Legends, Rocks And Glowworms: Waitomo’s Ruakuri Cave

Ruakuri Cave, New Zealand - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk

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Underground caverns are like something from science fiction. The strangely coloured light, weird rock formations and eerie echoes make you feel as if 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…

Ruakuri Cave, New Zealand
The other-worldly appearance of the Ruakuri Cave

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 not explored until 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.

Ruakuri Cave, New Zealand
The modern entrance to the wheelchair-friendly Ruakuri Cave

Ruakuri literally 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 truth of the legend, the cave was certainly used as a Maori burial place and there are still some bodies there today.

Stone in the Ruakuri Cave
A stone with running water where you can wash your hands as a mark of respect to those who are buried here

Historically the Maori never entered the cave as it was regarded as the entrance to the underworld. It remains sacred today and visitors may not touch any part of the rock (on pain of 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. Although the actual burial place is closed off, we did see 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. 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 that have been created over millions of years. Some of them were covered with a kind of coral (known locally as “popcorn”). 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 metres deep,” Wayne told us. “But it sounds much louder underground.”

Stalactites in the Ruakuri Cave
The caves are full of stalactites

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. And Wayne showed us the skull of a moa, 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.)

Look out for fossils as you walk around

These glowworms are actually 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.

Coral and limestone formation
Some of the limestone formations are covered in coral


7 thoughts on “Legends, Rocks And Glowworms: Waitomo’s Ruakuri Cave”

  1. Oh gosh, Waitomos Ruakuri caves look amazing, what great pictures! I love that New Zealand seems to preserve its traditional people’s traditions (unlike some other countries I can think of!)

    1. I agree with you – I think NZ probably respects its native traditions more than any other country I’ve been to (although I was also impressed by what I’ve seen of Canada).

  2. Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)

    It’s interesting how so many cultures believe caves to be sacred. Much like the Maori the Maya still believe caves to be magical portals to the underworld. How fascinating that Ruakuri has a place where you can wash your hands in a show of respect. I’ve often felt disrespectful when exploring caves in Mexico and Guatemala and perhaps will try to wash my hands next time.

    1. I suppose caves seem mysterious, and you could certainly imagine that there were spirits down there! But I hadn’t realised they were sacred in other cultures as well.

  3. These caves look totally awesome! We recently visited some cenotes in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, and the stalactites in the caves in New Zealand remind us a little of them – though most cenotes we explored were also half-filled with freshwater, so you could swim and snorkel in them.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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