A glowworm cave experience to top Waitomo or Te Anau?

Waitomo and Te Anau are great glowworm cave experiences but for a totally natural underworld adventure you can't go past the Nile River Cave in Charleston.

Everybody knows the popular Waitomo and Te Anau glowworm cave experiences, visitors have been enjoying discovering these caves for many years and for good reason.  Recently I was lucky enough to go through the amazing Nile River Caves near Charleston on the West Coast and if you are after a natural and totally genuine glowworm experience then this is hard to beat.

Best spot to base yourself - Punakaiki

The best place to discover the Nile River caves from is Punakaiki, an idyllic town on the West Coast of the South Island that is my favourite place in the entire country.  If you’ve taken the journey across the Southern Alps, as we recommend, this makes your arrival into Punakaiki even more spectacular - we’re really seeing New Zealand’s famous variety of landscapes in our traverse across the island - the bare brown Canterbury high country, the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps and the lush west coast rainforest as we make our way down into the coast.  We love Punakaiki and the surrounding Paparoa National Park area so much we’ve chosen to spend two nights on our tour here, so we can slow down and keep pace with ‘west coast time’ and enjoy everything the area has to offer.  Punakaiki itself is a beautiful spot with lots to do, but the main reason we recommend a two night stay here is to experience an underworld adventure in the Nile River caves at nearby Charleson.

A totally natural and genuine glowworm cave experience

Without a doubt, this is one of the most amazing natural experiences you’ll find anywhere in the world.  A stunning natural environment completely untouched by development, you will also get to meet the passionate west coasters who have been putting their heart and soul into this business for over 25 years.  The trip itself is a walking / caving / rafting excursion into the Nile River cave system to view the millions of resident glowworms, with both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ options availiable to suit everybody.  The first day I ever visited, we were greeted by one of the owners Geoff at reception who’s personality just set the trip off on the right foot, the whole day had a really genuine feel to it which I loved.

Our adventure starts with a short drive to the edge of the forest where we jump on board a custom made train which takes us into the lush rainforest.  After the obligatory safety talk and dry West Coast humour we chug gently off into the greenery - to give you an idea of what it looks like this is where the BBC filmed parts of ‘the Lost World’ and it certainly looks like the kind of place you’d see a dinosaur if they were still around today.  Once we leave the train we cross the bridge over the Nile river and start a short climb to the caves, by this stage we have our local guide with us and they’re providing interesting commentary and the all important ‘it’s not much further now’ encouragement as we make the short climb into the cave entrance.

Something for everyone with 'wet' and 'dry' options on the same trip

It’s at this point that the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ trips part company, we’re both heading into the same caves but the ‘wet’ adventurers have been kitted up with a wetsuit, lifejacket and a raft, which looked suspiciously to me like an inner tube of a truck tyre, but they were dutifully referred to as ‘rafts’ all day!  The wet team take a slightly more adventurous route which is well within the ability of anyone who feels confident hiking on uneven rocky ground.  There’s a little scrambling over rocks and ducking under overhangs but our guide is always there to help and it was a lot of fun.  People on the ‘dry’ trip remain in their hiking boots and outdoor clothing but are also equipped with helmets and lights as they follow their guide along the same route, but don’t jump in the water for the wet section of the trip.  Both the wet and dry trips start and finish at the same place so it’s ideal for a couple, for example, where one person would like to do the wet trip and the other the dry.  The big difference between the two trips comes about an hour into the cave system where we use our rafts to float on our backs through the largest and most impressive glowworm cavern I’ve ever seen.  Working as a guide I’ve been lucky to experience most of the outdoor experiences and activities New Zealand has to offer and I would have to say that floating on my back through the Nile river glowworm caves was one of the best natural experiences I’ve ever had anywhere in the world.  It was an incredibly peaceful, almost surreal experience as eight of us floated along in silence looking up at the galaxy of glowworms above us.  Nobody said a thing as we all savoured the moment, highly recommended and definitely unforgettable!  The ‘dry’ trip still takes in the glowworms but the largest and most impressive cavern is only accessible by water, so if you think you’re up to squeezing into a wetsuit and a little scrambling then it’s the ‘wet’ trip we’d recommend.  

An unexpected highlight at the end of the trip - floating down the Nile river

The unexpected highlight of the trip was after we left the caves and floated peacefully along on our backs down the Nile river for 30 minutes or so back to our starting point.  If you ever played on rafts as a kid you will be transported right back to those days as you float down the river through the lush green rainforest amongst the laughter of your friends.  Both this last ‘float’ section on the river and the rafting section in the caves are nothing like white water rafting, the raft is used as a flotation device to transport us through an area that would be too tricky to walk.  The river is neither deep nor fast flowing, underground we’re moving along at walking pace and from time to time have to use our hands to propel us further forward.  New Zealand’s Nile River is nothing like it’s African namesake, it’s very shallow and gentle, of course this does vary with rainfall but a lot of the time the water was no more than knee deep on our gentle descent back to the swingbridge.

About the Nile River caves and the glowworms

The Nile river caves themselves were formed by water running down from the mountains and over time carving out these massive underground caverns from the soft limestone rock.  The higher mountains of the Paparoa range are made from much harder granite, but it’s limestone which the Nile river caves have been carved from.  Each individual stalactite hanging from ceiling is the result of limestone sediments transported in running water accumulaing, granule by granule, over thousands of years.  The entrance to the cave is pretty small and it’s no surprise that they weren’t discovered in the 1970s by locals, funnily enough by accident as one local’s dog disappeared into a hole in the rock and it’s owner was forced to follow it underground.  This is the west coast after all so it just seems natural that a man and his dog discovered this natural wonderland by accident!  After that locals began to explore these amazing caves and stories abound of people heading fearlessly into the caves with nothing more than a candle and no idea of where they were going!  These were the people that started the company which runs the tours today.

The stalactites, stalacmites and out of this world rock formations are impressive enough, but it’s the presence of glowworms in huge numbers that make the day.  Not technically a worm but actually the larvae of a certain kind of fly called a fungus knat (Arachnocampa luminosa).  Our guide explains the life cycle and behaviour of the glowworms and we can even see them close up.  Their glowing light emits from an internal organ similar to our kidney and is how the larvae atracts small flying insects into their ‘web’, sticky threads suspended from the roof of the caves.  Hundreds or even thousands of the larvae will live close to each other on damp sheltered surfaces just like the cave roof here, creating the galaxy like effect we are amazed by today.  There are other glowworm caves in New Zealand but compared to the Nile River they are a lot busier and have encroached more on the natural environment. The operation here is a commercial one for sure, but they have hardly touched the caves and with long term locals running the operation and generations of families serving as guides, everything about this trip contributes to a fantastic day and it’s people like this we want to work with and support for many years to come.

by Andrew Wells - New Zealand Trails

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