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Chasing Glow Worms in Te Anau, New Zealand

Sarah Lempa

Chicago, IL, USA

Glass-still waters and frequently snow-capped mountains just two of the (many) geographical delights that make Te Anau a totally unique travel destination that should be added to any serious traveler’s bucket list. Biology, however, steals the show for what makes this town particularly unique. There’s one aspect that sets it apart from the rest: a wildly booming population of bioluminescent glow worms.

These twinkling insects, hidden in water-carved limestone caves in the surrounding ancient rainforest, are an absolute must see. If your first thought was “what the hell is a glow worm,” you’re probably not alone — and fear not — we’ve got you covered on all the bizarre details.

Seriously, what the hell is a glow worm?

Badass bioluminescence is the best fitting phrase for glow worms, hands down. These peculiar little insects radiate luminosity during their larvae life stage, eventually growing up to be two-winged (and much less exciting, sadly).

Not only does the glow look otherworldly, it’s a method for getting meals and warding off predators. Their light production results from the combination of released chemicals and oxygen, making an enticing trap for other bugs. Turns out glow worms are better at multitasking than most of us; who would’ve thought?

This particular species is unique to New Zealand, claiming residency in the pitch black, humid caves that frequently leave visitors awestruck — and often completely baffled by nature’s capabilities.

Getting to the glow worms

Glowworm cave tour, Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand.

Te Anau is a 2.5-hour drive from the adventure capital of Queenstown, with enough mountainous views along the way to keep all eyes glued to the windows. It’s possible to plan a quick day trip, but it’s worth using as a stopover point on the way to the nearby fjords. This lakeside charmer of a town is incredibly peaceful, making it tempting enough to stay and lounge (or hike around) for a few days.

Visiting the glow worm grotto can only be done via organized tour due to the necessity of an assigned guide, or a glowworm guru, if you will. Both the boat ride and the cave can get a bit chilly, so pack your finest spelunking attire to stay comfortable.

Navigating underground whirlpools and waterfalls

Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand.

This underground wonderland wows with more than just bioluminescence. The caves only date back about 12,000 years, which is somehow considered very young among cave experts. Whirlpools and sculpture-like rock formations pepper the caves from years of steadily flowing currents, adding a distinct uniqueness to the subterranean splendor. It’s safe to say Michelangelo has nothing on these rock carvings.

The sound of rushing water is constant, heightening in volume as you approach the grandiose underground waterfall while semi-tumultuously making your way to the upper cave.

A starry night, but the stars are glow worms

Glowworm Cathedral at the end of Waipu Cave, New Zealand.

The finale arrives: the last stop on your glow worm expedition occurs on yet another boat, but this time, a small dinghy-like vessel that looks a bit oversized for the width of the water-filled cavern. After hopping in one by one and trying not to tip over before sitting down, your guide will ask for complete silence. After a few minutes of cautiously navigating the pitch-black waterway, the cavern expands into loftier heights, revealing a Milky Way galaxy of twinkling glow worms. Whatever you do, try not to ruin the moment by bumping your head on any rocks — total rookie move.

Exploring the rainforest before heading back

Te Anau Glowworm Caves, Te Anau, New Zealand.

Just when you start to forget what daylight looked like, you’ll emerge from the underground back into luxuriant forestlands. Part of the allure of visiting this side of the lake is the incredible untouched nature, lending it some serious Castaway vibes (without all of the survival struggles or volleyball, of course).

Don’t leave the area without taking a walk around the information center and the shoreline. If you plan accordingly, you can depart around sunset, conveniently in time for a colorful cruise back to Te Anau. Hopefully the sky is clear enough to present a true starry night, right after your less-than-conventional galaxy-like experience.