“The Winterless North” as New Zealand’s Northland region is known, doesn’t often disappoint weather-wise, and tourist attractions aren’t thin on the ground either — historical buildings abound, water-based activities vie with adventure sports, and natural attractions such as forests and pristine beaches draw both local and foreign visitors.
Most of Northland’s visitors drive up from Auckland, often trying to fit as much as possible into a weekend or stretching it out over a week. Whatever the timeframe, though, a stop at the Kawiti Glowworm Caves is highly recommended. Located just off State Highway One 5km south of Kawakawa (about 55km north of Whangarei), it’s a great last activity on the way home from the Bay of Islands, or a first stop on a Saturday morning. And for those based in the Bay of Islands, it’s only 23km away from Paihia, so a definite option for a rainy-day backup plan.
On arrival at the caves, park in the carpark and wander along to the office — a small, shedlike structure with a pricelist outside: Adults $15, kids $7.50. Cheap by any standard, but especially compared to the $80+ you’ll pay down in Waitomo, where the glowworm cave experience has become a glossy tourist treadmill. At Kawiti, EFTPOS or credit card facilities aren’t available, so make sure you have enough cash with you.
The caves are owned and operated by a friendly Maori family who have been in the area for generations, and who built the infrastructure to take tourists through the cave about 40 years ago. The laid-back Kiwi nature is demonstrated perfectly here; you’ll be welcomed and guided by one of the family, and the tours run when there are people to go on them. There’s no fixed schedule, so you should be on your way through the caves within 10-15 minutes of arriving, even if you’re alone.
The caves themselves are fascinating, limestone caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites clinging to the floors and ceilings, still growing infinitesimally every year. But what draws most of the visitors are the glowworms, tiny insect larvae that cling to the ceiling and emit a bright light to attract their food. Apparently the glow is caused by a chemical reaction in the excrement of the larvae — yes, it’s glowing poo.
The tour guide will take you into the caves and along the boardwalks that were built by other members of the family. Hand-held lanterns light the way through the first 50 metres or so, as the guide explains the geological history of the area, as well as a bit of more recent history — how a Maori woman (Roku) lived in the caves a couple of hundred years ago after running away from her husband, how the guide’s grandfather used to store sweet potatoes in a niche near the entrance.
But the best part are the glowworms. The lights are turned off and everyone gazes at the ceiling, letting their eyes adjust to the darkness to better appreciate the sparkling lights of insect poo. It’s magical. Apparently the lights glow brighter on rainy days and at dawn and dusk, as the larvae work harder to attract their food of mosquitos and other insects. These unfortunates get caught by the sticky threads the glowworms produce and hang from the ceiling, invisible in the dark but which glisten in the light.
After a slow 200-metre walk through the caves (about 30 minutes), you emerge at the other end back into the daylight, and return to the carpark via a pleasant 350-metre-long bushwalk. It’s possible to return back through the caves at an extra cost, which might be worth considering on a particularly wet day, but otherwise the bushwalk is a nice way to end a fun and informative visit to one of Northland’s best tourist attractions.
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