David Attenborough featured them in his BBC Planet Earth series. Arachnocampa luminosa is found only in New Zealand, more commonly called glowworms.
Technically, they are not worms, but rather the larvae of gnats. To snare food, one larva can exude several mucousy threads of silk that suspend from the roof of a cave, sticky enough to trap tiny flying insects. The bioluminescence is thought to attract its prey. New Zealand has made a cottage industry out of glowworms. While glowworms can be seen throughout NZ, the best place is Waitomo Caves in the North Island. Here, the conditions are said to be perfect for their proliferation.
We purchased a combo tour pack: glowworm cave + Ruakuri Cave. In the former, a boat that holds no more than 20 people took us through a tunnel along an underground waterway in complete darkness. Eventually, we reached the cave and saw them suspended on the ceiling like little blue-green lights high above our heads. The tour was short at about 15 minutes, so really you don’t have much time to marvel at them.
Waitomo glowworm tour (image from waitomo.com)
The Ruakuri Cave walking tour is different. The best part was being able to look at glowworms up close, at eye-level. Our guide shone a flashlight on them so we could see their diaphanous threads and beads, allowing us to look at them as long as we wanted (see top photo). The walking tour also highlighted many interesting cave decorations (speleotherms), an ancient moa bone, an underground stream, waterfall and petrified scallop shells that indicate that the limestone formations all around were formed in ancient seas.
Ruakuri Cave speleotherms
Petrified scallop shell
It’s difficult to take pictures of the worms as points of light against a black background. Besides the technical challenge, the boat tour wouldn’t permit cameras anyway. But on the walking tour, with a flashlight to provide enough illumination, you can take as many pictures as you like.
The Ruakuri Bush Walk, whose trailhead is but a few kilometers beyond the Waitomo Caves attraction, is considered one of the ten best short hikes in New Zealand. In under an hour, you can see verdant forests, limestone outcroppings, caves, gorge, natural bridge, tunnel, and the Waitomo Stream, all in what is called a karst landscape.
Immediately, I was struck by the lushness, many shades of green wherever I looked—Kahikatea trees, parataniwha, tree ferns, liverworts, moss and more, all surviving in dense forest canopy. Continue reading
Sitting atop a hill across from the B&B, Huhu is without question the best place to eat in Waitomo Caves. A restaurant of this caliber would do quite well in a larger urban area. After we dined here the first time (lunch), we knew we had to return before leaving for Auckland. Simply put, Huhu was the best fine dining experience we’ve had on this trip so far. Though the menu most likely changes frequently (and you’re unlikely get the same thing again on a return visit), it won’t matter. The food is that good.
Dinner began with complimentary slices of bread served with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and dukkah, a Egyptian blend of ground nuts, herbs and spices. We’d never had this delicious condiment before, but it’s worth seeking out a recipe for it.
Bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and dukkah
I had a superb braised beef with mushrooms and red wine, accompanied by a cauliflower purée and roasted broccolini. Not only was the beef fork tender, but the entire dish was an umami bomb, beautifully done.
Braised beef with cauliflower puree and roasted broccolini
My wife’s curried pumpkin soup was likewise delicious but fiery, with a splash of sour cream and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds.
Curried pumpkin soup
We don’t know if we’ll ever return to Waitomo Caves, but one excellent reason, aside from the worms, would be Huhu Café.
10 Waitomo Caves Rd
Waitomo Caves 3943
07 878 6674
One of the places recommended for a lunch by the proprietors of Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge was Curly’s Bar, a tavern in the village just a few blocks up the main road. There are quite a few tables inside, likely filled when tourism is in full swing. There are pool tables and an internet café.
We split a Crusty Burger, a splendiferous version of a NZ-style burger: beef patty, steak, tomato slice, lettuce, fried egg, pickled beet (here called beet root), slice of cheddar cheese (here called tasty cheese). The ingredients are over-the-top perhaps, but the burger pleased my mouth.
By the way, Crusty is the name of one of the owners, Curly being the other.
Te Anga Rd, Waitomo Village
Waitomo Caves, NZ
07 878 8448