Glow worm “sightings” are on the must-see list for many visitors to New Zealand. This isn’t hard to understand. Who wouldn’t want to see the “tail lights” of tiny invisible insects light up the inside of dark caverns and wooded dells. It’s an ethereal experience and one of the unique natural wonders of New Zealand.
The Arachnocaampa Luminosa glow worm – the transparent larva of the Fungus Gnat – is found throughout New Zealand. However, it has become almost synonymous with Waitomo Caves in the North Island. Visitors have traveled here since the 1880s to sit in the dark and wait for the lights to appear. For this reason, the Waitomo Caves are today one of New Zealand’s top tourist attractions.
Tourist activity vs real travel experience
And therein lies the problem for me. I’m a huge fan of authentic travel experiences and believe that overcrowded tourist sites are not good for people or the environment. When I was researching my guidebooks to New Zealand, I always found the sight of the tour-bus-clogged parking lot at Waitomo quite disturbing. Then recently, I nearly lost it when I read a report* describing the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave as a “moneymaker” and a “mass commercialized experience” aimed at “international short stay visitors from the Asian market.”
I also read about the damage that results from high numbers of visitors. Apparently, the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave is considered a “sacrificial site.” A study showed that the environment of the area could survive up to 300 people an hour, but “the limit of 300 people per hour is regularly exceeded.” The Waitomo Glow Worm Cave “concentrates activity so that other more environmentally significant sites remain relatively undisturbed.”
Frankly, I find that depressing.
Where to find non-touristy glow worm options
The good news is that non-touristy glow worm caves and dells can be found throughout New Zealand. In fact, there’s an excellent option just a short distance from Waitomo.
Spellbound Glowworm & Cave Tours - 20 minutes from Waitomo Village
Spellbound takes small groups – maximum 12 people – to the Spellbound Glowworm Cave (Magawhitikau) and Cave of the Spirit (Te Ana o te Atua) located nearby on a beautiful backcountry farm.
The personalized 3 ¼ hour tour includes the scenic drive from Waitomo Village to the caves, two cave visits of 45 minutes each, refreshments (“a hot drink and biscuits”) and short scenic walks. The tour visits two different caves – the first is a cave with a boat ride and the second is a walk-through cave. Spellbound offers a great option for travelers who enjoy off-the-beaten-path experiences. The company is owned by Pete and Libby Chandler, and I wanted to stand up and cheer when I read the About Us page on their website. (I particularly like their pledge to not “treat you like cattle.”)
More authentic glow worm experiences
Kawiti Caves, North Island, about 210 km / 132 miles north of Auckland
The Kawiti Caves, formerly known as the Waiomio Caves, are owned and operated by the Kawiti family. The caves are a series of caverns set in a massive limestone outcrop.
The 30-minute guided tours follow a wooden boardwalk through a 200 meter / 650 feet limestone cave system. Once inside, visitors see thousands of glow worms spread across the ceiling surrounded by breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites.
The glow worm cave tours here were first established in the 1950’s by Te Tawai Kawiti, great grandson of the famous Maori Chief, Kawiti. Since then, Te Tawai’s descendants have followed in his footsteps, telling the history of the area, providing entertaining commentary, and sharing their local knowledge.
The Kawiti family has guided thousands of travelers through their caves, including Bill Gates who visited with his family in 2007.
Hokitika Glow Worm Dell, West Coast, South Island, 48 km / 28 miles south of Greymouth
Here’s a great place to see glow worm activity for free – but there’s no tour and it’s BYO torch (flashlight).
On Highway 6, just north of the town of Hokitika, look for the Shining Star Beachfront Accommodation. The entrance is acoss the road. Park and follow the path for a couple of minutes into a clearing where you’ll spots lots of little white lights glowing on banks that are more than forty feet high. It’s the largest outdoor glow worm gathering in the country.
From my perspective, standing alone in absolute silence makes for a more memorable experience than being part of a crowd in a commercialized setting. Just remember to douse your torch ASAP and don’t even think about using doing flash photography.
Finding Authentic New Zealand
While glow worm experiences are popular in New Zealand, they are just among the many, many dozens of wonderful activities this beautiful country offers. Personally, I like bush walking, visiting public gardens, photographing the scenery, eating wonderful farm-to-table food, kayaking, berry picking, soaking in thermal pools, and staying on farms and in B&Bs where my hosts are some of the friendliest people on earth.
And here’s a tip: you’ll have the most authentic New Zealand experiences when you are outside of the country’s two tourist triangles:
- Auckland-Rotorua-Waitomo on the North Island.
- Christchurch-Queenstown-Mt. Cook in the South Island.
I left my heart in New Zealand many years ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you do, too.
Tourism Impacts, Planning and Managementby Peter Mason
Category: New Zealand