An illuminated journey: A glow worm canyon by sea kayak

Travel writer Michele Sainsbury seizes the night with a tour of brilliance.

Enjoying Wine

Enjoying Wine

The Bay of Plenty region in the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) of New Zealand lives up to its name. Situated near the central hub, Tauranga is magnificent Mauao – Mount Maunganui. Atop, the panoramic view of the coastal area, with its forever long white sanded beaches and sparkly emerald oceanic hues of the Pacific Ocean, is breathtaking. A well known surfing spot, the water below inspires adventure, in whatever form or vessel that may be. The statue of Tangaroa – the God of the sea – stands proudly guarding the harbor entrance, bestowing abundance on this region.

And the bounty continues inland. The region is the epicenter for the kiwifruit industry; the microclimate also produces brilliant citrus and avocado crops. When Captain Cook sighted the coast in 1769, announcing ‘a bay of plenty’, as with his proficiency in navigation, he wasn’t wrong. He further noted ‘a great bay full of plantations and villages’. And rivers run through this land of plenty, and lakes too, reaching out to even more adventures. These could well be the spoils.

And they can be accessed very quickly. A mere ten minutes from the city centre North on State Highway 2, a green belt, a luscious interior unfolds and locates the Wairoa River. Wairoa, meaning ‘long water’ is the longest watershed into nearby Tauranga harbor. The expansive river was an ideal place for the visionary kayak adventure company, Waimarino  to establish in 1975. At a prime spot on the river banks, they have become a popular kayaking and recreational destination.

Waimarino can also optimize surrounding locations, bringing great regional knowledge and kayak expertise to a range of guided tours. With easy access to nearby coastal areas, and close proximity to rivers and lakes, there are fantastic offerings. But it was the extraordinary chance to do a guided sea kayak tour through a glow-worm canyon at nearby Lake McLaren which I seized.


kayak ready

It’s a balmy evening when we meet at the Waimarino base, and with kayaks loaded, we soon set off. The scenic twenty minute drive is a chance to chat with fellow adventurists from all over the world. The colourful journey through the heartland of the lower Kaimai ranges offers elevated views of the Wairoa River. Our guides, instantly friendly, outdoor hungry and fit Kiwi blokes, share insights about the land and their adventurous pursuits. When they excitedly relay the world class – grade 5 /class 6 whitewater kayaking at the upper reaches of the Wairoa River, we know we’re in expert hands.

At our launch point, the setting sun casts a gently dappled light across the dreamy Lake McLaren. The calm hydro lake is set amongst 190 hectares of pastoral and horticultural parkland, infused with native and exotic trees. A vast amount, this park is New Zealand’s second largest arboretum (tree zoo). Off the grid tranquility at the park provides an instantaneous feeling of peace. With redwood trees as a backdrop, a swiftly assembled table appears and is appointed with wines from local winery  Mills Reef , gold kiwifruit juice, and New Zealand cheeses.

The multi-tasking guides explain wine varieties impressively, down kiwifruit juice and return their focus to setting up the double kayaks. We are well briefed and equipped. Additional to safety gear, warmer and wet weather gear is supplied by Waimarino. Then voila, safely and securely in the kayaks and donned with head torches, we are away.

A new realm expands for the senses as we glide across the calm lake. The 2.2 mile (3 km) journey towards our destination at Maungapapa canyon is one to savor. Falling darkness accentuates sound, and vision adjusts and sharpens. Trees are now silhouetted on the lake’s edge. As the paddles enter the water in unison, we hear swans ahead. Taking flight, their white wingtips highlighted by evening sky. The magic begins.

GWT hi-res portrait

millions of tiny glowing lights

The river narrows as we enter the canyon, the sides graced with intensifying native bush, replete with a rich sweet aroma. Only the gentle sound of trickling water from the bush, amidst the quiet. It doesn’t seem possible that the elemental environs could become more amazing. But they do. We become serenaded along the steepening sides of the canyon as intermittent lights begin appearing. Then multiplying in numbers, they are in abundance rising higher up the canyon walls.

It is perfectly still. We cease paddling, suspended on crystal calm water and enfolded in a universe illuminated by constellations of millions of tiny glowing lights. There are collective gasps from the awe inspired voyeurs, captivated as we trace the patterning of the lights. Our guides explain the meaning of the Māori word for glow-worm – ‘titwai’, refers to ‘lights reflected in water’. With the night sky visible above, stars add to the splendor mirrored in the water beneath.

The feeling of exhilaration remains with us for the return journey. As we emerge from the canyon where the river fans out towards Lake McLaren, the sky reveals a crescent moon and amidst the starry constellation, a glistening Southern Cross. It seems a perfect finale, this natural light fantastic above, to conclude a magical evening.

[Thank you to all at Waimarino Adventures]

    • Waimarino operates the glow worm kayak tour year round and almost all weather conditions.
    • The refreshment tour is NZ $120.00 per person (minimum 2 people) as at September 2014.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

    • Thanks for reading Hobie Kayak – keep exploring and drinking coffee 🙂 Best wishes from NZ

  • Too bad that I didn’t get to see this millions of tiny glowing lights while I was in NZ 2 years ago. I stayed in North Island for 6 months and visited a lot. I guess this would be in my bucket list for my next trip to NZ in the future. Thanks for the great post Michele. 🙂

    • Thanks so much Marc .I hope you get to come back and def put this trip at the top of your list ! I loved finding the gems of this location – The Waimarino adventure base on the Wairoa river – and then Mc Larens Falls park where we kayaked from.The operation is a gem in itself, from origins to the present – it is run by amazing and passionate people – so naturally has a great feeling to it. I Coming across the location fortuitously ( on a drive ) and not as a commissioned writer, made it even more special.:)

  • Michele, It looks like a very beautiful place. I would be interested in visiting it soon. Too bad that I missed it while I was in NZ. Can we visit the place all year long? or sometimes, its closed or not as spectacular? Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Christine – The Waimarino base at the Wairoa river and Mc Larens Falls park where we kayaked from, are both beautiful places .I returned to the park in the day time to see more ( we had arrived at dusk to do the kayak ) It is stunning. The park ranger told me Autumn is an amazing time to see it – So, Nthn Hemisphere Spring., Jan – March would be my ideal Waimarino do kayak tours all year round ( weather permitting ), They are lovely people and am sure would be able to help you more – there is a link on the story. Hope you make it back – Best wishes from NZ , Michele

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