Waitomo

Waitomo is a busy little village located a short drive from the main highway. Above ground, the surrounding hills are a mix of native bush and verdant farmland. Below ground you'll find the region's famous cave systems, and Waitomo caters to the tourists who come to ogle them. Despite its small size—everything here is within walking distance—the village promises a good selection of cafés, a tavern, plus some 20 different cave tour options ranging from gentle walking on well-lighted pathways to rappelling, tubing, and climbing underground waterfalls.

The Waitomo Caves are part of an ancient seabed that was lifted and then spectacularly eroded into a surreal subterranean landscape of limestone formations, gushing rivers, and contorted caverns. The name, a combination of wai (water) and tomo (cave), refers to the Waitomo River that vanishes into the hillside here. Many of the amazing underground passages are still unexplored, but four major cave systems are open for guided tours: Ruakuri, Spellbound, Aranui, and Waitomo Glowworm Cave. Each has its own special characteristics, and you won't be disappointed by any.

After all, notable features include not only stalactites and stalagmites but also glowworms—the 1- to 2-inch larvae of Arachnocampa luminosa, which live on cave ceilings. They snare prey by dangling sticky filaments, trapping insects attracted to the light they emit. A single worm produces far less than any firefly, but when massed in great numbers in the dark, it's like looking at the night sky in miniature. The guides who introduce you to all of this below-ground beauty may be descendants of local chief Tane Tinorau (who discovered Waitomo Glowworm Cave); they will certainly be local caving experts who have spent years exploring the amazing network of shafts and passageways around Waitomo.

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