Waitomo - meaning water hole in Māori - is a small rural settlement in the King Country / Te Rohe Potae district where underground limestone formations are evidence of the land rising from the ocean floor 30 million years ago.
For 125 years the unique caves have been attracting visitors from all over the world. A short drive from Hamilton - Waikato, the caves offer series of fascinating eco-adventures ranging from glow-worm viewing to black water rafting.
Waitomo visitor centre
Opened in 2010, Waitomo’s visitor centre offers a canopy for visitors on their journey to and from the caves as well as a café, retail and booking area.
Designed to create minimal impact on the environment, the visitor centre is made of materials that allow visitors to feel part of the outdoors while enjoying indoor comforts.
The design, inspired by the Waikato River, is based on a ‘hinake’ or eel catcher.
A myriad more than 400 caves lie underneath the lush, green surface at Waitomo, although only a handful of those identified are accessible to visitors.
The glow-worm grotto is one of the most popular attractions where visitors travel by boat into the spectacular cave guided by the light from thousands of Waitomo glow-worms (Arachnocampa luminosa), which are unique to New Zealand.
Ornate cave decorations, the deep limestone shaft known as the Tomo and the dramatic Cathedral cavern - where New Zealand opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa once performed - are highlights of the tour.
Local guides share historical and geological information during the tour, including cultural legends and local stories.
A few minutes further down the road, Aranui Cave is the smallest and most delicate of Waitomo's three main caves.
The cave entrance has a colony of native New Zealand cave wetas, and further into the cave there is an impressive collection of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and decorative formations.
Black water rafting
Cave tubing or black water rafting - another New Zealand innovation - draws thousands of overseas visitors to Waitomo every year.
An inflated rubber inner tube, the kind used in a car or truck tyre, is used as a flotation device to take adrenalin junkies down the river - but the thrill doesn’t end there.
Black Water Rafting Company and Waitomo Adventures run tours that vary in thrill-level, length of time, as well as different cave options.
Each Black Water Rafting expedition includes up to 12 people, and two expert guides.
Adventure-seeking tourists have the opportunity to abseil, weave, jump and float through the glow-worm-studded, subterranean wonderland in what is said to be a world-exclusive experience.
History of Waitomo Caves
The Waitomo glow-worm caves were first explored in 1887 by local Māori chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace.
Local Māori people knew of the caves’ existence, but the subterranean caverns had never been extensively explored until then.
They built a raft of flax stems and with candles as their only lighting, floated into the cave where the stream goes underground.
As they entered the caves, their first discovery was the Glow-worm Grotto with its myriad of tiny bright lights dotting the cave ceiling. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw a multitude of lights reflecting off the water.
Looking up, they discovered that the ceilings were dotted with the lights of thousands of glow-worms.
By poling themselves toward the embankment they were able to leave the raft and explore the lower levels of the cave where they found themselves surrounded by cave decorations.
Jubilant at their discovery, they returned many times to explore further, and on an independent trip Chief Tane discovered the upper level of the cave and an easier access.
Only after many subsequent visits did they discover an entry point on land. This is the same entry point used today by thousands of visitors annually.
By 1889 Tane Tinorau had opened the cave to tourists. Visitor numbers soared and chief Tane and his wife Huti escorted groups through the cave for a small fee. In 1906 the administration of the cave was taken over by the New Zealand government.
In 1989, almost 100 years later, the land and the cave was returned to the descendants of the original owners. Many staff employed at the caves today are direct descendants of Tane and Huti Tinorau.