Tubing through a cave, way under the ground, staring at Maggots listening to Disney’s ‘A Whole New World’….
Out of all the extreme sports you can do in New Zealand – skydiving, bungee jumping, paragliding, I knew there was one I was not leaving New Zealand without doing – Black Water Rafting.
Black Water Rafting is basically rafting in the dark through a system of caves, and the place you go for that is Waitomo, in New Zealand’s North island. The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company in Waitomo offers 3 tours 1) Black Labyrinth- the original 3 hour rafting tour 2) Black Odyssey – 5 hours of seriously high climbing where you stay dry 3) Black Abyss – a mix of climbing, abseiling and rafting for 5 hours.
We decided it was all or nothing so signed up for the Black Abyss tour as it included all activities, feeling a little nervous and concerned that if we didn’t like it then 5 hours was a LONG time to be down there. Luckily it turned out to be one of the best things I did in New Zealand, but Wait-O-Mo, more on that later…
The day started with the Kiwi Experience Bus picking us up early from the spectacular Hot Water Beach, we made our way southward to Waitomo via a stop at the Karranghake Gorge, on the Coromondel Peninsular where we did a short walk over the beautiful Ohinemuri River and through an impressively long 1100m old railway tunnel. Which was definitely worth seeing.
One of the negatives of the Kiwi Experience Bus is having to do walks like this in such a huge group, so we stayed back a little so we could appreciate the scale, silence and darkness of the tunnel. It was pretty creepy and reminded us of the ‘Mines of Moria’. Minus the Orcs.
Next stop was Waitomo. Despite my pun earlier Waitomo is actually pronounce Way-et, toe, moe. Rather than ‘Waitomo mate’ and the name derives from the Māori words wai (water) and tomo (hole). Its a small town and the reason people come here is to see the Glow worms and/or take part in the Black Water Rafting.
Now we knew we signed up for 5 hours of cave time, but we weren’t entirely sure what we’d be doing in those 5 hours, which was great because it didn’t give us any time to get nervous! It seemed our K.E bus driver Mar had failed to mention that the tour starts off with a 35metre abseil down a small hole to get into the caves!
After a quick practice of abseiling above the ground we were ready to go under! The abseil down was definitely a lot longer than I anticipated and once underground it was much, much darker. The cave walls were very wet so rather than abseiling I was mainly lowering myself down slowly getting deeper and darker with each pull on the cable. It seemed to take ages to get the bottom, but once I did I just wanted to do it all over again!
Next our challenge was to ride a zip line through the cave – which is just as fun as it sounds! One by one we clipped onto the zip line and each took that leap of faith jump off a ledge and flew deeper into the black cave system, they don’t call it the Black Abyss for nothing!
Now deeper inside the cave system we prepared ourselves for the black water rafting in the icy cold water by warming ourselves up with hot chocolates and snacks. The rafting part was the bit I was most looking forward to, but we only really did this for about 30 minutes through a gentle current, so I would have preferred some more rapids and perhaps a waterfall drop for good measure!
However the rafting was still pretty wonderful, and as we made our way down the water tunnel to get a better view of the glow worms, our guide Esme gave us some information about the glow worms we had come all this way to see.
Glow worms aren’t worms at all, they are in fact maggots of mosquito like flies. Each maggot releases a fiber line that dangles below, then with their light they attract insects which get stuck in the lines. So when they wake they have breakfast there ready to go. The cave was filled with these glowing maggot bums and often we’d have to watch our heads to make sure we weren’t going into the lines. Esme put the whole experience into perspective for us: “You’ve paid to follow two complete strangers down deep into a dark, wet cave, then plunged into cold water to see maggots, maggots that hatch and spend their few days alive mating so much they die from exhaustion, or if female, lay eggs then die from exhaustion, in order to produce more maggots.”
Sounds pretty special, right?
Even more so when we all linked legs with arms and formed a ‘human eel’ then floated back down the tunnel staring up at these beautiful maggot bums as Esme sang ‘A Whole New World’. It really was different world down there.
After rafting it was onto some more caving as we made our way through all sorts of tunnels of different shapes and sizes and down a waterfall slide until we reached my most challenging part – Free Climbing (no ropes) a 6 meter and 4 meter high waterfall. Naturally I felt a pang of nervousness when our guide Scuba said ‘no safety ropes’, but he ensured us that he would help point out where our feet and hands should go, and that if we are worried we should pay attention to what everyone else does. ‘Great’ I thought ‘I’ll just watch Graeme and Sarah they are both good climbers.’
Then I got picked to go first.
I was definitely out of my comfort zone with the free climbing but wanted to tackle the challenge so pushed down that worried voice inside my head that kept pointing out the sharp rocks below me and the gushing water falling on top of me. Scuba did a great job of guiding me and supporting me in tricky bits, at one point I am pretty sure I had most my weight on his head/back.
I felt much more comfortable in the water so would have really liked more rafting time, perhaps next time ( I really hope that there’s a next time) I’ll give the 3 hours rafting ago on the Black Labyrinth Tour, but I am pleased I did the Black Abyss as not only was it something I have never done before but it also gave me that sense of accomplishment doing something I know I am not comfortable with. Go me.
Highlights: Black Water Rafting tour. So, so good.
Lowlights: putting on a freezing cold, wet, wetsuit! Digusting.
Accomodation: Kiwi Packer – overpriced dorm rooms ($32), was freezing cold as the heaters didn’t work despite alerting staff and the window didn’t shut. I wouldn’t recommend.
Prices: Black Abyss $195 (including Kiwi Experience Discount)
Photos Courtesy of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company