Waitomo Ruakuri Cave: Legends, Rocks, and Glowworms in New Zealand

by Karen Warren
Stalagmites and stalactites inside Waitomo Ruakuri Cave

Underground caverns are like something from science fiction. The strangely colored light, weird rock formations, and eerie echoes make you feel like you’ve entered a different universe. 

The Ruakuri Cave, part of the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand’s North Island, is no exception. 

But Ruakuri is more than just a geological wonder. It is also a sacred Maori site, a place of history and legends. And, if that isn’t enough, there are the glowworms. 

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Waitomo, a Sacred Maori Site

There are several caves in the Waitomo complex. They have been sacred to the Maori for centuries, but the interior was explored in the late 19th century. 

The first exploration was by a Maori chief and an English surveyor, and tourism soon followed. It was inevitable that disputes over control of the site would arise, with both the government and the Maori claiming ownership. 

Finally, in 2005, the caves were returned to the Maori owners of the land, and guided tours became possible again.

The striated grey rocks is the entrance to the Waitomo Ruakuri Cave

The modern entrance to the wheelchair-friendly Ruakuri Cave. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Ruakuri means “den of dogs.” 

The legend is that it was first discovered by a Maori hunter who was attacked by dogs close to the mouth of the cave. After successfully fighting and subsequently eating the dogs, the hunter expressed his desire to be buried inside the cave. 

Whatever the legend’s truth, the cave was certainly used as a Maori burial place, and there are still some bodies there today.

Historically, the Maori never entered the cave as it was regarded as the entrance to the underworld. 

It remains sacred today, and visitors cannot touch any part of the rock or incur a $10,000 penalty.

The exception to this is a stone with running water at the very bottom of the cave where you are allowed to wash your hands as a mark of respect to the dead who lie buried in the depths of the cave. 

A golden stone at the bottom of the Waitomo Ruakuri Cave that collects the running water

A stone with running water where you can wash your hands as a mark of respect to those who are buried here. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Although the actual burial place is closed off, we saw the “ghost walk.” This is the route that dead people are said to have followed to the underworld.

Natural Wonders Of The Ruakuri Cave

But it is the natural spectacle that draws tourists to Ruakuri. 

On our 1.5-hour tour, we were shown around by Wayne, himself a keen caver. 

He started by leading us down a long spiral ramp to the bottom of the cave. This is the only one of the Waitomo Caves that is wheelchair friendly.

Then we entered a room full of stalactites, fantastical limestone formations created over millions of years. Some of them were covered with a kind of coral, known locally as “popcorn”. 

Stalactites inside the Waitomo Ruakuri Cave

The caves are full of stalactites. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Beige colored limestones covered in coral inside the Waitomo Ruakuri Cave

Some of the limestone formations are covered in coral. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

We passed underground rivers, and in the distance, we heard the sound of a tremendous waterfall

“The waterfall is only around one and a half meters deep,” Wayne told us. “But it sounds much louder underground.”

It is hard to imagine that anything could have ever lived down here, but the caves are full of fossils, a remnant from the time when the area was beneath the sea. 

A fossil embedded into the limestone rocks of Waitomo Ruakuri Cave

Look out for fossils as you walk around. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

And Wayne showed us the skull of a moa, a group of flightless birds that have been extinct, which presumably just flew into the cave and didn’t manage to get out again.

But there are still living creatures here: the glowworms for which the Waitomo Caves are famous

The walls of the glowworm caves were covered with pinpricks of light, giving the effect of a starry night. Unfortunately, the light wasn’t bright enough for a good photograph, so you’ll have to imagine it for yourself.

These glowworms are the larvae of fungus gnats, but they spend most of their lives in the larval state. 

Amazingly they manage to find food – insects that fly into the caves, or occasionally they just eat one another! 

Surrounded by life and light, in a place that should surely be dark and dead, I had to agree with the Maori that there was something special about this place.

Waitomo Ruakuri Cave Additional Information

Address: 204 Tumutumu Road, Waitomo Caves 3985, New Zealand 

Location: Click for Google Maps

Official Website & Buy Tickets Here: https://www.waitomo.com/glowworms-and-caves/ruakuri-cave (Prebooking is highly recommended!)

Social Media: Instagram | Facebook 

Final Thoughts

Visiting Waitomo’s Ruakuri Cave is an adventurous activity to add to your New Zealand itinerary. Taking a tour to learn about the cave and seeing glowworms is a spectacular experience. 

Besides the Ruakuri Cave, you can explore Ananui Cave, take a boat through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, or go black water rafting. Read more about these experiences here.  

After visiting Waitomo, consider stopping by Matamata to see the Hobbiton Movie Set or Rotorua for colorful geothermal hot springs. 

Check out the blog, WorldWideWriter, for updates on my travel adventures.  

Featured photo credit: WorldWideWriter

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