We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, cavers. If you were to ask us what we think of when you say the word ‘fun’, crawling around in wet and muddy caves is not the first thing that comes to mind. That said, we’re always up for adventure, particularly if there are glow worms involved.
Waitomo is of course the North Island’s most well known commercial cave system, offering a range of experiences from gentle boat rides through glow worm filled chambers to adrenalin pumping abseiling and cave river tubing. That’s all great if you want a guided experience but if like us you like to go it alone sometimes and you’re looking for a relatively safe caving environment (the usual caveats about multiple torches etc. apply) then Waipu Cave is just what you’re looking for.
As far as we’re aware, Waipu is the North Island’s largest uncommercialised cave which means you can go in there any time you like and stay as long as you like. And that’s pretty handy if you’re planning on photographing glow worms as you’ll be in there for several hours as we found out.
Waipu Cave is situated about 12 km off Highway 1 just west of the ‘highland’ village of Waipu. Although the last few kilometres are gravel with a few narrow sections, it’s an easy drive to the Waipu Cave Campground where you can’t miss the well signposted path to the cave. The cave entrance is just a minutes walk from where you park, and the first thing that’ll most probably cross your mind as you step into the cave is ‘I’m going to need a bigger torch’. While the entrance chamber is not particularly high, it is quite vast, disappearing off into the distance, taking the stream with it into the dark.
You’ll want to follow the stream to the left. While you can go to the right, you’ll pretty soon find yourself standing in water with nowhere to go. And speaking of water, you’ll want to wear some water shoes or a least shoes you don’t mind getting wet and muddy.
The other tip is – take your time. While we were there, we saw several groups of people storm into the cave, shine their torches (or phone LED lights) around furiously and then trudge back out with a look of disappointment. Instead, once you’re far enough away from the entrance, stop and dim, or even better turn off your torch and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. After about 10 minutes, carry on walking, keeping your torchlight as dim as possible. We found it easier to walk through the stream rather than along the extremely muddy cave floor. You might want to do the same, just mind the eels. No really!
After a few minutes you’ll enter a high-ceilinged chamber. You’ll know you’re about to miss it if you reach the point where the stream continues on under an overhanging rockface. While the cave does continue further and there’s lots more to explore, if the thought of crouching down and continuing on through the stream doesn’t excite you, don’t worry, just stand there, turn of your torch and wait. Soon, a mini universe will reveal itself, so bright that you’ll be able to see your own outline and a reflection in the water from the light of the glow worms alone. Spectacular!
As we said, the cave does continue on for quite a way beyond this chamber and there’s lots to see. Unfortunately when we explored, some way on from a second, even larger chamber, our way was blocked by some debris and large tree trunks which looked liked that been recently deposited there. That obviously means this usually gentle cave stream becomes a raging underground river at times. A bit of a sobering thought, but one that was soon forgotten on seeing the glow worms for a second time on our way out. Spectacular x 2!
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Northland region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Northland.