A few weeks ago some friends from San Francisco visited us! In addition to providing good company and importing some American treats (peanut butter M&Ms, specifically), they encouraged us to participate in some adventure activities. Though New Zealand seems to be the world leader in such activities– bungee jumping, white-water rafting, etc.– M and I don’t usually go for them (it doesn’t help that M’s afraid of heights). However, our two visitors, J and Y, were very keen. As the highlight of the trip, they decided to go on a seven-hour caving extravaganza and convinced us to join. Hey, at least it wasn’t skydiving!
The major epicenter of caving activity on the North Island is a small town called Waitomo, which means “water going into a hole” in Maori. This name is appropriate as underneath the rolling hills are hundreds of limestone caverns with streams flowing through them. The main attraction of the caves are glowworms: tiny larvae that glow with a blue light. Thousands of them are found in the caves, making the walls and ceilings look like the night sky. Caving experiences to see this extraordinary sight range from a simple boardwalk stroll at the visitor center to “black-water” rafting on underground rivers. Of course, we opted for the most intense of all: the Lost World Epic tour (see site). It promised a 100-meter abseil into the cave, followed by hiking/swimming upstream past waterfalls, limestone formations, fossils and glowworms (of course), and concluding with a hot shower and barbecue dinner. All we needed to bring was our swim suit, towel, and socks!
We arrived in Waitomo the night before the trip, wisely selecting a motel with a hot tub to stay at. The next morning, we had a nice breakfast of toast (with homemade bread and jam) from the general store across the street, then headed off to the Waitomo Adventures center. Though the town of Waitomo consists only of accommodation and restaurants along a single stretch of road, we still managed to get lost. By the time we found the place we were running slightly behind and frazzled, but the people there, in typical Kiwi fashion, was completely unconcerned. We signed some waivers, met with the other four people on the tour (a couple and two other women slightly younger than us), and loaded into a minibus with the guides. They drove us 15 minutes into the hills covered in farmland, finally turning up some gravel road to a small building. Luckily we hadn’t had to find our way there!
Once out of the bus, we spent a good half an hour squeezing into wetsuit coveralls, a wetsuit shirt, climbing harnesses, helmets, and bright white rubber boots. The guides helped us find the right sizes and, at the end, had us all line up for an inspection of the helmets and harnesses. Then we trekked out to a small trail to practice clipping onto fixed ropes. Finally, we walked up a small hill to a platform jutting over a giant sinkhole. From the top we could not quite see the bottom, which was obscured by mist. We could see a dozen ropes hanging down into the mist, and waited nervously while the guides checked out the complicated-looking system of knots holding the ropes in place.
The guides were quite good: they had us all sit on a bar above the drop, hooked us up to the ropes, and before we knew it we were hanging! We were attached to the guides so we couldn’t go too fast, not that we wanted to. Once we got used to the lowering action, it was quite fun to slowly descend and look at all the plants growing on the walls, though M couldn’t wait to reach the bottom.
Eventually we landed on the rocky floor, covered in small ferns and next to a small stream. The guides unpacked a lunch of sandwiches and coffee, though it felt slightly undeserved at that point as we hadn’t done much yet!
Note that all the pictures were taken by the guides: wisely we were not allowed to bring our own cameras as they would’ve been destroyed by the rocks and water. After lunch we headed up the stream and into the cavern.
The guides stopped us for an excellent photo opportunity in front of the last glimpse of daylight and had us all pose. Here’s M the brave adventurer:
They also snapped pics along the way, though not many once we got into the cave proper. The first bit of the cave was dry, walking above the river, but all too soon we discovered why we needed the wetsuits. After passing by the Spiderhole ladder– a 30-meter climb back to the surface that the shorter tour used to exit the cave– we began wading into progressively deeper water, soaking the socks that we were wearing with the boots, and soon were chest-deep in the stream. The guides cheerfully told us that we were lucky: it had rained the day before so the water was warmer than it could have been. Because of the rain, it was also deeper, and we slowly made our way upstream. The current was strong, so the guides warned us that if we ended up swimming, we shouldn’t kick our feet as our boots may come off! Indeed, we saw a pile of lost boots by the side of the stream that the guides had found in summer, when the stream was lower. Luckily none of us lost ours.
The first obstacle to overcome was the Cauldron. The stream dropped slightly into a deep pool, but the water (according to the guides) was very aerated, meaning that swimming in it was close to impossible as there wasn’t any water resistance. They warned us it was the most dangerous part of the trip, but expertly helped us individually navigate it: we pulled ourselves upstream with a thick rope, then climbed up and over the Cauldron to the safety of the rocks above. We all made it without incident, though those in the back (us) had to wait, bobbing around in the water, for about fifteen minutes. The wetsuits kept us amazingly warm, though, and we soon joined the others and continued our trek.
After climbing up a fixed ladder besides a large waterfall, we reached a choice: we could either wade up the stream around a bend or venture into what the guides called the k-kave (a cave within a cave!) This would involve crawling through a tight space, then jumping three meters down back into the stream. Half the group (including M) decided to skip it, but I thought “why not, I’m already wet!” The crawl through the tunnel wasn’t very long and there was a beautiful rock feature at the end, where a stalagmite delicately met with a stalactite, but what the guides failed to mention was that the drop back to the stream was a precarious one. We were told to cannonball in but drop straight down, as there were rocks underwater to either side! No one had any problems, though plunging into water with rubber boots and a helmet on felt very strange.
We continued up the stream, past various cave creepy-crawlies, such as a small weta (like a cricket), a spider that could swim around using an air bubble to breathe, and a crayfish. We even spotted a few eels: they hid in the rocks in calm water and, the guides assured us, did not bite people. We paused for another hot drink besides a wide, short waterfall, which we then took turns going under. The next segment was called Shinbuster Alley, as the rocks were inconveniently just out of sight under the water. As a consolation, the walls were covered in ancient oyster fossils, and the guides even pointed out a whale vertebra bone. We felt like, at last, we’d gotten the hang of this caving business.
We reached a large rock in the stream and paused to take a breather. Looking around, we couldn’t see an easy way up and around it. One of the guides said “ready to move on?”, then dove underneath a tiny gap under the rock that none of us had noticed. One by one, we crawled through the gap, and though it looked incredibly small, even the bigger guys in our group managed to wriggle through. Our wetsuits had knee and elbow pads built in, which definitely made the crawl more pleasant.
Throughout the trip we’d seen glimpses of the famous glowworms, including the fine strings they dangle down in order to capture food, but as we’d always had our lights on we hadn’t seen them in their full glory. As one of the last stops in the cave, we all sat on a large flat rock, then at the guides’ request, turned off our lights. As promised, the walls were covered in beautiful blue points of light. We sat there for about ten minutes in the dark, quietly admiring the view. Surprisingly, the light was strong enough to see the white boots and foam in the stream. Unsurprisingly, but true to form, our friend J promptly lay back and fell asleep. When we turned the lights back on, the guides told us the gorgeous light was actually the larva’s poop, which glowed in order to attract food. Once the larva had enough food (which took six to nine months), it turned into a fly, which lived only long enough to reproduce (the adult form doesn’t even have a mouth). This charming tale didn’t diminish the magic of the glowworm display much, though!
Not long after that, we reached the exit of the cave, emerging into a wooded gully with the stream flowing down it. The sun was going down and we struggled through the stream, being careful with the slippery moss on the rocks. Finally we left the stream and climbed up a muddy trail, where the guides announced that we were halfway there. After six hours underground, we were only halfway! It turns out we’d emerged into a different part of the farm and we had to trek back to the hut (and the hot showers). Of course, the 2 kilometers we’d covered underground passed by a lot faster when all we had to watch out for was cow patties (and a hedgehog that was curled up in fear on the path). Most people happily dumped the water out of their boots, and J attempted to remove his entirely. Unfortunately, he’d opted to go without socks and the rubber boots had suctioned onto his feet: one of the guides had to wrestle with his boots to get them off. We finally made it back to the hut and piled into the individual shower stalls for a gloriously hot rinse. After getting dressed in warm clothes (as the sun was fully down at this point), we were treated to a fortifying dinner of steak, sausages and potatoes cooked by the ever-cheerful guides. After packing up, we loaded back into the minibus and drove back to Waitomo. We’d left at 10:30 and got back around 8:00: the high water level meant we were underground longer than usual. Nevertheless, us four were sure to check out the hot tub at our motel. Though we’d been in water pretty much all day, soaking in the hot water under the stars was a perfect end to an amazing day.
As a funny postscript to the story, we drove to Raglan, a picturesque surfing town about 60 kilometers away, the next day for a lunch of fish and chips, and met the couple from the caving trip there! New Zealand truly is a small place sometimes.