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Waitomo – Guide for backpackers

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Above ground Waitomo is exciting, but underground it is the most visited tourist attraction in the country. It is just mind-blowing.

Located in the Waikato area, Waitomo hides New Zealand’s brightest jewel: the glowworm caves. Although this is not the only place where you can see those luminescent creatures glowing in caves, this is the biggest concentration of them and the easiest to access. In Waitomo you will have to go underground to find a new world of crystal formations and caves full of Maori history and unusual life forms. Those with a huge appetite for adventure will have options like Black Water Rafting or Tomo Abseilling (holes and caves).

Things that you can’t miss in Waitomo

  • See glowworms up close.
  • Check black water rafting off your bucket list.
  • Do the Ruakuri Bushwalk at night.
  • Visit at least one of Waitomo’s other caves.
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Visit Waitomo Glowworm cave

There are almost too many options to choose from to get to that point where you slowly drift beneath galaxies of glowworms deep underground. The simple option is to get yourself on a slow moving boats that runs every 30 minutes through the cave network. They will keep you dry and guides offer commentary. However most of you did not choose New Zealand to stay dry! Let us lay out your options:

  • Black water rafting is essentially tubing, but with much more crawling and climbing. Depending on the company and the trip that you chose you will spend between 2 to 6 hours underground either tubing, climbing, abseiling tomo (holes and caves) and waterfalls, or ramping through small passages in the massive cave network. The tubing part of any tours usually takes 1h30min to 2 hours.
  • If you want to feel your blood pump, embark for one of the longer options offering abseiling. One of them is a 37m abseil down a dark cave that seems bottomless until you reach its rugged floor. Those tours also include rock climbing and flying fox through the cave.
  • Finally, some tours will not include black water rafting as they will be running through other parts of the caves and keep you dry. Those usually do not allow you to see glowworms but offer serious climbing challenges.

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Other caves in Waitomo

There are 2 other main caves in Waitomo: the Ruakuri cave and the Aranui cave. However, walking around the area you will find many little ones hidden around.

The small Aranui cave is simply astonishing; brown, white and pink stalactite hang from almost everywhere and your guide will point out cave corals and flowerstones on the walls. The cave has almost a romantic feel to it.

Once used as a sacred burial ground, the Ruakuri cave is filled with Maori legends and spirits. Sacred sites are still to this date protected and undisturbed by tourists, as paths have been built away from it. You’ll learn all about Maori myths and legends while walking through the cave filled with underground rivers and rock formations. If you are lucky, you’ll spot a few glowworms too.

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Waitomo above ground

Most people only show up in Waitomo for its caving adventures and leave soon after their tour ends. The area, however, has much more to offer.

Around the caves, the Ruakuri Bushwalk track is great to do at night. Grab a torch and start walking. This 30 minute walk along the river will unveil many small caves, limestone formations and glowworms.

The town of Otorohanga is home to 2 BIG kiwi bird sculptures that are a great photo op! The Otorohanga Kiwi House and native bird park is also worth mentioning as it is a great place to see kiwi birds and learn about their breeding program.

Walking to Marokopa from Waitomo is a breeze and is well worth it. The famous Marokopa Falls are 35m high and one of the most beautiful falls of the country. In the same area we recommend you take the time to look for the Piripiri Cave and the Mangapohue Natural Bridge.

If you have some extra time in Waitomo

  • Take the coastal drive to reach Raglan from Kawhia.
  • Visit the Waitomo Caves Discovery centre to check out Moa fossils.
  • Bike the Timber trail starting near Te Kuiti.
  • Visit Te Kuiti in early April to assist the annual “running of the sheep”.
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