When to Go: November to April
Going underground is a must-do activity in New Zealand. New Zealand is home to some of the world’s most spectacular cave systems and renowned for the glowworms (larvae of the fungus gnat that use light to lure other flying insects into sticky traps) that light up cavern ceilings like tiny stars. Want to know where to go caving in New Zealand? Here’s just a small sample of the variety of experiences the islands have to offer.
Location: Waikato region
By far the most popular New Zealand caving destination, the 300 or so limestone caves that make up the Waitomo Caves can be enjoyed in a range of ways. Beginners can do a guided walking tour or explore some of the caves by boat. The more adventurous can try black water rafting (floating along underground waters in an inner tube), abseiling or zip-lining.
Those with mobility issues can still explore this fascinating cave system. Ruakuri Cave is wheelchair accessible (the only cave in the southern hemisphere that is) and can be visited with an immersive, 2-hour guided tour. This cave let visitors get a little taste of everything – fascinating geological formations, spectacular spaces and glowworm-spangled ceilings.
Many visitors go just for the glowworm experience. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves offer guided boat tours, giving visitors in-depth insight into the history and geology of the caves while the lights of thousands of glowworms work their magic.
Those who are really into entomology might want to head to the Aranui Cave to get up close to the cave wētā colony located inside its entrance. Aranui is a smaller cave that’s a bit more off the beaten track. It also features gorgeous stalactites and a beautiful forested setting.
The highlight of the family-run Kawiti Caves (also known as the Waiomio Caves) is the glowworms, although a tour through the caves also features a short bush walk through rainforest and karst rock formations. A 30-minute guided walking tour through the 200-metre cave offers visitors information about the geology and history of the cave system and about the glow worms that light the ceiling above.
A glowworm cave closer to Auckland, Nikau Cave is for those who don’t mind getting wet. The 90-minute guided tour approaches the cave along a stream that runs through farmland and rainforest. One 20-metre section of the cave requires visitors to crawl, which is why tour operators suggest bringing a change of clothes. The rest of the system is quite open and visitors can enjoy the many calcite formations and the glowworms up close.
An undeveloped system, the Waipu Caves feature the largest cave passage in the Northland region. They can be explored free of charge on a self-guided tour. Visitors are reminded that they enter at their own risk – there are no paths or lights and some spaces are narrow. Explorers can expect to get wet and muddy. Wading through water is inevitable. The payoffs include limestone and karst formations, possible fossil finds and, of course, glowworms. There’s also a handy cold shower just outside the cave.
The three Abbey Caves are accessible by a circular walking path that takes visitors through farmland, forest and limestone outcroppings. These caves are unguided and visitors explore them at their own risk. There are streams at the entrances to each of these caves, so go prepared with water shoes, proper footwear and head torches to really get the most out of this system.
Te Anau Caves
The caves are located on the western shore of Lake Te Anau and can be explored by a 2+hour family-friendly guided tour. The tour starts with a boat ride across the lake and a short walk, followed by the cave experience itself. The boatride through the glowworm grotto is a big draw here, but visitors also have the opportunity to marvel at underground whirlpools, intricate limestone formations and a subterranean waterfall.
Harwoods Hole and Starlight Cave
Location: Takaka Hill
This one is not for the novice or the faint-hearted. The deepest vertical shaft in New Zealand, 176-metre deep Harwoods Hole must be abseiled before the Starlight Cave at its base can be reached. Adventurers should be experienced with vertical caving, fit, well-equipped and prepared to take upwards of 9 hours to complete the cave system. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has a page full of information and warnings for those contemplating making an attempt. The underground waterfalls, lakes and rock formations keep people coming back despite the arduous nature of the trip. For the less adventurous, a walking path takes hikers up to the edge of the hole.
Handy Tips for Caving in New Zealand
Leave the camera behind if you visit a glowworm cave. The creatures are sensitive to light and photos typically aren’t permitted.
Start early. This will help you avoid long lines and crowds on the more popular guided tours and ensure you have enough time to really enjoy your self-guided tours. Self-guided caving usually takes longer than you think it will, especially if you’re inexperienced.
Know your limits. Sometimes you don’t really know if you’re claustrophobic until you get into a tight space, but you’ll have a much better time if you’ve discovered that beforehand.
Be prepared. It’s easy to underestimate just how slippery rocks can be and exactly how dark it is inside a cave. If you’re on a self-guided tour, wear appropriate footwear and pack a head torch (no, your cell phone won’t be enough) in a dry bag, in addition to two other sources of light and a change of clothes.
Watch the weather. If it’s rained or if rain is in the forecast, that could significantly affect how and if you can get through the cave you’re investigating.
Never go in alone. The reasons for this are obvious.
Leave it like you found it. These caves are incredible treasures – visitors should do their part to protect them.