NZ Tour Guide Itenary: Waitomo New Zealand



Waitomo New Zealand

Visit the Waitomo Caves and explore a subterranean world of limestone formations, majestic caverns and magical glowworm grottos.

The magical Waitomo Caves have been attracting visitors for more than 120 years, thanks to their incredible limestone formations and luminescent glowworms. ‘Wai’ is the Māori word for ‘water’, while ‘tomo’ means a hole in the ground.

New Zealand prides itself as one of the few countries in the world with an incredibly wide range of natural resources and wonderful attractions. Whether you are going from Milford Sound in the Southern Alps to the North Island where you find the Ninety Mile Beach at the tip, the scenery is impressive and varied. One of the country’s most unique natural wonders is the famous glowworm caves.

The cave system is located beneath the rolling green countryside of the King Country, one of New Zealand’s prime farming regions. Step into the belly of Waitomo for an unforgettable experience as you walk through majestic caverns, discover limestone shafts, marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites, and enjoy a boat ride through a grotto lit by thousands of tiny native New Zealand glowworms.


The Waitomo Caves were discovered in the late 1800s by local Māori chief Tane Tinorau,
who owned the land on which they were located. Tinorau and surveyor Fred Mace explored the caves together in 1887, floating in on a raft of flax flower stalks. Tinorau later found an entrance to the caves on land, which is the same entry point used today. The caves were opened to tourists in 1889, with local Māori acting as guides. Many of the staff working
at the caves today are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti, as the cave and its
lands were returned to his family in 1989, following a period of government administration.


The nearby Ruakuri Cave is Waitomo’s longest underground guided walking tour and is also the only
wheelchair-accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere. Ruakuri is famed for its spiritual links
to Māori and its incredible limestone formations and spectacular caverns.

The village Waitomo Caves is named for the hundreds of caves present in the spectacular karst landscape.

The limestone landscape of the Waitomo District area has been the center of increasingly popular
commercial caving tourism since before 1900. Initially mostly consisted of impromptu trips guided by local
Māori, a large cave system near Waitomo Caves was nationalized by the Crown
and managed as a (relatively genteel) tourism attraction from 1904 onwards. A 1915 guide said, “It is reached by railway to Hangatiki, thence 6 miles by coach along a good road”.

A visit to Waitomo Caves made number 14 amongst a list of 101 “Kiwi must-do’s” in a New Zealand Automobile Association poll of over 20,000 motorists published in 2007, and in 2004, around 400,000 visitors entered caves in the area.

The Waitomo Caves Museum provides information about the karst landscape, caves and caving, and the
history of the area.

Waitomo Caves Geology

The Waitomo and Ruakuri Caves are located in a region of abundant limestone rock. The cave structures we see today began forming around 30 million years ago from the bones and shells of marine fossils, which hardened into sedimentary rock after collecting on the sea floor.

As the earth shifted and volcanoes erupted, huge slabs of limestone were lifted out of the sea. Over time, water flowed through cracks in the rocks, widening these channels until huge caverns were formed. There are approximately 300 known caves in the Waitomo region.

The stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave decorations you can see in the caves are limestone crystal deposits, created as water drips from the roof or down walls. It takes hundreds of years for these decorations to form. For this reason, it is important that visitors to the caves do not touch the formations, as they are fragile and easily discolored or broken.

Tourist caves

Waitomo Stream flows beneath Ruakuri’s natural arch.
Companies specialize in leading tourists through the caves of the area, from easily accessible areas with hundreds of tourists per hour in the peak season to extreme sports, like crawls into cave systems, which are only seen by a few tourists each day.

The caves are noted for their stalactite and stalagmite displays,
and (in the caves with streams running through) for the presence of glowworms
(the fungus gnat Arachnocampa luminosa).



The Waitomo Walkway runs through the valley of the Waitomo Stream (a tributary of the Waipā River)
for 3.3 km (2.1 mi) from the village to the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve. At the reserve, the Ruakuri Walk leads through short caves to the Ruakuri Natural Bridge.


Te Araroa, a national long-distance walkway, passes through Waitomo. The section from Mt Pirongia joins
the Waitomo Walkway to enter the village. The 17.5 km (10.9 mi) section to Te Kuiti goes over Mangapu
The river suspension bridge and through Pehitawa Kahikatea forest.


There are numerous limestone caves in the South Auckland District, the best known being the Waitomo, Raukuri,
and Aranui Caves. These have been developed as tourist attractions at Waitomo, about 50 miles south of Hamilton.
They have their setting in attractive surroundings of bizarre limestone outcrops, patches of bush, and streams
and fields. Guides from the nearby hostel lead visitors along paths that are lit both for safety and
for easy inspection of the limestone formations. The boat journey along the underground river to the
Glow-worm Grotto, which is lit by the countless, tiny, clear lights of glow worms, is one of
the many unique attractions of the caves.


The caves are channels that have been dissolved out of limestone by underground streams over many thousands of years. Water seeping down through the limestone becomes fully charged with lime in solution. As this drips from the cavern roofs some of the water evaporates leaving a minute deposit of lime behind. Thus, with time, all the caves have become elaborated by stalactites, stalagmites, and incrustations. Many of these, namely, the Bride’s Jewels, the Organ, the White Terrace, the Blanket Chamber, etc., are of intricate design and
beautiful form.

The name Waitomo means “water entering a hole” or, more aptly, “water passing through a hole”.


Deep down in Ruakuri Cave at Waitomo


Journey deep down the spectacular spiral entrance of Ruakuri Cave to see glowworms and extraordinary limestone
galleries which will take your breath away. Don’t miss the uniquely sustainable caving experience.

A solar-powered cave, Ruakuri Cave is accessible to everyone with a full wheelchair and pushchair-accessible walkway. Photography and video are permitted in selected areas of the cave.

Take the spiral entrance into Ruakuri Cave

Spiral entrance to Ruakuri Cave

The tour starts with a walk through the spectacular spiral
entrance way as it winds 1.6 kilometres down into the depths of the cave.

Ruakuri Cave in Waitomo

Stunning limestone formations, fossils, and crystal formations are part of your caving experience.
You will see examples of shawls, stalactites stalagmites, and flowstone. The thunder of subterranean waterfalls can be heard in the distance as you watch as the Black Water rafters bob
along the river below on giant tractor-tires.


The History of Ruakuri Cave


In the Maori language, ‘rua’ means den, and ‘kuri’ means dog.

According to Maori legend, Ruakuri Cave was first discovered 400-500 years ago. Tane Tinorau, Chief of Kawhia, took a war party to attack the local Ngati Hau Tribe to gain land in the Waitomo area.

A hunter was sent to spear birds for food and discovered the entrance to the cave which was
occupied by a number of wild dogs. The wild dogs attacked the hunter who dropped his catch and fled.

Later, traps were set by the war party to capture the dogs and they were killed and eaten.
On the success of his attack, the Chief took his people to live near the cave.

The cave entrance was used by the Maori as a burial ground and is now a sacred area protected
by the spiral entrance.

Challenged by disputes

First opened to visitors in 1904 by James Holden, one of the first settlers to the region.
The family still owns much of the land above the cave system.

The Government claimed ownership of Ruakuri Cave until a legal and financial dispute forced closure in February 1988.

Ruakuri Cave was reopened for underground guided walking tours in July 2005.
Underground construction work on walkways, bridges, and a new spiral entranceway took over 18 months to complete.

Glowworms at Ruakuri Cave

Known as the New Zealand glowworm, the Arachnocampa luminosa (Skuse, 1891) ‘
is a species of fungus gnat, native to New Zealand.

The larval stage and the imago produce blue-green bioluminescence.
As they fish for food, glow worms create a breathtaking sea of starry lights.

Did you know?

Glowworms in Ruakuri Cave

What are glowworms?

Glow worms build ‘snares’ made of silk fibers coated with mucous.
The snares consist of tubes in which the glow worms are suspended.
These long, hanging filaments are coated in sticky beads of mucous.

The glow worms emit a pale light that attracts insects toward the sticky threads of their snare.
The snare usually catches small bugs such as midges, but insects as big as cockroaches can also be trapped.

Experience 5 of Waitomo’s best bush walks


Ruakuri Bush Walk


Visit this loop walk to see a display of glowworms.
The loop walk also showcases the natural limestone cliffs that Waitomo
and Ruakuri Caves are famous for. Although the walk only takes 45 minutes to complete,
allow extra time to take photos and enjoy the nightscape. Tip: Take a torch.


Te Araroa

Te Araroa, a national long-distance walkway, passes through Waitomo. The section from Mt Pirongia joins
the Waitomo Walkway to enter the village.

The 17.5 km (10.9 mi) section to Te Kuiti goes over Mangapu
The river suspension bridge and through Pehitawa Kahikatea forest.


Waitomo Walkway


This trail begins opposite the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre. Get a view of Waitomo’s
spectacular limestone formations from the lookout. This is a 2.5 hour hike, which connects with the Ruakuri Bushwalk for an extended hike.



Mangapohue Natural Bridge


Drive down Te Anga Road to do the loop walk (about 20 minutes) to reach the Natural Bridge.
The Natural Bridge is a spectacular 17-metre limestone arch where you will find fossilized oysters
in limestone outcrops.



Marokopa Falls


Just past the Natural Bridge are the Marokopa Falls. A 10-minute bushwalk from the Te Anga Roadside takes you to a viewing platform overlooking the falls. The waterfall stands 43 metes above and is often described as one of the most spectacular waterfalls
in New Zealand.



The History of Aranui Cave


Discover Mother Nature’s exquisite interior decorations inside Aranui Cave.

In November 1910, a young Maori, Ruruku Aranui was chasing wild pigs that had strayed
into a local reserve. His dog chased a pig down a steep hill and the pig suddenly
disappeared and so too did the dog. The dogs barking led Ruruku to a small hole in the side
of the hill. He then crawled inside and with a match found them both in a high chamber that
continued into the darkness. Ruruku Aranui went to Waitomo and told the manager in charge of the caves.
They both then re-entered the caves exploring it further, absolutely fascinated by its great beauty.

The discovery of a new cave in Waitomo caused much excitement around the country.
The cave was much easier to develop than the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and in just over a year
it was ready for tours. In February 1911, there was an official opening by the Minister of Tourism.
Originally the cave was to be called Ngutuhihi (the beak of the stitch-bird), but because pronunciation
was difficult, it was decided by the Minister to name it Aranui Cave. Aranui Cave is one of the most
richly decorated caves in Waitomo. There is very little of the ceiling in this cave that has not been
decorated by the dripping water.

Getting To Waitomo

The Waitomo Caves are in the King Country, a region located in the west of the central North Island.

The caves can be reached in just under three hours from Auckland, or around two hours from Rotorua, and your journey will take you through some of New Zealand’s prime farming country.

Driving Distances to Waitomo Caves

Auckland to Waitomo – 220 km (136 miles)
Rotorua to Waitomo – 160 km (100 miles)
Wellington to Waitomo – 435km (270 miles)


Getting to Waitomo by Tour Coach

Traveling as part of an organized tour is a great way to visit Waitomo Caves. Local guides will provide you with a fascinating insight into the history of the King Country region, and traveling up high in a touring coach will also give you excellent views across the rolling hillside, something often missed by car. Several coach companies operate daily tours to Waitomo including New Zealand’s largest, GreatSights New Zealand.

Highly regarded and rated by Qualmark, New Zealand tourism’s official mark of quality, GreatSights offers an excellent range of sightseeing day tours to Waitomo Caves. Tours depart daily from Auckland and Rotorua. Glowworm Express tours travel directly to the Caves, while other tour options incorporate other tourist attractions, such as Rotorua and the Hobbiton movie set. Find sightseeing day tour options on the GreatSights New Zealand website.

Getting to Waitomo by Tour Coach

Getting to Waitomo by Bus

InterCity Coachlines operates New Zealand’s most comprehensive bus network and provides daily services from Auckland or Rotorua to Waitomo Caves. Travel can be purchased as bus only option or you can choose to add on a tour of the caves and other extras. Find great deals on travel options on the InterCity website.

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