New Zealand Glowworms:
Beyond Waitomo Caves

by Kat Tancock

If you go on a bus tour of New Zealand, you’re almost certainly going to end up at Waitomo Caves, a world-renowned attraction where you can see the local glowworm, a little larvae that glows in the dark and looks pretty cool on cavern ceilings as you glide underneath in a boat – or, if you’re more adventurous, on an inner tube after a blackwater rafting experience.

Glowworms are cool and all, and Waitomo Caves is a lovely place, but you really are there with every other tourist in the country – and once is really enough. So on my trip down under last winter, I was excited to find another glowworm viewing option that, as a bonus, was closer to where we were staying in the beach town of Mount Maunganui.

We met up with Grant from Adventure Bay of Plenty in MacLaren Falls Park just outside of Tauranga before dark to get organized and orient ourselves. Grant took us on a tour of the lake and into the river to see the cavern where we’d be returning to see the glowworms. We easily navigated our two double kayaks around the calm waters and enjoyed the peaceful environment and rich green scenery while we listened to the calls of birds including the morepork, New Zealand’s native owl.

Once darkness fell the lake seemed even more calm, and we switched our headlamps to red – bright lights disturb the glowworms – to make our way back into the cavern. We found a good place to stop, turned out the lights and were treated to the sight of the cavern lit up by tiny glowing lights. Grant explained that glowworms avoid wind, which is why they’re typically found in caves – but this deep river canyon also provided the ideal habitat.

As we made our way back to the launch site, we thought we’d seen the best of the trip, but Grant surprised us with a short walk along a tramping trail that gave us the chance to go eye-to-eye with glowworms on its walls. Most day hikers who visit the trail have no idea that it too is glowworm habitat.

Grant demonstrated how the Maori would break off pieces of the silver fern that’s one of the country’s symbols and leave it on trails to show direction – its bright underside catches the light and makes a powerful indicator for those in the know. We ended our evening sitting quietly in the dark on a little bridge, watching the glow of little larvae on the four walls around us and marvelling at the cool things nature can show us if we only look.

Watch glowworms lighting up a cave in this Planet Earth video, below.