Hiding deep under the rolling hills of the North Island’s Waikato region are caverns, cave systems filled with the light of a million glowworms and the roar of subterranean rivers. Thankfully there’s a way for us all to see this mysterious side to New Zealand.
Christina frowns at me. I can tell I still haven’t convinced her that this is a good idea, but I persevere.
“I prefer being up high – you know that,” she explains. “I’m a rooftop bar girl, not a caver. How can you see this panning out well?”
But I’m not being put off.
This is our first time in the Waikato Region – a large section of New Zealand’s North Island – and it’s also our first time to go blackwater rafting. It’s one of those crazy sports that NZ loves to do.
Zorbing, bungee jumping, jetboating – the Kiwis are mad for it all. So tunnelling your way into a prehistoric cave system with nothing but a hard hat and a truck tyre innertube then floating your way out of the darkness is absolutely their kind of disco.
But before we plunge into the icy waters of a river that’s never seen the light of day, there are a couple of precursors that build us up to it.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Legendary Blackwater Rafting
Visiting these caves for the first time, and this being one of the few times Christina and I have ventured underground like this, we combined three different experiences.
The Waitomo Glowworm Cave, the Ruakuri Cave and a Legendary Blackwater Rafting adventure gave us a more complete perspective of the area and also got us used to being so far underground.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave boat ride – 45 minutes
From the top of the Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre, our guide leads us down into the side of the limestone hill. Down, down, down we march, past huge ivory-coloured stalactites and stalagmites.
Through deep caverns and narrow passages until we come to a low ceiling. Turning off the lights our guide shows us the entrance to the river that flows beneath our feet. There in the rock above, are hundreds of glowworms gleaming like green-blue jewels in the darkness.
From there, we board a flat-bottomed boat which our guide manoeuvres along the dark river as we look up at the incredible light show of millions of glowworms above our heads.
It’s a wonderful introduction to the Waitamo cave system, learning about how the caves were shaped and to get us used to the feeling of being underground.
Ruakuri Cave adventure walk – 2 hours
It’s only a short drive up the road to the next part of our caving adventure: the Ruakuri Cave.
The symbol for this cave is two red dogs leaping. That’s because the Ruakuri Cave was discovered by early Maori settlers when they chased two wild dogs into a hole in the hill. This led them down to the grottos we were about to explore.
It’s a place of spiritual importance for the local Maori, traditionally representing the entrance to the underworld, where the dead reside.
Until recently, this cave system was only accessible to the most daring and experienced of cavers.
From the registration office, we hike up to the entrance of the cave in the side of the limestone hill. Through an impressive space-age entrance, we find out how we’re to descend into the Ruakuri Cave.
The spiral walkway, like an enormous screw, threads our pathway 50 metres to the bottom. From there, our guide leads us past some of the most beautiful caves yet – filled with towering limestone monoliths, translucent curtain-like formations, and delicate tendrils of stalactites and stalagmites.
There are plenty of glowworms to see here as well, but not as many as in the Waitamo Cave. At one point though our path crosses a river, where plenty of glowworms have built their homes.
Interesting fact: these glowworms are in fact the larvae of fungus gnats – giant mosquito-shaped flies that have no mouth or digestive tract.
The glowworms’ ‘glow’ is the bioluminescence they generate to attract small insects that they feed on until they’re ready to pupate. Glowworms tend to gather above water systems in the caves, where insects are more likely to come.
In light of the glowworms, we see shapes moving in the dark river below us. It’s a preview of what we’ll be doing after lunch: a group are floating by with their Legendary Blackwater Rafting guides.
Our stomachs give a little jolt at the thought… or perhaps it’s just the thought of lunch.
The walk back to the surface isn’t as arduous as we thought it would be. In fact, we realise as we neared the exit that this walk is perfect for accessibility. The metal grid pathways throughout the Ruakuri Cave are wide enough to take a wheelchair and there are no steps. It’s an engineering feat.
Lunch at Waitomo
Back at the visitors’ centre at the Waitomo Caves, we order lunch and take in the views out over the valley. Food here is a little expensive, but the fish and chips we have are enormous and delicious.
There are alternatives to the Waitomo Caves café. A short bushwalk through the woods and over a hill (or a two-minute drive) will take you to the village of Waitomo.
Here there are a few café and bar options, but our guide at Ruakuri recommended the HuHu Café on the edge of town. It looks lovely inside and the food is supposed to be great, though perhaps a little pricy too.
HuHu also has accommodation options if you want to stay in the area. We stayed about an hour up the road in the beautiful Henley Hotel in Cambridge.
Legendary Blackwater Rafting’s Black Labyrinth expedition – 3 hours
The crowning glory of our visit to Waikato’s caves takes place a little further down the road to the HQ of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company.
We’re ushered down to the changing rooms where we’re fitted for full-length thick wetsuits, neoprene socks and waistcoats, gumboots and – most importantly – insulated fleeces to wear under it all.
We’re also issued with hardhats and headlamps for when things get dark and low. We make our way to the river that flows out of the section of the Ruakuri Cave we’ll be exploring and collect our modes of transport: truck innertubes.
Above ground prep
The Black Labyrinth is a mixture of caving and tubing. We’ll either be clambering through tight rock passages or bobbing down the subterranean river in our tubes. There are also a couple of underground waterfalls to negotiate, so before we delve down, we have a practice run.
I think our guide Jack secretly enjoys this part. And not that secretly.
From the edge of a wooden deck overhanging the river, Jack makes me stand with my back to the water and my rubber tube around my bum. With a quick 3-2-1, I have to jump backwards into the water. At the same time, Jack launches me further backwards with a big shove in the chest.
It’s a baptism of ice and the chilly water envelopes me momentarily and I begin bobbing downstream.
This is how we’ll be dealing with the waterfalls deep underground. Just with no light and limestone cliffs either side.
And down we go
Our first obstacle on the Black Labyrinth is clambering down into the cave opening. It’s not a wide cave and our path plunges down into the rocky darkness below.
But Jack and Christine, our excellent guides, know where every footfall and handhold is as we move on. The feeling of trepidation turns to excitement as we go further in and down.
As our group – there are only five of us and the maximum to a group is 12 – goes deeper into the cave, we realise how complex this system is. Having explored this same cave via the walkway above earlier, it feels a bit like we had the show from the walkway and now we’re backstage.
Through gaps, over waterfalls, down long stretches of river there’s so much to this amazing experience. At one point, we have the option of testing our metal in The Squeeze – a tight craggy gap that doesn’t seem big enough to fit a human.
There are other options however, so you don’t have to face that if you don’t want to.
The end of the Black Labyrinth comes all too soon for me and we’re clambering back out into daylight. Thankfully, there’s an extra option of floating back down the river for a while, which is a wonderful way to travel.
Back at base, we shower, change and enjoy some hot soup and bagels while we warm back up and debrief on what we’ve just done. And perhaps look at the other experiences they offer at Legendary Blackwater Rafting.
Perhaps next time, we’ll try the Black Abyss – a five-hour journey through the Ruakuri Cave that sees you abseil, zipline, climb and float into the dark depths under the earth.
Waitomo – into the heart of New Zealand
Any single part of this experience would give you an amazing perspective of this hidden underworld.
But doing all three – the Waitomo Glowworm boat tour, the walking tour in the Ruakuri Cave and one of Legendary Blackwater Rafting’s adventures – really makes it a moment in your travels you’ll always remember.