Home Travel BlogNew Zealand Travel Blog A Milky Way sky in Waitomo Caves

A Milky Way sky in Waitomo Caves

by Silke Elzner

It is pitch black as we glide along on the silent river. There is just the sound of trickling water, echoing off the walls of the cave. My fellow travellers have all grown quiet; all you can hear is the muffled sound of people holding their breath.

Above us, in this total darkness, is a sky of stars. Twinkling and sparkling like the Milky Way, it’s the most beautiful thing. But it is not just above our heads, it is all around us. This fairy dust glitter is defining the space that surrounds us, sparkling off the walls that also throw back the sounds of our astonished sighs.

This is Waitomo Caves in New Zealand. A cave system that is home to one of the most magnificent secrets in the world. The river that cuts through these caves is the Waitomo River. It provides the basis for a delicate ecosystem of darkness, moisture and nutrients. The water that the river carries deep underground is the source for one of nature’s last miracles: the amazing glowworms.

Waitomo River

To see these glowworms you have to respect their delicate nature. Light is not allowed in the most sensitive parts of the caves. So there are no photos of the glowworms for you to see here on this blog. Noise is equally frowned upon, and it is because of this that we are gliding on the underground Waitomo River in complete silence. It is one of the most amazing, most memorable travel experiences that you can have in all of New Zealand.

The guide has a strong connection with this cave system. She is a direct descendent of the chief who first visited the cave with a British surveyor on board. We leave the cave by boat at exact the same spot where these two brave men entered the Waitomo Cave for the first time. One can only imagine their astonishment and wonder when they spotted the glowworm spectacular above their heads for the very first time.

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The land is still owned by the same Maori tribe, yet it is under lease by the current operators. This means that you will find the traditional owners working as tour guides, in the gift shop and probably also in the restaurant, but they have no real control over what’s going on with the attraction as such. Yet, I think it is still well managed and a worthwhile experience.

Having a member of the local Maori tribe with us in the cave has the advantage that we are blessed with a knowledgable and passionate guide. When we enter the largest of the caves, dubbed the Cathedral, she sings a beautiful song for us to demonstrate the acoustic capabilities of the space. The Cathedral has seen many great performers in the past, including the Vienna boys choir and the legendary Rod Stewart. No doubt that a concert in this cave would be a magnificent experience.

The peculiar rock formations, formed over millennia, inspire our imagination. The little ones in particular are having a great time picturing scenes and familiar figures in the stalactites and stalagmites – Sponge Bob, the kiwi, elephants.

And there’s a little secret, too: if you are hit by a drop on the head, then this means that you are blessed with good luck.


Towards the end of our tour we board a boat to glide on the river into total darkness. There is no other way to see the glowworms, and no better way. The glow is actually not the glowworm itself, it is rather like fishing bait, hanging at the end of a sticky fishing rod to attract flying insects. Our guide is standing upright in the boat, pulling it along lines that have been suspended from one cave wall to the next. Not even a paddle is needed to move us along, no ripples on the water’s surface, no splashing sounds interrupting the silence.

The glowworms are larvae which will eventually transform into flying insects themselves. If it wasn’t for the river which enters and exists the cave system, there wouldn’t be anything for the glowworms to feed on, so the relationship between the Waitomo River and the caves is vital to the survival of this species.

There are three tours that you can book at the Waitomo Caves, but a visit to the glowworm cave is a must. When visiting in the busy season make sure you come early in the day as the parking lot fills up quickly and there are not many overflow options due to the hilly landscape. Also make sure you book your tour in advance so that you can get into the caves at a time that suits you best.

Waitomo Caves is located in beautiful countryside, so after our visit to the caves I quickly snuck away to take some pictures. There is a short trail to a lookout just off the car park that offers some marvellous views of the surroundings. While I am standing on the platform looking at the Waitomo area I am once again reminded of how beautiful this country of New Zealand really is. Make sure you scroll to the bottom of the post for some New Zealand countryside goodness.

A fantastic experience that is suitable for the whole family but do make sure you book in advance to make this a smooth visit. Have a look at the official website for further information: http://www.waitomo.com/Waitomo-Glowworm-Caves/Pages/default.aspx

Surrounding countryside of Waitomo CavesPanorama shot of the areaFlowers near the cavesWaitomo CavesRolling hills in New ZealandCountryside New ZealandViews from near the Waitomo CavesTreeBeautiful landscape