll bet you’re wondering what is Black Water Rafting? Well, it’s like white-water rafting but through a dark cave. Luckily, there are no Class 4 or 5 rapids, just a relatively mild flowing river and a couple small waterfalls you get to jump off backwards, landing on your “bum” in an inner tube. It’s all great fun, but the big highlight is floating in your rubber tube through a glowworm-studded underground wonderland. It’s magical!
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (yep, that’s really their humble name!) has been guiding adventurous people (in groups of 6-12) through the Ruakuri Cave for over 30 years. They were New Zealand’s first black water rafting operator – and still are the only ones leading rafting tours through Ruakuri’s stunning underworld.
My “Black Labyrinth” Cave Experience
When I had the wonderful opportunity to visit New Zealand for almost 4 weeks in 2015, I knew the Waitomo Glowworm Caves were a must-see & Black Water Rafting was a must-do! I first explored much of the South Island on a small-group tour with friends. Then four of us continued to the North Island for a few final days of sight-seeing in Rotorua & Auckland, with a visit to the Waitomo Caves.
In this blog post, I want to share my story so you will know what the “cave tubing” experience is really like. It will help you decide if this unique adventure is something you’d like to add to your must-do travel list when visiting the beautiful country of New Zealand. If this wet-version of cave exploration isn’t for you, never fear! Waitomo also offers “dry” walking tours of their different glow worm caves (info at bottom).
PHOTO CREDITS: Personal cameras were not allowed inside the cave, so most of these photos are ones taken by our Legendary Black Water Rafting Company guides and from the company website.
Let the Caving Adventure Begin
That morning, my friends & I made the 2-hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo. We had a 12noon reservation for the 3-hour Black Labyrinth tour, so we arrived in plenty of time to check-in at The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company’s center. At noon, we were ushered down the hill to their staging area below with bathrooms & showers, and all the caving gear.
We met our two adorable (and, as always, young!) guides – Pip, a New Zealand (Kiwi) woman and Vince from Germany. Our first task was to get suited up in full wetsuits because the cave water would be bone-chillingly cold. The water temps (listed on the website) range between 50-57°F (10-14°C). Since we were there in February (New Zealand’s summer), the temperatures were probably more like the high 50s.
Our “fashion-forward” outfits included a sleeveless Farmer John wetsuit with a full jacket on top, booties, white plastic shoes for over the booties (for the cave walking part), and a helmet with a light. We had fun laughing at each other as we got into these caving get-ups & then took our first group photo. We numbered 7 with my group of 4 Americans, a Kiwi couple from Auckland, and a man from Indonesia.
Pre-Cave Practice Time
With our two guides, we piled into a company van and headed off to the Cave – around an 8-minute drive. Upon arrival, rubber tubes were handed out, so we could begin our pre-cave practice sessions. First, we had to learn the “floating in formation” technique. Lined up on the ground, we each sat in our tube and rested our feet & legs on the tube of the person in front of us. That way, we could all float together through the cave as one inter-locked group – like an eel!
Next, we walked to the nearby river with a small dock perched over the water. Now, we were going to practice our backwards waterfall jump! Standing at the dock’s edge, with our back to the water and holding our tube securely around our body with our “bum” in the middle, we leaped backwards and landed in the water in the cushion of our tube. It was great fun watching everyone’s expression as they hit the cold water which, it turns out, is the same river that runs through the Cave. Already loving that wetsuit!
Our Adventure in the Ruakuri Cave
Finally, it was Cave Time! Each carrying our tube, we headed into the woods in our rubber boots and walked down some stone steps. Voila, the natural entrance into the Cave came into view. Soon we were inside this limestone wonder with its various formations.
First, we posed for another group photo. Happily, one of the guides always carries a waterproof camera to take photos during the tour, as personal cameras & GoPros are not allowed by the rest of us – for good reason.
We spent a total of around 1 ½ fun-filled hours in the Ruakuri Cave, with an interesting (and sometimes challenging!) mix of first walking through the dark cave over uneven rocks and running steams to then floating on the river in our rubber tubes. Of course, our headlamps were always on to help guide the way.
And, we had two waterfalls along our path. Our practice had paid off, as we confidently jumped off the waterfalls backwards with our tubes. Luckily, the falls weren’t very high – so not really scary, just fun & exhilarating! (like below)
After the waterfalls, we hooked legs & created our eel, floating through the cave with a multitude of glow worms shining their luminescent greenish lights above us. The guides would push and pull us along, as needed. Towards the end, we were able to unhook and just free float along in the gently flowing river.
Clearly, the highlight for everyone was the part where we floated through the cave with our helmet lights turned off. We were in total darkness with only the flickering of thousands of small glow worms lighting up the upper cave walls & ceilings. It looked like a starry night sky with the Milky Way shining so bright. It really was enchanting!
Our cave tubing adventure sadly came to an end, when the river led us to a large cave opening, with a view of the woods just beyond. So, we scrambled up the rocks with our tubes, and made the short walk to the van to head back to the center. There in the equipment area, we shed our wetsuits, rinsed off the gear, and quickly headed to the showers to warm up!
Back up the hill at the Center’s Café, complimentary toasted bagels & hot tomato soup was waiting for us. And like all good businesses, a nearby screen was soon displaying photos of our group in the cave taken by our guide. Of course, I couldn’t resist buying the USB drive with our photos for 30 New Zealand Dollars (NZD) ($23 USD). This was one adventure I definitely wanted photos of for bragging rights & impressing my friends at those cocktail parties!
About Those Glow Worms
You might also be wondering what actually makes these glowworms glow. Thanks to my Lonely Planet guidebook, here is an explanation.
Glowworms are the larvae of the fungus gnat. The larva glowworm has luminescent organs that produce a soft, greenish light. Living in a sort of hammock suspended from an overhang, it weaves sticky threads that trail down and catch unwary insects attracted by its light. When an insect flies towards the light, it gets stuck in the threads – the glowworm just has to reel it in for a feed!
The larval stage lasts from 6-9 months, depending on how much food the glowworm gets. Glowworms thrive in moist, dark caves but they can survive anywhere if they have the requisites of moisture, an overhang to suspend from, and insects to eat. Waitomo is famous for its glowworms, but you can see them in many other places around New Zealand, both in caves and outdoors.
When you come upon glowworms, don’t touch their hammocks or hanging threads, try not to make loud noises, and don’t shine a light right on them. All of these things will cause them to dim their lights. It takes them a few hours to become bright again. The glowworms that shine most brightly are the hungriest. Hmm… do you feel smarter now?
HELPFUL INFO TO PLAN YOUR TRIP
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company & Its Two Tours
The company actually offers two different tours of the Ruakuri Cave – the 3-hour Black Labyrinth tour that I took & an even more adventurous 5-hour Black Abyss tour, which includes a flying fox and a 35-meter abseil into the cave. Check the websites below for more info.
- Black Labyrinth Tour – Adult Ticket – 142 NZD (~$95)
- Black Abyss Tour – Adult Ticket – 246 NZD (~$164)
- The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (website)
More About the Waitomo Caves
The big-three Waitomo Caves are all operated by the same company, based at the new Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre which was beautifully rebuilt in 2010 after a fire. There are “regular” (non-rafting) walking tours of all three caves – Ruakuri, Glowworm & Aranui – and even some other caves.
The Waitomo I-Site Visitor Information Center is based at the nearby Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre. Their website has a listing of a variety of cave tours, with something for everyone.
“Dry” Walking Tour of Ruakuri Cave
(from the website) Ruakuri Cave offers a captivating blend of Waitomo’s most compelling subterranean experiences. You journey down through a spectacular man-made, 15-meter-high spiral entrance to enter the cave. Tours then lead thru 1.6km of the 7.5km system, taking in vast caverns with glowworms, subterranean streams and waterfalls, and intricate limestone structures.
Re-opened in 2005, this cave is now an amazing example of engineering and natural cave structure. Tours are approximately 2 hours (1 ½ hours underground) and are limited to 18 people per tour. Ruakuri Cave is New Zealand’s longest guided underground walking tour. Plus, it has full wheelchair and pushchair access. Adult ticket is 74 NZD (~$49).
Waitomo Glowworm Cave
This 45-minute guided tour leads past electrically-lit impressive stalactites & stalagmites down to a large cavern known as the Cathedral. The acoustics are so good that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa & the Vienna Boys Choir have given concerts here. The tour concludes with a 5-10 minute boat ride on the underground Waitomo River in the dark through the Glowworm Grotto. Adult ticket – 51 NZD (~$34).
So Where Exactly Is Waitomo
Waitomo is located in the western-middle part of New Zealand’s North Island below Hamilton. (see map) It is relatively equidistant between two major towns/cities popular with visitors. Here’s the approximate drive times for both:
- Rotorua to Waitomo – 2 hours
- Auckland to Waitomo – 2.5 hours
We visited Waitomo on a quick day trip, as we drove in a rental car between overnights in Rotorua & Auckland. So, there was no time to do anything else in Waitomo besides the Black Labyrinth tour.
However, if you have the luxury of more time, it might be great to spend at least one night in Waitomo so you could do some of the other cave tours. After reading about the “dry tour” of the Ruakuri Cave, I would definitely do that one – and probably the Waitomo Glowworm Cave too! Guess I’ll have to put them both on the list for next time.
COMMENTS: What do you think? Would you go black water rafting? Or is a “dry” walking cave tour more your style? Have you ever been in a glow worm cave?