Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworms caves of New Zealand

Have you heard of “black water rafting”? More or less, black water rafting is a fun, exciting and adrenalin pumping sport where you use an inflated rubber inner tube (the kind you find in a vehicle tire) to float down the dark underground cave river. It’s also called the “cave tubing” for that reason. It involves floating in the underground calm water, rushing down the rapids, going over the underground water falls, crawling through narrow passages, and walking through shallow and uneven river. Sometimes this activity is combined with cave climbing as well. It’s called black water rafting as opposed to the common white water rafting, because it is really dark inside the cave so the water looks black.

Black water rafting (BWR) is still a rare sport in the world. We were lucky to join the adventure in the birth place of the BWR, the Waitomo caves! Let me tell you first about the Waitomo Caves, because that place is quite fabulous.

Waitomo is a region in the North Island, New Zealand, known as a home of many underground caves in the location. There are about 300 known limestone caves underneath the hills, which have evolved since this area was still submerged under the sea over 30 million years ago. Inside the Waitomo caves, you will find gorgeous stalactites, stalagmites, limestone pillars and curtains, and my favourite: the glowworms! Brilliant blue radiating creatures that cling under the cave ceilings, make you feel like looking at a gorgeous starry night sky.

The beauty of Waitomo Caves

The beauty of Waitomo Caves

You can enjoy the beauty of Waitomo caves by guided walk and boat ride tours*, or if you want to enjoy it in more unusual, fun, adventurous and exotic way, try the black water rafting! They have 2 packages offered: Black Labyrinth that involves BWR and mild caving, and the more hard core Black Abyss that also involves cave climbing, abseiling (sliding down a rope), and flying fox! There’s also another company that offers adventurous glowworm cave explorations, as Nora shared her thrilling experience of abseiling a 100 metre drop into the cave!

What about us? We took the Black Labyrinth Tour. The only thing you need to bring yourself are bathing suit and towels. That’s all. Or you can even omit the towel if you don’t mind going home wet. Yes, you will get soaking wet. Other than that, they gave us the wet suit, wet jacket, helmet with head lamp, wet socks, wet shoes, and……. the tube! And for goodness sake, choose the tube that is actually large enough for your bum! Don’t pretend you have a small bum if yours is large. If it doesn’t fit now, it won’t fit later.

Waitomo black water rafting: choosing the tube

We got the suit, we got the tube, now we are ready!

Once we dressed up, I thought they will bring us to the cave right away, but instead they took us to a river for practicing”jumping over waterfall”! I thought at first we would just going to roll over the fall as we hit it, but not quite! Maybe it’s not even safe that way, but I never tried it myself. So guys, here’s the instruction on how to do it. Stand right on the edge of the waterfall facing backward. Place the tube around your bum, and then jump backward as far as you can, target to fall on your bum. Try to not flip upside down, as you might fall on some rocks. And oh yeah, just in case you feel scared, they will push your chest hard anyway in the count of three. That’s it. What do you think? Thrilling? Scary? Fun? Easy? Whatever you think, in fact none of us in the group looking photogenic during the jump.

Black water rafting preparation: learn how to jump over waterfall

Practicing jumping over waterfall: none of us look photogenic

We were about to enter the Ruakuri cave, one of the best caves in Waitomo. The cave mouth was really small, you might not even able to see it from the picture below even though it was right there. It was a squeeze-tight small. After entering, we climbed down a little bit, and the cave journey was started.

Waitomo black water rafting : tube-train formation and entering the cave

Left: Tube-train formation exercise. Right: About to enter the cave mouth, can you see the little hole?

Crawling inside a cave with rushing water for the first time, I felt like I was inside an intestine. It was dark. The ceiling was low. Ceiling, wall and floor was all uneven with limestone formations everywhere. Stalactites jutting down the roof. Many times we were crawling on the shallow rapid water, you couldn’t see what you were stepping into, but it’s uneven. During the first half of being inside the cave, we did quite bit of crawling and short distance tubing when the water was deep enough.

In one of our stops, we were entertained by big chocolate covered marshmallow in the shape of fish. A good sugary food to keep us up. I felt like Gollum, eating his favourite food fisssh, that the meat is so sssweet….

The fish marshmallow and Gollum

The fish marshmallow and Gollum

Our first sight of glowworm was unforgettable. The cave ceiling was low, and we were tubing right underneath it. Beautiful big brilliant blue stars within our reach.

Glowworms, big brilliant blue stars in the night sky. The right image showing the close up of the glowworms' trapping lines.

Glowworms, big brilliant blue stars in the night sky. The right image showing the close up of the glowworms' trapping lines.

So, what is a glowworm? A glowworm found in New Zealand is a maggot like larvae of 2-winged insect that is called arachnocampa luminosa. It’s hatched 3 mm long, and within 9 months grows into a matchstick size. A glowworm glows due to bioluminescence process in their rear part, to attract its prey and to burn off body waste. You can see the rod curtains like white-transparent threads hanging from the ceiling (picture above, right), which are actually the sticky lines created by the glowworms to traps the insects that fly toward their glow. These glowworms can only survive inside caves like this, because they need their environment to be damp, dark, windless, and also need to hang down from a horizontal platform. Darkness so they can attract the prey with their glows. Horizontal so they can hang their sticky trap lines, and windless so the lines don’t get dry and tangled up. A humid cave with river flow is ideal! Are you curious about the adult life of these glowing larvae? After 9 months these glowing creatures will enter their cocoon stage for 13 days, and then emerged out as mouthless large mosquito-like insects. Mouthless? How do they eat? They can’t! Pretty much they will find a partner of opposite sex right away: If you are the female one, your guy will probably be already waiting in front of you the moment you emerge from your cocoon! No time to put on make up. They mate, lay eggs, and die within a few days!

Our expedition continued…

With the BWR team inside the Ruakuri Cave

With the BWR team inside the Ruakuri Cave

As they promised, we went through a couple of underground waterfalls! We needed to do what we had practiced before, only this time, it was really dark. We had to find a safe spot to stand on the waterfall edge without falling prematurely, and jumped back into the nothingness. Yes, you couldn’t even see what you are jumping into. We couldn’t see how high was the fall, whether underneath there were rocks to be avoided (so I hit some of them), or how far was the wall so you won’t launched yourself to that. Oh, also the underground water was very cold! Wait! Wait…..! Give me a second….. Wait….. (while the guide said, “one, two three,” push! And I’m gone) *plunged*

Jumping over cave waterfall

Jumping over cave waterfall

I survived, and even enjoyed the next waterfall jump actually. The rest of the journey was easier and calmer. The river was widen and deepen, the ceiling was far away high. We float gently on the calm water, facing up, seeing the beautiful stalactites and blue stars. It was truly serene.

Black water rafting in Waitomo Caves

Floating on the calm river, so serene

Unfortunately, the journey had to end. That was right after I almost became faceless upon scrapping my entire face to a big stalactite right in the cave mouth that somehow I failed to notice. Ryan thought it was amusing so he was just laughing instead of pulling me away!

The end of the black water rafting journey

The end of the black water rafting journey

We had a blast! One of my very favourite moment of our backpacking journey so far! You must include Waitomo Caves in your itinerary if you come to the North Island of New Zealand. If you do so, please come back here to share your experience! Or, have you done this before? Or something similar? Share with us!

The one ring: the tube!

The One Ring: The One Tube!

* When and where: 25 Feb 2010, Ruakuri Cave of Waitomo, NZ
* About photographs: Taking photograph is prohibited during the tour. A few pictures of us were taken by our tour guides. In the photos DVD that we purchased, there are some other pictures from different expedition to illustrate the journey. Other pictures are courtesy by
* Official website:
Check the official website for pricing information. Booking might be required, and there’s 10% discount if you book through their site.
* Special thanks to our guide: Tom and Ryan

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25 Responses to “Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworms caves of New Zealand”

  1. Boo Peel
    24 March 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    Wow this looks amazing – I have been White Water Rafting on the Zambezi – but never heard of Black Water Rafting. My son wants to be a rafting guide – wait till I tell him about this – he be hooked.

    • Dina
      25 March 2010 at 1:26 pm #

      Hi Boo Peel, this BWR is still quite rare it seems. I’m browsing around the internet, and I can only find 2 other places that have this, in the South Island of New Zealand and in Belize. I wonder where else they do this.

      As for the white water rafting, I have done one a rather mild one in Rangitikei River of NZ, looking forward to do the rougher one! I checked out your website, looks like rafting in Zambezi is a lot of fun, and I really want to see that Victoria Falls! Do you still live in Zimbabwe?

  2. Jane Warren
    25 March 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Hi Dina:
    What a great post – I will add BWR to my twitter. I’ve heard of the glowworm caves – just not this way to explore!
    It’s going on the “bucket list.”
    Jane Warren, Publisher

    • Dina
      25 March 2010 at 8:48 pm #

      Hi Jane, thank you for your compliment and the twitter!
      You should try it if you go there, you will love it!

  3. Jane Warren
    26 March 2010 at 1:25 am #

    I will – we have a girls trip every year; bet they would love this!!
    Take care

    • Dina
      27 March 2010 at 12:40 am #

      That’s really cool that you have annual girls trip! How far do you girls usually go?
      If you are more into adventure, try the “Black Abyss Tour” one instead of the Labyrinth that I chose. Same company, location etc, but the include cave climbing and abseiling as well, also fox flying according to the website. This one took a total of 5 hours instead of 3 hours that I took.

  4. Jane Warren
    27 March 2010 at 5:45 am #

    Hi Dina:
    As a group, the girls have stayed in the States; however, individually, we have traveled abroad, and our husbands are not as enthusiastic anymore about those trips – so we may have to broaden the horizons for the gals. Looked at the Black Abyss Tour – I think that would be great – it would work for a couple of the girls too. I’m going to have to keep younger friends so I can do all these things!

  5. Earl
    27 March 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Wow! This was a great post. Not only was it a wonderful description of Waitomo but it also brought back the memories of when I visited the caves (although it was quite a few years ago). The black water rafting was one of the major highlights of my NZ experience as well as it is such a unique activity.

    How’s your face?? Did it heal quickly?

  6. Dina
    28 March 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    Earl, that’s great to know you’ve done it too! My face only ended up with little scratches. Not sure when it healed, because I was too busy scratching my itchy body over getting bitten by a swarm of sand flies from the Lake Taupo! I bet the face scratches were gone in a few days, while the major itch lasted more than a week!

  7. Matt | YearAroundTheWorld
    3 April 2010 at 4:09 am #

    Nice! I’m adding this to my MUST DO list for New Zealand. :-)

    • Dina
      4 April 2010 at 1:48 am #

      You will have a great time there :D Try the Black Abyss Tour one that has the climbing and abseiling.

  8. Dave
    15 April 2010 at 1:51 am #

    Awesome idea! I’m going to be in NZ’s north island in a couple months (unfortunately in the winter), but I’ll see if this tour is still running. I’ll have to subscribe here and look through your other NZ posts before I start my RTW trip! :-)

    .-= Dave´s last blog ..Surfing in landlocked downtown Munich! =-.

    • Dina
      16 April 2010 at 12:29 am #

      Hi Dave, you are so lucky to go there soon! I think the black water rafting is still open during the winter, since I don’t read any sign that says otherwise in their website, other than the statement that it’s subject to weather condition. Maybe you can email them?
      Please do check around our other NZ posts! NZ was amazing, I need to write more about that place.
      .-= Dina´s last blog ..Alpacas, angora goats, and showbags at the Sydney Royal Easter Show =-.

  9. Suzy
    16 April 2010 at 8:09 am #

    I would have been petrified to jump in those waterfalls in such darkness. I got afraid just reading this. Waitomo sounds amazing though. I may have to conquer my fears just to see those glowworms. Great information and photos.
    .-= Suzy´s last blog ..Early to the Airport Traveler or Final Boarding Call Walk-On? =-.

  10. Dina
    17 April 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    Hi Suzy,

    You have the option to enjoy the glowworm from the regular tour too :)

    Believe me, I had my petrified moment too! When we practiced outside the cave, I just kept thinking I had paid for this :D and the first jump inside the cave, I just kept telling myself that there was no way back, I had no choice! My legs felt like jelly, and I depended on the guide guy pushed me back. Haha.. But it gets easier after that.

  11. Urja
    10 May 2010 at 7:34 am #

    Hi Dina

    I was just browsing to know what is this black water rafting .. It looks really adventurous & exciting .. I wanted to know is this activity advisable to do in the month of June or July months since these are winter months in NZ ??
    Do you think u can help me on this ??

    • Dina
      10 May 2010 at 12:55 pm #

      Hi Urja, it is really exciting indeed! I happened to do this on February. I’m not sure yet about June-July, but the booking online page of the website doesn’t indicate they are closing in certain months. However I just contacted them and asked about this June-July matter. I should get an answer from them within 2 days, and I will let you know as soon as I know!

    • Dina
      10 May 2010 at 8:28 pm #

      Hi Urja, I got the answer. They open the whole year around, June-July included. Here’s what they say:

      Yes the tours will still be running, but they could be cancelled if we have heavy rain. We do supply wetsuits so you are kept warm.

      Hope this help :)

  12. Gayle
    20 May 2010 at 2:01 am #

    Awesome! Definitely a unique experience! Thanks for sharing, it’s really given us a better idea of what to expect since we’ll be there next week and we can’t wait to do this for our 10th wedding anniversary! It’s been 10 yrs since we were in NZ last and mainly concentrated our adventures in the South Island. We knew we would be back and this was one of the things we really wanted to go back for. I was browsing through the different packages from different adventure companies in Waitomo and looks like this one was the original company? Do you know what else is included in the 5 hr Black Abyss trip? Trying to decide which one we should sign up for since we’re probably not going to be in Waitomo Caves til after 11am and we need to be in Tongariro area by 9pm. Thanks again for your very informative and fun post!

    • Dina
      20 May 2010 at 12:04 pm #

      Hi there! I wish you happy (coming) anniversary!! You guys choose great place to celebrate, I love NZ so much. Did you do honeymoon here too?
      About Black Abyss, the 5 hours already including the briefing, changing clothes, and driving to the location. It seems like it’s possible to get to Tongariro by 9, the drive might take 3 hours. The Black Abyss, in addition to what I wrote about Labyrinth, will have cave climbing and abseiling too. Pictures from it looks really good.

      About which company, this one claims that they are the first one to offer cave tubing adventures. If you go to information centres, very likely this company’s brochures will be the ones that you see the most about Waitomo. About better or not compare with others, I’m not sure. Check this article out if you like. She did something similar to Black Abyss, but by different company.

      Hey, we are opposite from you guys. We did North Island, and next time will be South Island. And hey, I’m soooo excited that it’s just 2 more days I will fly to Christchurch!

      Btw, Thanks for liking our article! Let us know if you have other questions or comments!

  13. Maria Pavel
    27 February 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    Isn’t black water rafting dangerous? It certainly sounds dangerous, and scary. But i wouldn’t mind trying it sometimes, life is short anyway :)
    The cave looks awesome from your pictures, it reminds me of this new movie Spielberg made, though i haven’t watched it yet. Maybe i should, in preparation.
    Maria Pavel´s last post…CNA Training in Arizona

  14. Chris
    29 July 2011 at 12:47 am #

    You did such a great job of describing the trip! I wrote an entry about it myself after I went last year, but not in nearly as much detail. And you have so many photos! We only got two :-(

  15. World On Water
    30 November 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Wow…This was a great read, it brought back so many great memories of when I went to the caves. The black water rafting was one of the highlights of the few weeks i spent in New Zealand on my round the world trip…….gona go look at my photos again.


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