Taumarunui to Waitomo Road Trip

waitomo glowworm caves

Heading north from Taumarunui, we find the world-famous Waitomo Glow-worm Caves. These natural wonders were formed 30 million years ago and discovered in 1887 by Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace.

The morning brings showers as we head north and rejoin SH3 at Eight Mile Junction, pass through Te Kuiti, the Shearing Capital of the World, and turn off to Waitomo Caves.

En route we debate whether to: a) take a black water rafting trip (float on an inner-tube through dark caves with Waitomo Adventures), or b) take a walking tour. Bob’s keen to walk while I’d rather float with Waitomo Adventures as they have an excellent reputation, but in the end, as we only have two more days in the North Island, we compromise and opt for a wetsuit-free cave adventure with Spellbound.

We join a small group at the information centre where we depart with our guide, Katy. A rocky downhill stroll leads to the Mangawhitikau Cave where we don safety helmets and enter its inky blackness. A stream runs through and there are several good examples of stalagmites and stalactites.

We board a raft and Katy instructs us to switch off the miner-lamps on our helmets. Then, as we gently float through the darkness, glow-worms begin to emit bright beams of light tinged with green. Before long countless galaxies are swirling by with such dizzying regularity that Bob comments that he feels like we’re on the set of Star Trek.

And wait, there is a sound...and it’s not the theme music, it’s a... waterfall?!

“Oh no,” yelps Bob, “you promised we wouldn’t get wet!” The roaring gets louder and louder and just as I wonder if I have actually let Bob down, Katy flicks on her safety helmet light and we disembark.

What sounded like a 12 metre waterfall is in fact only a foot high, thanks to the cave’s awesome acoustics. Bob looks rather sheepish when he sees it but Katy reassures him that he’s not the first to be fooled.

Back in Waitomo, we call into the Information Centre. It’s a great place to discover the region as the adjoining Museum of Caves has an excellent display on Waitomo’s ‘karst’ landscapes. There’s also a multimedia show, Arachnocampa Luminosa, which tells the story of the NZ glow-worm.

I squeeze through the cave crawl, a simulated caving experience, and Bob gives it a go too but winds up stuck like Pooh Bear in Rabbit’s hole. Fortunately for Bob – unlike the unfortunate Pooh – we manage to get him out without resorting to drastic measures.

A tad embarrassed, Bob buries himself in the history of cave exploration, while I chat to the friendly information staff about afternoon activities. The choices are endless from abseiling into the spectacular Lost World with Waitomo Adventures (it looks absolutely amazing!) to horse trekking, quad biking, hiking and an early pioneer heritage show at Woodlyn Park.

In the end Bob and I decide to check in to the grand-looking Waitomo Hotel overlooking the village and work out later what we’re going to do next. A narrow staircase leads to our rooms in the original Victorian-style octagonal turret and after settling in we relax outside on lawn chairs that provide vast views over the Waitomo Valley.

Later, feeling more energetic and having enjoyed our small taste of caving in Mangawhitikau Cave, we decide to tour the Waitomo Caves which put this town on the map when they were discovered in 1887.

We join a small group and enter the cave with Richmond, a local Maori guide with an extensive knowledge of the region’s geology. He tells us that Waitomo’s limestone landscape was formed about 30 million years ago from the bones and shells of billions of sea creatures.

We tour the upper levels of the caves, then take the stairs down into the 46-foot-high ‘cathedral’, with its impressive stalactites and stalagmites. The highlight for Bob and I comes at the end with another awe-inspiring boat ride through caverns lit by millions of glow-worms.

We head back to the hotel for dinner in an atmospheric dining room complete with chandeliers. Afterwards we relax beside the log fire where we meet an elderly couple from New Plymouth who reminisce about the hotel’s heydays. “It was pure luxury in the ’30s,” they say. “These days we keep coming back because it’s just as we remember, although it has had a spruce up!”