Have a go at blackwater rafting in the Waitomo Caves. © Tony Lin

Waitomo Caves: one of the wonders of the world

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Crawling through holes in rock with mere inches of wriggle room on either side, the only illumination cast by your headlamp is not everyone's idea of fun.

Inevitably, though, there’s a section of people who consider this the pinnacle of a good time. The place to go get it in the North Island is Waitomo, about 50km south-west of Hamilton. Waitomo’s name, loosely translated, is ‘water hole’.

But you don’t have to be half-human/half-worm to enjoy the wonders of Waitomo. There’s a range of activities – from the sedate to borderline insane – to suit all ages, abilities, temperaments and tolerances for enclosed spaces.

Set in a weird and wonderful tract of karst landscape – where weathered limestone and marble outcrops form outlandish shapes on the surface – the caves are one of the wonders of the world and have been a tourist drawcard since the early days of European settlement.

Perhaps the best known and most popular of Waitomo’s charms is the Glowworm Cave, a massive cavern system on three levels, bejewelled with minerals and hung the whole ceiling over with the cold, blue fairy-lights of glow-worms. These are the larvae of Arachnocampa luminosa, a fungus-munching bug, that use the light they emit to attract the other tiny insects upon which they prey.

The second level of the Glowworm Cave is called the Banquet Hall, as it was the luncheon-stop for early visitors to the cave: you can still see traces of tobacco smoke staining on the ceiling.

Another cavern is graced with great, fluted stalagmites and stalactites, and is aptly named ‘the Pipe Organ.' The third in the system is The Cathedral, with its high vaulted ceiling and angelic acoustics.

There are countless other caves in the Waitomo area. Aranui Cave was named for the young Māori man who found it while in hot pursuit of a pig. It features structures with the evocative names of Fairy Walk, Temple of Peace, Aladdin’s Cave and Eastern Scene.

And then there’s Mangapu, a 100-m tomo (vertical shaft) into which visitors with no previous experience can rappel (abseil). The sunlight reaches the floor of this deep hole and picks out threads of mist hanging in the twilight and tendrils of plants clinging to the walls. Lonely Planet has called the ‘Lost World’ tour of Mangapu ‘one of the most amazing things you can do in the country’. To find out why you’ll have to try it for yourself.

And if that isn’t wet or racy enough for you, there’s always black-water rafting through the Ruakurī Cavern.

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