Nile River Glow Worm Caves & Punakaiki

By New Zealand Trails

7 minute read

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The wild West Coast and Punakaiki

Cross the Southern Alps and breathe the salty air on New Zealand's West Coast; we're now in one of the areas we think will be a favourite with anyone who visits this country on one of our small group tours – Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park and the Nile River caves.

Before we get started, let's take a moment to appreciate where we are and where we've come from. Many of our guests live in larger cities in the Northern Hemisphere (and Australia) and one of the main reasons people come to New Zealand is to get away from cities, slow down and breathe. Many of our guests love the laid-back nature of New Zealand, and one of their favourite spots to unwind in is Punakaiki.

There's just something about the lush sub-tropical looking rainforest draped over the hills and clifftop views above the white sandy beaches of the Tasman Sea. Added to this is the very unique native Nikau Palm dominating the landscape which almost looks out of place and gives the area a distinctly tropical feel. It’s quite different from the other areas we visit on our tours. Here at Punakaiki, we are right at the southern boundary of the Nikau Palm habitat, strangely enough just 30 minutes down the coast we see no more Nikau Palms at all!

Punakaiki New Zealand West Coast

Punakaiki on New Zealand's wild West Coast.

If you've taken the journey across the Southern Alps, as we do on our tours, 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 South Island. You’ll take in 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 to the coast.

We love Punakaiki and the surrounding Paparoa National Park area so much we've chosen to spend the first two nights on our World Heritage tour here, so we can slow down and keep pace with 'West Coast time' and enjoy everything the area has to offer. Our Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips also spend a night in this coastal gem.

Exploring New Zealand glow worm caves

Punakaiki itself is a beautiful spot with lots to do, but one of our favourite experiences here is the underworld adventure in the Nile River caves at nearby Charleston.

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 glow worms, with both 'wet' and 'dry' options available to suit everybody. The first time a group visited, we were greeted by one of the owners, Geoff, at reception. Geoff’s personality just set the trip off on the right foot, and it’s a thoroughly authentic Kiwi experience which has continued to delight our guests.

New Zealand glow worm caves - Nile River

Ready to explore the glow worm caves in New Zealand deep in the rainforest.

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 deep 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. On leaving the train, we cross the bridge over the Nile River and begin a short climb to the cave. Our local guide accompanies us and provides interesting commentary (and the all-important 'it's not much further now' encouragement) as we make our ascent into the cave.

It's at this point that the 'wet' and 'dry' trips part company. We're both heading into the same New Zealand caves but the 'wet' adventurers will have been kitted up with a wetsuit, lifejacket and a raft, which looks like an inner tube of a truck tyre, but they will be dutifully referred to as 'rafts' throughout the day! The wet team take a slightly more adventurous route which is well within the ability of anyone who feels confident hiking on uneven and rocky ground.

There's a little scrambling over rocks and ducking under overhangs, but our guide is always there to help and it is 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, they just 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 glow worm cave we’ve ever seen. Our New Zealand Trails guides have experienced most of the outdoor experiences and activities New Zealand has to offer and many would say that floating through the Nile River glow worm caves is one of their favourite natural experiences.

It is an incredibly peaceful, almost surreal experience, as the group bobs along in silence looking up at the galaxy of glow worms above us. People are left speechless and savour the moment. We highly recommend it and it’s definitely an unforgettable experience! The 'dry' trip still takes in the glow worms 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.

Black river rafting in New Zealand glow worm caves

Peacefully floating down the Nile River through some glow worm caves in New Zealand.

The unexpected highlight of the trip comes after leaving the caves. We float 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 through the tunnel. 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, 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 its African namesake, it's very shallow and gentle! Of course, this does vary with rainfall, but a lot of the time, the water is no more than knee-deep on the gentle descent back to the swing bridge.

More about these impressive New Zealand caves

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 the ceiling is the result of limestone sediments transported in running water accumulating, granule by granule, over thousands of years. The entrance to the cave is pretty small!

These New Zealand caves weren't actually discovered until the 1970s by locals. It happened accidentally, as one local's dog disappeared into a hole in the rock and its owner was forced to follow it underground. This is the West Coast after all, so it just seems fitting that a man and his dog discovered this natural wonderland by mistake. After that incident, 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 who started the company which runs the tours today.

Glow worm caves New Zealand - Nile River

Some of our World Heritage guests checking out the stalactites and stalagmites in this New Zealand glow worm cave.

The stalactites, stalagmites and out-of-this-world rock formations are impressive enough, but it's the presence of glow worms in huge numbers that make the trip so unique. Technically, glow worms are not actually worms! They’re the larvae of a certain kind of fly called a fungus knat (Arachnocampa luminosa). Our caving guide explains the life-cycle and behaviour of the glow worms and we see them close up. Their glowing light emits from an internal organ similar to our kidneys. Through this emitted light, the larvae attract 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 in Charleston, creating the galaxy-like effect we are regularly amazed by. There are other New Zealand glow worm caves but they tend to be busier than the Nile River and often they have encroached more on the natural environment. The Nile River operation has hardly touched the caves. Combined with long term locals running the tours and generations of families serving as guides, there is a very welcoming atmosphere here.

This is just one of the highlights on our 13 day New Zealand World Heritage Walking Tour - a fully guided walking tour starting and finishing in Christchurch. We have carefully planned this itinerary to include the best walks in New Zealand, iconic activities you’ll never forget whilst enjoying accommodation that offers all the comforts of home. Walking highlights are day hikes on the Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks plus time spent in Mount Cook and Arthur’s Pass National Parks.

Our World Heritage tour includes bucket-list activities such as a Lake Wanaka cruise and a helicopter flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay. There is no camping or staying in huts on this tour, accommodation is at a laid-back luxury standard and we sample the best local cuisine and wines on our journeys on both the North and South Island. For more information please contact us now or order a copy of our free brochure.


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