Return to Waitomo

When I first visited Waitomo Caves on the North Island of New Zealand nearly 28 years ago it was a rather quaint, low key tourist attraction with just one showcave; the famous glow worm cave. Returning this year, things have changed out of all recognition.

These days, tourism is the life blood of New Zealand, second only to dairy farming in the league of top industries and every effort is made to squeeze the tourist dollar out of every conceivable touristic opportunity. Every attraction from a humble Kiwi fruit farm visit to Heliskiing on Mount Cook has become an adrenaline filled experiences hailed by an astounding array of superlatives that as a minimum must, it appears, include the words Awesome/Eco/Amazing/Kiwi in different configurations.

For these attractions they are prepared to charge (and get) staggeringly high prices. The old showcave at Waitomo, which since my last visit has acquired a massive architect designed biodome at the entrance that sits incongruously in the stunning limestone scenery of the area, is the basic trip for the hoards that arrive by coach. It is a simple one hour trip which takes the visitor on a brief boat ride below the glow worm spangled roof of the river exit cave and costs a modest NZ$46 (£23). (Compare with Dan-yr-Ogof at £12.50). The old cave trip has now been joined by a bewildering array of awesome/amazing/eco/wildcave adventure options with individual and “combo” packages which have helpfully been given ‘Glowworm’ and ‘Rambo’ rat ings out of 10. Prices spiral upwards to an eyewatering $435 (£220!!!) for the 7 hour “Lost World Adventure” which includes abseiling, ‘blackwater’ rafting and a BBQ lunch. For your £220 you achieve a glowworm rating of 10/10 but a mere 8/10 rambo rating.

I joined the “Spellbound” cave tour; mainly because at £35, its 3 hr duration with 2 caves and a cup of tea seemed the best value available. It was in fact very good. After a drive through the “awesome” karst landscape around Waitomo we walked down to the first cave; a spacious dry system with electric lighting, some nice formations and the fossil bones of a Moa (giant ostrich-like bird now extinct). The second cave was an active river sink in the same system which was explored with a lamp and helmet. The ceiling was festooned with glowworms and as we were taken on a magical boat trip down stream to a sump. As our eyes became more accustomed to the dark the vast numbers in the streamway roof became apparent. With our headlamps turned out, there was sufficient light generated by these creatures to make out the cave walls and reflections in the water. Remarkably it was possible for the party to exit the cave relying solely on the light of the glowworms. Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of this trip was that not only was photography positively encouraged but they also supplied a free set of souvenir shots direct to your email. Thus a couple of shots are included below courtesy of Spellbound at

In conclusion there are perhaps three lessons to be learned from the NZ caving scene:

  1. Give up the day job and start guiding tourist trips in Porthy at £150 a go!
  2. Adopt the Rambo system of cave classification. 8 for Darren perhaps and 2 for Porth yr Ogof ?
  3. Get new wellies. High fashion in NZ are white abattoir wellies – very stylish
Allan Ockenden