Waitomo is known for its impressive caves with spectacular displays of glowworms and amazing stalactites and stalagmites, and it is this that attracts busloads of tourists to the small town everyday. So last weekend I decided to make Waitomo my 3-day weekend away.
The village of Waitomo is about 2 hours drive south of Auckland, 1 hour south of Hamilton and 2 hours west of Rotorua. The name Waitomo comes from the Māori words wai meaning water and tomo meaning to enter, so it can be translated, as a place where water enters the ground.
To get to Waitomo from Auckland I booked a seat on a Great Sights tour bus through Intercity for $45. The bus departed the Sky City Coach Terminal at 7:30 Saturday morning and arrived outside Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre just on 10am. The passengers on the Great Sights tour bus were shepherded inside by a guide, where they did the 45 minute tour of Waitomo Glowworm Caves before travelling onto Rotorua and Hobbiton. On arrival I went to the ticket office to purchase a Triple Cave Combo ticket for $91, which allows entry to the three caves that Waitomo Caves has tourist rights for. It would cost $163 to do these three caves individually so it was a $72 saving.
Waitomo Caves offers a shuttle van to take guests the 10 minute drive from the Visitors’ centre to Ruakuri Cave. Visitors can of course drive themselves to Ruakuri Cave carpark and wait for the guide. I was booked on the 11am tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours. Tours also run daily at 9am, 10am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm and 3:30pm.
To enter the cave you walk down through an impressive man made spiral entrance way. The guide will then walk you 1.6 km through the cave pointing out all the impressive formations. Unlike the Waitomo Glowworms Cave located behind the Visitor Centre you can take photos in this cave. At certain points, like when the black water rafters pass through below on Huanui River, photography is not permitted for safety reasons.
After returning to the Visitors Centre I went on the Waitomo Glowworms Cave tour, which is the tour that bus tour companies take. Your guide will walk you 250 metres through the cave pointing out the formations and talking about the local history. While this cave is not as impressive as Ruakuri, the tour ends with a boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto and this is definitely impressive. This 45 minute tour runs every half hour so there is no need to book a specific time.
I was booked on the 2:30pm tour of Aranui Cave so I had a quick lunch at the onsite café (Tuna bun and side salad, $12). Visitors to the Aranui Cave drive themselves to Ruakuri Scenic Reserve and meet the guide at the sign posted meeting point. The ticket office staff kindly arranged for the tour guide Mere to take me to the cave in her car. There is a gentle 15 minute guided bush walk to the cave entrance. Mere pointed out native plants and explained some of their medicinal purposes and use by Māori. You won’t see any glowworms in Aranui Caves but if you are lucky you might spot a giant cave weta.
After returning to Waitomo Visitors Centre I watched a short documentary film in the theatre featuring some people of Waitomo and their stories.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the three caves. Waitomo Caves also offers a combo tour of Waitomo Glowworms Caves and Ruakuri Cave for $83 adult, $30 child, which is one of their most popular combo tours. If you wish to visit either Ruakuri and Aranui Cave I recommend booking prior to arrival in Waitomo.
From Waitomo Caves carpark there is a short bush walk that comes out at Waitomo Caves domain opposite the Waitomo Discovery Centre (i-Site). I definitely recommend taking a stroll through the bush and walking to Waitomo Lookout Point. The walk to the lookout from Waitomo Caves carpark takes approximately 25 minutes return and offers views of Waitomo township and its rolling hills of farmland – glowworms aside the Waitomo district’s main business is farming.
After the walk I checked into my accommodation for Saturday and Sunday night Kiwi Paka Waitomo. I had booked a single chalet but had been upgraded to a double chalet. As well as the chalets there is the Lodge which has backpacker accommodation with dorm, twin, double, and single rooms. Both nights I stayed the Lodge had guests from tour bus companies staying. Kiwi Paka has a licensed café onsite, Morepork Café & Pizzeria, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food is reasonably priced and there is more than just pizza.