Black water rafting with glowworms in Waitomo

I stepped off the bus in a cloud of dust, Volcano Choir still ringing in my ears, remnants of the long bus ride from Wellington where my headphones had stayed glued to my ears in a disconnected reverie away from city life.  There were cows to my left and a dirt road on my right leading up to my new home for the weekend, a BBH hostel called Juno Hall.

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I was on my own in the New Zealand countryside, for the first time I realized, as I felt a big smile spread across my face.

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Waitomo was (and really still is) a little farm town on the west side of the North Island. Its claim to fame began with the first discovery of the remarkable glowworm caves underneath and around the little town. The popularity of these limestone caves go as far back as the 1900s, and they have successfully drawn an array of travelers ever since.

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Now, when I say glowworm, they’re not technically worms but bioluminescent larvae that will eventually turn into something called a fungus gnat – I know, they sounded better before. Their scientific name is Arachnocampa luminosa, and they became my new favorite invertebrate after this trip.

The Waitomo glowworm caves had been on my to visit since before I even arrived in New Zealand. I believe I can pinpoint it to a time that I was aimlessly scrolling through Pinterest, and I stopped and stared at this picture for a good 5 minutes in awe.

photo cred
photo cred

Many a blogger who has traveled to New Zealand has had an experience in the glowworm caves, and the popular company for many of them is The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company. I was determined to find another company that was less sought after, and which offered a slightly different experience that was just as breathtaking for the same price.

The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co

I must’ve searched for a good week before giving up and realizing that the Blackwater Rafting Co. really does offer the best bang for your buck.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

My Black Labyrinth tour rounded out to $153 with the Wet Hair Combo deal, which included a 3 hour wet and wild tour of the Ruakuri Cave, and a separate tour with the official Waitomo Glowworm Cave company that was much shorter at 45 minutes and kept you dry throughout the tour.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

I could not say enough positive things about the Black Labyrinth tour and guides. We had three guides – one lead, one assistant, and one photographer – and they were all hilarious and made you feel comfortable, even when you first had to jump into the freezing cold water.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

At the Black Water Rafting base we met our guides and geared ourselves up for the trip ahead. We donned wetsuits, waterproof white rubber boots, a jacket, and a helmet. We were looking pretty snazzy as we posed and hammed it up for the camera.

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I met so many lovely people in my group, which was especially nice because I was traveling alone. From a few American couples who were extremely nice and well traveled, to an Italian guy, and a couple of traveling duos, everyone was down for anything and friendly as can be.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

This was a big plus for me, and perhaps it was just good luck, but it made my overall experience that much better. Normally tour groups are not my thing because I’ve dealt with so many rude and ignorant people on my travels, but this was the complete opposite.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Once we were all geared up, we squeezed into a van and made our way to the Ruakuri Cave, about 15 minutes down the road. We had a test run before we went into the caves, our lead guide explained that he wanted to make sure that when he said “jump” we would actually jump off the waterfalls in the caves and not chicken out.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co

After we picked out the perfect inner tube that fit our bum, we all took turns jumping out backwards into the water with the inner tube held behind us and getting a taste for what was to come.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co

Before we all went single-file into the water; however, our guide stood in front of a 15 foot ledge, above the one we actually would jump off, saying we were all going to have to prove ourselves by jumping off into the shallow water below.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co

We all looked at each other, just a tad nervous that he was actually serious, before he laughed it off and said he was just joking – but only after he explained the whole procedure to us for 10 minutes.

Gotta love that Kiwi humor.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co

Once we took our turns getting wet and used to (not) the freezing cold water, we proceeded to the entrance of the cave and the start to our adventure.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

We scrambled down some rocks into a tiny hole that we had to duck under, and found ourselves in a wide opening at the start of the cave. We turned on our headlamps, listened patiently to the safety instructions, and soon started in to the cave. I was immediately thankful that I don’t feel claustrophobic in tight spaces, because I could tell there would be quite a few of them for this experience.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Staying ahead of the slippery rocks was probably the hardest part of the adventure besides the waterfall jumps. I’ve never been the most graceful clambering over rocks when I cross rivers, and I realized scrambling in a dark cave only made things a tad harder.

Smooth rocks aside, it was one of the most unique experiences I had in New Zealand, spending over an hour inside a dark cave with only our headlamps and glowworms above to light our way.

We climbed through narrow crevices, maneuvered around stalactites and stalagmites, stopped for a chocolate fish break, and jumped off 3 waterfalls – two baby ones and one that was big enough to almost take my contacts out.

Jumping backwards off a waterfall is not the most natural of feelings, but having a competent guide with you to help push you off if needed was helpful. Having the mindset that there is no going back once you agree to go on an adventure, that was only necessary.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Once we survived the waterfall jumps, we continued on to the more relaxing part of the cave – the human eel. There was a rope that we pulled ourselves over to, which we used to align ourselves all in a row. We hooked our legs to the person in front of us, and grasped the legs of the person behind us to create a human eel that glided gracefully down the cave for good 10-15 minutes.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

We all turned off our headlamps and for the first time took in the glowworms in all of their grandeur. It was truly something special, looking up and feeling as if it was the constellations you were seeing and you were really outside under the night sky instead of inside a cave.

It was one of the most magical feelings I had while I was in New Zealand.

Soon after the glowworm show, we saw the natural light softly breaking through the darkness and knew that we had reached the end of our journey. As soon as we all made our way back to the trail we took a triumphant picture, still giddy about the incredible time we had inside the caves. It was even better than I expected.

Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Photo Cred: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

An hour later, I made my way over to the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, the famous one where most tourists go and which was included with my combo deal. It was a very different experience: a much larger group, different personalities (more the type that I mentioned before), and a guide that seemed almost bored by her job.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

It was still an amazing venture the second time around, but not quite as magical as the experience I had with the Blackwater Rafting tour. In the 45 minute Waitomo tour, we walked down steps into the cave and were told more about the history of the caves, and how much they have done for the Waitomo tourism industry.

At the end of our walk through, we boarded a small boat where we were told to be as quiet as possible, and we were able to look up at the glowworms sparkling up above for a good 15 minutes before coming out to the end of the cave.

Photo Cred
Photo Cred

I left the cave reminiscing on how amazing – and I mean amazing! – of a day I had enjoyed in the New Zealand countryside. Walking back to my hostel with the cows as my company, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for having successfully done something I really wanted to do in the country – the Waitomo glowworm caves.

Waitomo

I guess I should’ve been used to it by now though, New Zealand never fails to surprise me.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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