Natural Wonders in New Zealand: About glowing Caves and saving the Kiwi.

July 14, 2024

Glowworm Caves New Zealand, Down to Earth Eco Tours, best Glowworm Tour, Waitomo, NZ
In Waitomo's Glowworm Caves with Down to Earth Eco Tours

It's like a canopy of stars, but underground. And the stars are not flickering white, but constant blue. We sit in a dark cave, on a huge rock as water rushes by next to us, and hundreds of glowworms shine above us. We are in the Glowworm Caves in New Zealand, one of only three areas in the world where these little bioluminescent creatures live and glow.

We wade through a cold, knee-deep river inside the cave, climb over rocks using our hands, feet, and headlamps, while occasionally ducking under and around stalactites.

There is a beautiful silence in here. I lean on my boyfriend's shoulder, and we just look up.


Due to its remote location, New Zealand is a paradise for animals and plants that are found nowhere else on earth. This includes a bird that can't fly and whose feathers resembles fur: the fluffy kiwi. This bird has remained essentially unchanged for 50 million years. And my absolute favorite feature of kiwis: they have whiskers! Awww!

But their fluffiness hasn't saved them from the shortsightedness of mankind.

Come with us as we travel to two fabulous and fragile natural wonders of New Zealand. To glowworms and kiwi chicks, to caves and hope.

Oh, humans - Kiwis almost extinct

National Kiwi Hatchery Rotorua, Kiwi Sanctuary, Kiwi New Zealand, extinct, breeding station Kiwi
Kiwi feeding in the National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotorua

Kiwi are the national bird and pride of New Zealanders. So, as I arrive here, I am ready to see a few kiwis crossing the road on the very first day.

Then we learn two things: (1) Kiwis are exclusively nocturnal and (2) we humans have almost wiped them out. Most New Zealanders have never seen a kiwi in the wild.


Because I am very interested in nature conservation in general, and animal welfare in particular, we make an appointment to visit the National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotorua.


The team here is incredibly dedicated and friendly. Without their help, kiwis will be extinct on our planet in just two human generations. And why? Because unknowing people came to the island and were so bored that they wanted to hunt something. But there were no mammals in New Zealand apart from a few species of bats, so they introduced rabbits to the country. To release and shoot. But some of the cottontails were faster than the shotgun and the hare population soon multiplied out of control.

“No big deal,” thought the human trolls. They just brought in weasels to control the hares. But a weasel diet is more than just rabbits. They soon discovered a small, flightless, and almost blind (because nocturnal) bird that had lived in peace without enemies for millions of years. The kiwi had zero time to adapt.

I don't know how often I have felt ashamed of the human species due its thoughtlessness and lack of empathy in recent years.

Kiwi reintroduction: the success of the National Kiwi Hatchery

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Kiwi chick getting weighed and health-checked

At the National Kiwi Hatchery, employees and volunteers go into the forests with insolation boxes and conduct lengthy searches for kiwi eggs and bring them to the hatchery. Kiwi chicks are abandoned by their parents as soon as they hatch and are helpless against weasels in the wild and most perish immediately.

At the Hatchery, the eggs are placed in incubators for three months and the chicks are then nursed by hand until they weigh more than two pounds and are strong enough to fend off the weasels. They are then placed in an outdoor enclosure that resembles their natural environment and then finally released back into the wild.


Thanks to years of painstaking work by the Hatchery, the population is now temporarily stabilized. New Zealand hopes to remove all invasive species from the islands by 2050. A long and expensive battle to make up for mankind’s horrible mistake.


We visit the National Kiwi Hatchery on a behind-the-scenes tour, see a chick that is only three days old, and experience firsthand the medical care and feeding. It costs around $1600 to raise a chick until it is released into the wild and saved from an almost certain early death.

Because I was so moved by the visit, I have opened a small online donation box for the organization. If you would like to help, and possibly even win a small prize I am donating, you can look here: Kiwi Donorbox.

Off to the cave with a headlamp and rubber boots

Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour, Eco Tour, Down to Earth, best Glowworm Tour, New Zealand, North Island
With rubber boots in the cave river

Not endangered, but very special, are the bioluminescent glowworms in the Glowworm Caves in Waitomo. Bioluminescence means that an animal can glow on its own—unlike glow stickers, which you first activate under a lamp (that would be fluorescence).


In Waitomo, there are boat tours into the caves, but you are only fast-tracked in and out again. We discover the Eco Tours from a small family business called Down to Earth, that owns a cave on its farmland away from the touristy caves. In addition to instituting glowworm tours, they have planted 8000 trees and are committed to fighting plastic waste and protecting native animals.


We are welcomed by Ash. There are only four other people in the group with us: small tourist groups are part of the Down to Earth concept. Ash shows us striped woolen clothes and long rubber boots. "You'll need these," he says with a mischievous smile.

I wonder whether I should take the flatter or higher rubber boots. Ash laughs. "You'll get wet anyway," he says. "You'll get water running into them from above the boot top when you are down in the cave."

Huh? Well, then let's just go! My boyfriend and I put on our hardhats and miner’s lamps, and off we go. First down a muddy slope and then many steps to the entrance of the cave, where we find a loud, rumbling river shooting out. We're going in there? For real? Now?


"We'll climb a bit," says Ash and disappears into the cave as he climbs between two large rocks in the middle of the river. While I'm looking at the rocks, my boyfriend is already scrambling after him using both his hands and feet. The website says that this tour is not suitable for senior citizens. I have to laugh. They probably need to revise that.

Three days of living - glowworms at the limit

Whoosh! The icy water runs into both my boots. I'm standing in the river in water up to my knees. But the woolen clothing keeps us warm, even when wet. We boot (ho ho) through the water, climb over more rocks, dodge stalactites, and squeeze through crevices. Ash makes sure that everyone safely gets through the maze and nobody gets eaten. There are some huge eels in the river. One of our companions screams when she sees one. "What if it swims into my boot?" she shouts worriedly. At least there are no crocodiles like in the Nepalese jungle.


Finally, we reach the Glowworm Cavern. Home to radiant blue glowworms that spin sticky threads hanging down from the cavern ceiling to catch flies and mosquitoes. Where are these little guys when I'm camping and dousing myself with bug spray? Can you take a bag of glowworms camping with you and stick them under your tent ceiling?

Ash explains that the glowworms aren't really worms at all, but maggots: fly larvae. "But “maggots” suck at marketing," he says, laughing his broad New Zealand laugh.


It takes nine months for the larvae of the glowworms to become flies. Then they live for three to four days, lay new eggs, and die. As we settle down atop large stones and switch off our headlamps, we begin to see the hundreds of glowing dots on the ceiling, I think: nine months to live for three days, only to reproduce and die—wow. It makes you think hard about the meaning of life.

Impressed, we begin to crawl out of the cave, and another shot of ice water pours into our boots. What an experience!


In addition to visiting kiwi babies and glowworms, my personal highlight is knowing that there are still a lot people who respect and preserve these natural wonders—and that you, despite over-tourism, can help supporting them by actively looking for organizations that offer sustainable options.


You can find more of our New Zealand adventures here:

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