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Getting Adventurous in the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

If there was one thing I was looking forward to doing in New Zealand this year, it was visiting Waitomo and getting to see the famous glow worm caves.

Waitomo has been on my mind for as long as I can remember, ever since I saw this viral photo pop on Pinterst over and over again. Tucked away up on the North Island, I knew this would be my first big New Zealand adventure.

And boy was it memorable! Hands down, it’s the coolest thing I have ever done, but let me get to that in a minute.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

So the Waitomo Caves are a massive cavern complex, and there are all sorts of activities and tours you can get up to in them. Looking to get adventurous and just a little bit dirty, I opted for the more hands-on approach and decided to go all out with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Sounds like an adventure, right?

The “it” activity in the North Island, I knew I couldn’t miss out. But then I had to decide which adventure tour to go on. Decisions, decisions.

Ever since my hectic last summer and injuring my back in Jordan, I’ve been much more hesitant about the adrenaline sports I go on, i.e. I’ve become complacent. And I didn’t like it.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

I could go on the intro one that didn’t look scary at all, with only one small jump OR I could go on the 5 hour Black Abyss tour with rappelling, ziplining, climbing waterfalls and god knows what else.

Sigh, time to start challenging myself again and stop being a wuss. Number 2 and into the abyss!

After booking a spot with Waitomo’s first caving company, the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., I mentally tried to prepare myself for the big day.

Focus on the glow worms Liz, and not falling on your back.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

I wish I could ramble on here about how excited I was, how pumped up I was, how much I knew this was going to be the best thing I’d ever do in New Zealand, and while I did feel that way partly, I was straddling two complex emotions – excitement and fear.

I wish I was that person who didn’t think twice about these things, but I”m not. I’m not some crazed adrenaline junkie who doesn’t think twice about doing crazy things for the sake of adventure. Well, I used to be, but not anymore.

You see, I was nervous. Really nervous. I felt like this was the test to see if I could find my adventurous side again in New Zealand. And there was nothing I wanted more than to move past this.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

I kept thinking back to canyoning in Switzerland last summer, and just how challenging it was for me. I felt like caving in Waitomo would be a bit similar in terms of testing myself, literally and physically taking a leap of faith or two.

I was determined to see those glow worms, and not dry and comfortable from the back of a boat either.

This would be my chance to really overcome that fear and get started off in New Zealand, the adventure capital of the world, on the right foot.

So no pressure.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Lucky for me I ended up with the coolest group of people in the caves, and the guides were all young, fun and energetic, exactly the kind of combination you’d wish for on a tour like this, especially if you’re nervous.

Our bonding started in the changing rooms where we had to help each other yank the thick wetsuits on. Nothing says hello quite like pulling up someone else’s pants, am I right?

After a quick lesson in rappelling (abseiling for my non-Americans) we climbed out on a little wooden platform looking down into a 100+ foot hole in the ground. Yikes!

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Slowly lowering myself down a hole, I tried to channel my inner adventuress. It was actually so much easier than it looked, maybe because you couldn’t see straight to the bottom and it was pretty narrow. Bouncing my feet along the walls and letting out the occasional “weeeeee” and “yipeee,” it was all too soon when my feet hit the bottom of the cavern.

Clambering down a ladder, I joined a few of our group on a rock waiting for everyone else to make their way down. Getting me excited they told me to flick my headlamp off. Adjusting to the darkness, I glanced up and was astonished.

Hundreds of tiny blue dots twinkled on the ceiling of the cave. It didn’t talk long for me to drift off deep in thought, imagining we were in some other lost world, with blue stars in the sky.

Drip, splat. Something wet landed right on my face. Back to reality.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Wandering around the caves was incredible, and as it turned out, one of my favorite parts was a huge zipline they rigged down the cavern. Flicking off my headlights, taking a deep breath and lifting my feet off the ground, it felt like I flew through the caves underneath the sparkling blue glow worm lights. What an introduction!

Oh, and as soon as they let me go, I heard a loud yell of “Oh no! Ooops!” as I was whizzing through the air screaming. Got to love a guide with a sense of humor!

Happy to have survived, the rest of the trip felt like we were underworld explorers, getting to see a part of the world few have the opportunity or the cojones to do, which in a way is true.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

By the time we arrived at a high ledge overlooking green water, I knew this was where the wetsuits came into play. Nomming on some homemade biscuits and hot drinks the guides had brought with them, I didn’t even have to give myself a pep talk.

The rush from rappelling into the cave, the zipline down and the hundreds of thousands of magnificent glow worms already gave me such a buzz; I was excited to see what was next!

Bit by bit the fear that gripped me earlier started to drift away, slowly replaced by happiness, exhilaration, and the feeling that I was overcoming an obstacle in an surreal place.

Now that’s an amazing feeling.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Grabbing an inner tube, I stood at the edge of the platform looking down. To me it seemed like a 20 foot fall when in reality, it wasn’t that high. After canyoning, jumping into shallow water freaked me out, but after a deep breath, holding the inner tube under my butt, I flung myself off.

Splash! Now things were going to get interesting!

The next few hours passed by in a rush of perfect memories and exhilarating experiences. Making a chain and paddling through the dark, staring up at the endless line of glow worms on the cavern ceilings is not something I’m likely soon to forget.

Seriously, how can such a place exist?!

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Every time we were offered an opportunity to try something fun or adventurous, I made myself do it. From squeezing through tunnels so tight I had to wiggle sideways with my arms over my head to get through to sliding face first down a ramp, I went for it.

And every time I felt my confidence and smile grow bigger.

As we neared the end, I knew my biggest test was yet to come. Climbing out two gushing waterfalls without ropes. As soon as I glanced at them, doubt began to creep back into my mind. They seemed too big and I felt for sure as soon as the water hit me, I’d fall backwards on my back. Shudder.

Luckily the guides had faith in me, pointing out natural handholds and footholds to grip onto, and occasionally giving me a shove if I needed one. So by the time I reached the tops of both waterfalls, it truly felt like I had conquered the world, or at least the underground world.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

For me, Waitomo represents so much more than an adventure activity in New Zealand. It was a turning point for me to learn to reconquer my doubts and fears, try something I wasn’t necessary comfortable with (I mean have you worm a wetsuit before? So uncomfy!) and then come out literally and figuratively on top. How awesome is that?

Apart from that, I have absolutely no qualms saying this was both the coolest and most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in years of travel on the road. And I don’t say that lightly, I really don’t.

You can go caving anywhere in the world. You can go rappelling or ziplining anywhere in the world. You can climb waterfalls and go rafting anywhere in the world. But where can you do all of them at once in a massive cave with sparkling neon blue glow worms dangling from the ceiling, twinkling like stars in the sky?

Waitomo, New Zealand, remember that.

Have you ever gone caving or underground? Have you ever conquered your fears on the road? Would you like to visit the Waitomo Caves one day?

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Many thanks to the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. for both sharing these photos with me and hosting me in Waitomo and letting me join in on this epic day. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own – like you could expect less from me! 

72 Responses to Getting Adventurous in the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

  1. Helen Winter January 15, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    Wow! That looks amazing! I have terrible anxiety and it’s always got in my way – so now I say yes to everything adventurous because I’ve wasted too many years being too afraid to do anything exciting. I can’t wait to go to New Zealand, going to start saving this summer for my RTW trip! Love your blog 🙂

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:40 am #

      It’s a really good and safe way to push your boundaries, I definitely recommend it!

    • Elise February 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

      Wow!! Looks like an amazing experience. I have a friend moving to Hamilton, NZ, near the caves.

      Do the glowworms cover the entire cave, or is it just a room of it? Looks terrifying but awesome at the same time.

  2. Julie @ A Life Exotic January 15, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    Glowworm Zipline… sounds incredible, and also like a really good name for an indie band.

  3. Stef January 15, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    What a great experience. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it in my month in New Zealand. Now I’m really disappointed but luckily I’m planning on heading back to New Zealand for a longer period and then I’ll definitely wanna do that even though I’m pretty scared too. I really think it’s a unique experience you won’t regret afterwards. And after reading your post there is no way out 🙂

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:39 am #

      YES! It’s definitely been one of the best things I’ve done so far!

  4. Kate January 15, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    Oh my god. I did the same tour with Black Water Rafting in 2010 and absolutely loved it, and now your post is making me want to go back and do it again so badly! Though I was initially a bit nervous about the whole being underwater underground thing, I pretty much forgot all about it once I saw the glow worms. So beautiful…
    Alas, I am about as far away from New Zealand as one can possibly get – literally. I live in London and it’s almost exactly the actual opposite side of the earth. However, I have a feeling life is going to take me back to NZ at some point, hopefully soon.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:39 am #

      New Zealand has a way of bringing people back – I’m sure that won’t be your last visit

      • Kate January 20, 2014 at 8:42 am #

        I hope you’re right… But for now, I can just get my NZ fix with your posts. 🙂

  5. Kaelene @Unlocking Kiki January 15, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    This looks awesome! I so want to go explore the glow worm caves.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:38 am #

      yes! It is really an amazing experience!

  6. Lauren @BonVoyageLauren January 15, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    This looks absolutely INSANE and I mean that in the best way possible! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’ll have to check this out when I visit NZ in 2015.

    Happy travels 🙂

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:38 am #

      INsane in a good way! Put it on your list!

  7. Ashley of Ashley Abroad January 15, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    I’m a recently converted canyoning enthusiast so I would absolutely love to try this! Are there other places in the world to see glow-worms?

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:38 am #

      I think there are other places in NZ to see them but I’m not sure about the rest of the world, I don’t think so – I feel like I would have heard about it

  8. Heather January 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Holy crap! Talk about taking a leap of faith! I love the shot of that guy diving into the water, absolutely no fear. That kind of enthusiasm must have been contagious!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:36 am #

      It is! It really makes a big difference if you have a good group!

  9. Caitlyn January 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Best experience ever! Wish I was back in NZ

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:35 am #

      Come back soon xx

  10. Amanda January 15, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Ahhhh love it! I haven’t actually been to Waitomo yet, but this sounds so epic that I may need to add it to my NZ list for May!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:35 am #


  11. Alexandra January 15, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    We did this tour in 2005 and loved it but there wasn’t a zip-line!! I feel I need to go back and do it over again. Hehe.

    Did they allow you to bring your own camera? We weren’t allowed at the time but now with gopro and so many underwater camera housings, I have to wonder if it’s changed.

    Glad you had fun!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:35 am #

      I didn’t bring my gopro, I don’t think anything would have turned out because it’s so dark inside and they are shit in bad lighting. You would need to bring in tripods, lighting, ect to get anything halfway decent and it would ruin the adventure. It’s almost like a forced disconnection 😀

  12. Andrea January 15, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    This doesn’t even look real! Definitely adding it to my to do list.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:40 am #

      I know! The whole time I was like, how is this even possible?!

  13. Seymour January 15, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    I visited the caves in 1988 but took the coward’s way in — by boat. Your adventure was amazing. One thing that blew me away about the caves (and you’ve captured it beautifully in your second picture) is that when you look up at the glow worms it feels like you’re staring into deep space at a million galaxies. It’s kind of ironic, you’re underground but feel like you’re staring up at infinity!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:34 am #

      I know, I thought the same thing! It’s really just incredible

  14. Trevor Huxham January 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Aaaaaaaaaaaa this post’s headline made me so excited when I saw it in Feedly this morning! Although I was expecting to see lots of :O :O :O pics of glow worms, I really really like how you turned your visit into a tale of personal growth. Rock on!!!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:33 am #

      I wish I had better photos of them but on the adventure one you can’t really take proper camera equipment down there, and I was really hoping for the actual caving experience.

  15. Stephanie January 15, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    Great photos! Good for you for conquering your fears! This is a lifelong dream of mine…someday I’ll visit the Waitamo caves. And also swim in a bioluminescent lake. I guess I just like things that glow.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:31 am #

      aha that’s awesome, I love things that glow too, so otherworldly

  16. Dana January 15, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    My husband and I went to New Zealand for our honeymoon in November and we went to the Waitamo caves! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do anything other than the boat ride. The glow worms are so otherworldy though, it was a really cool experience! After reading your post I really wish we had been able to do the Black Water Rafting trip. Looks like it was amazing!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:31 am #

      I guess you just have to come back 😀

  17. Ruann @ Solo Travel Uncut January 15, 2014 at 11:54 pm #

    Holy wizard of the skies I’m sold. Must have been such an enchanting adventure. Love the Hunter S Thompson quote, Thanks for sharing, can’t wait to do this one.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 2:31 am #

      It’s amazing! Best adventure I’ve ever had 😀

  18. Claire January 16, 2014 at 4:45 am #

    Oh my gosh this looks amazing! I went to the glowworm caves but not like this. Looks absolutely magical. Congrats on overcoming your fears!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 5:03 am #

      Thanks! It was an incredible moment in an incredible location, doesn’t get any better than that!

  19. Debbi January 16, 2014 at 5:15 am #

    Liz! You are such a beautiful writer– I get lost in all your entries (and I live here, too! I should be used to it, but the way you write is just phenomenal… makes me want to hurry up and get to South Island). Thanks for sharing all your insight, challenges, advice, etc. with the world. You’re a gem!

    I contacted you on Instagram as well, but would love to meet up for a quick coffee chat before you leave Wellington. You’re a huge inspiration to me (and probably thousands of other travelers)! 🙂

  20. Kate January 16, 2014 at 3:27 pm #


    This is totally going on my bucket list haha. That looks amazing.

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

      It was seriously the coolest thing ever! I recommend it to anyone!

  21. Samantha January 16, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    When you moved to New Zealand this was the first thing I thought of! I think that almost every Google Ad that pops up on my computer is a photo of the glow worms because I’ve looked it up so much. Thanks for the inspiring recap of the adventure!

    • Liz January 16, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

      OMG that means you definitely need to come over for a visit!

  22. Leland C January 17, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    Posted this on Reddit. One thing that kept shooting through my head… “this girl is having way too much fun”. hahaha 🙂

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 2:59 am #

      hahaha way too much fun sounds about right!

  23. Julia Sweeney January 17, 2014 at 4:15 am #

    I did this while I was in NZ this past Feb and loved the experience too! Except I had to throw my towel out because it smelt so bad from drying off once I squeezed out of that wetsuit haha. Did they give you bagels and tomato soup at the end? Great post!

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 3:08 am #

      Uh yeah, not exactly clean down in those caves haha. My hair was ICK! Loved the soup at the end, just what I needed to warm up 😀

  24. Bradley January 17, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    Liz- thank you for your inspiration! Can I ask- how do you afford to do everything to do- do you work on the road? Any tips for how to fund a year in NZ? I’m stressing about whether taking a year out is possible, need some reassurance I won’t end up sleeping on the street!

    I hope you’ve already written a post on something like this! 🙂

    Can’t wait for the next post.

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 3:16 am #

      I saved up a bunch before coming to New Zealand, I need to write more about it. I freelance while I’m here but I’m pretty broke and make do so I have hopes for you. There are tons of people who come here with basically no money and are fine.

      • Bradley January 18, 2014 at 7:26 am #

        Can you offer a vague idea of how much would be a decent amount to have saved? I know that’s a really difficult question haha!

        • Liz January 18, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

          I mean that’s really hard, it depends on if you’re going to work or not, buy a car or not, woof, ect. I came with about $8,000 saved, bought a crappy car and everything, work from home, travel frequently. It all depends on your budget. sharing a place in NZ will cost you around 160 NZD per week, something to factor in.

  25. Claire @ ZigZag On Earth January 17, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    WOW! You are very adventurous!
    Just went to the Jenolan caves not far from Sydney. Those are not worm caves but ones with incredible crystals / limestone formations. There also have some adventure tours but I was not as brave as you and sticked with the great pathways and handrails.

    Btw, great photography!

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 3:17 am #

      That sounds awesome! I need to add that to my list in Australia 🙂

  26. Christine January 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    Awesome!! My friend JUST sent me that photo on pinterest the other day! Those caves are definitely on my bucket list. They are absolutely gorgeous! Looks like a fun trip. Thanks for posting about it!

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 3:17 am #

      Thank you!

  27. Kirsten January 18, 2014 at 1:26 am #

    Love your photography here! Some really fantastic shots. 🙂 You definitely inspire me to take a leap of faith and travel solo in a couple of years once I’m out of college! (Studying abroad first, of course)

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 3:18 am #

      Wahoo that makes me happy to hear! where are you studying abroad?

  28. Michelle - Very Hungry Explorer January 18, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    That sounds absolutely amazing, but I want to say thank you for being so honest and talking about your fears. It is very inspiring that even though you were nervous you went ahead and did it anyway, especially as there was an easier option available to you.
    Can’t wait to read about what you get up to next.

    • Liz January 18, 2014 at 11:39 pm #

      Thank you! It was a great experience!

  29. Ciarán January 19, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Loving the Blog, and love this post, brings back such good memories of the tubing and the great people we bumped into at curlys bar and the top 10! can’t wait after reading your blog to get back to NZ, now that Australia has had enough of me!!

    • Liz January 20, 2014 at 5:49 am #

      Come back to NZ, it’s amazing here!

  30. Rhiannon February 13, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

    What can I say – Finding this whilst performing my daily procrastinations at work, escaping another cold, grey and dreary morning. This post has quite possibly given me the strongest need to get here.Like a homing signal.

    I am saving to travel again and I am right in the depths of that horrible limbo time where you are dreaming of somewhere you have never been, standing with your toes in the fine grains of and on a distant beach then opening your eyes to find yourself in the depressing grey of the corporate world facing a wall of depression. The reality grating like sandpaper.

    This is a new ray of hope and like a punch of glitter on the horizon, its twinkling and beckoning me to get here and experience the adrenaline filled power of not conforming and doing incredible, memorable things in the small time we walk the world.

    Thank you for helping me remember my passion and why I am doing this! Here is to finding contentment in wanderlust!

  31. Charli | Wanderlusters March 4, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    We’re heading north to Waitomo later this month and I’m so pleased I’ve seen this post! We were toying with the idea of giving the glow worm caves a miss but this has inspired me to don a hard hat and get stuck in! Thanks Liz!

  32. Pan March 18, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    Hey Liz! What an awesome adventure! I am definitely going to add this to my adventure list. I have wanted to see glow worm caves since I was a little kid and watched a documentary about them. So cool. Looks like you mades some good friends too!

  33. Alina May 7, 2016 at 6:51 am #

    Wow. Incredible…. Oh, and I really liked the “everything you want is on the other side of fear” quote!


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