The Underground Galaxy
Waitomo Glowworm Caves

By Rob Glover

Exploring the subterranean universe of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Just beneath the rugged forests and rolling hill farms of the Waitomo area on New Zealand’s North Island lies a dark and mysterious world. Carved for 30 million years by underground rivers, cavernous voids through ancient limestone hold treasures known in few places on earth. Mineral deposits create enormous, twisting formations in subterranean lairs while thousands of bioluminescent larvae light the way like so many stars in a cloudless sky.

These are the Waitomo Caves. Located a little more than 2 hours from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, the collection of underground passages, rivers, and rooms have become one of the most popular stops on any tour of the north island. There are several large caverns in the system, each with its own set of experiences.

For many visitors, the highlight of any trip through the Waitomo Caves is the glowworm. Officially dubbed arachnocampa luminosa, thousands of these little wonders cling to the rocky ceilings, each emanating a tiny point of light giving the otherwise dark cave the look of a broad, night sky.

There are several ways to explore this underground universe and the type of adventure depends on the specific cave and infrastructure set within it. Some experiences are low key affairs suitable for most everyone while others are spiked with a bit more adrenaline.

For some, the best way to experience the caves is an easy-going walking tour that concludes with a short underground boat ride. Floating peacefully along the gentle subterranean river under a galaxy of luminescent dots is a natural wonder like no other.

For others, however, a more thrilling menu of activities is in order. For example, abseiling through a hole in the forest floor and dropping 100 feet into a pitch black cave harnessed in gear you only just learned how to use is the ultimate trust fall. Blackwater rafting—an alternative mode of transport on the subterranean rivers which uses individual inner tubes instead of a boat—is a more personal introduction to the cave and its waterways. Other experiences such as zip lining through the dark, climbing hidden waterfalls, and underground waterslides round out the list of amazing sub-terrestrial adventures.


“Rob Glover is a North Carolina-based writer focusing on outdoor experience travel. When not lost on a trail or picking red clay from his shoes, Rob can usually be found at the brewery, searching for the perfect chocolate stout.”