Black Water Rafting in the Waitomo Caves
My helmet fit securely. The light on my helmet was working. After 15 minutes of trial and error, my wetsuit finally fit with a balance of snugness yet mobility of movement that satisfied my guide.
T Ve, who had been guiding these trips for years, needed to give us some last-minute instruction out here in the quiet warm sunlight. “At one point just after we jump off a waterfall I will have you join up, with each of you grabbing the feet of the person behind you to form a chain. You need to hold on tight so that we don’t lose anyone in the dark”.
Waterfall? I found myself somewhat distracted at that part of the sentence. “When you jump off the waterfall I need you to face backward but don’t just fall off, really push yourself off to get over the rocks”. It occurred to me that I did not recall seeing jumping off waterfalls in the brochure.
I knew even before I traveled to New Zealand that New Zealanders had a reputation for jumping off of things. The Kiwis were, after all, the ones who invented bungee jumping. I have what, seems to me at least, to be a healthy respect for gravity and therefore I had managed thus far in my trip to avoid jumping off anything. I had also passed on getting into a large plastic hamster ball and rolling down the hill in an activity known to the New Zealanders as Zorbing and by me as insanity.
Blackwater rafting had seemed to me to be adventurous but not too adventurous. It is a cross between spelunking and tubing. I donned a wetsuit, a helmet, and helmet lamp and equipped with an inner tube I would be traversing one of the many caves in the Waitomo Caves area and floating down its underground river.
Waitomo Caves is a 2.5-hour drive south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. The area boasts around 300 known caves that undermine its limestone hills. These caves are carved by underground water sources including subterranean rivers which are, apparently, large enough to create waterfalls.
The most popular tour in the area is the less adventurous tour to see the glow worm caves. Glow worms are the larval form of an insect that stick to the top of many of New Zealand’s caves. They look like a bit of clear jelly no longer than your thumb is wide. Glowworms spin small strands of web, like a spider, that hangs down in a fringe. They catch insects that are blown into the caves on the air currents and are attracted to the glow worm’s luminescence and then caught in its gossamer lines. Visiting the glow worm caves consists of a short amount of walking, learning about stalactites and stalagmites, and then boarding a boat and floating back and forth under constellations of glow worms.
The more adventurous cave tours involve abseiling or descending into the cave on a long rope with your inner tube. I had chosen the middle ground of adventure at the very confidently named Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.
It was a perfect day for going underground as it was a rainy, gray New Zealand winter day. Nothing makes a rainy day more agreeable than wearing a wetsuit.
In the Dark
Eels. That is something else that I don’t recall reading about before my trip. Just after entering the cave, T Ve said, “I have to go back and get my tube. You need to figure out which of these two passages we should take next. Oh, and the one on the left has an eel, see?” With that, he left us in the dark: one travel writer, one school teacher from Japan, and two school teachers from England.
As the only man in the group, it seemed to be my responsibility to explore the path. I chose, for reasons that should be readily apparent, the right fork. Fortunately, the eel-less route proved to be the correct answer. It was not until later as we were warming up with hot soup and bagels that T Ve started telling stories about 6 foot long eels trying to bite him while he was pulling along a chain of tourists through the cave.
The cave is filled with the sound of water. At times it is the gentle drip, drip, drip that will eventually add to the stalactite formations. At the time it is the rush of an underground cascade or cataract. The air of the cave is filled with mist which frustrates T Ve as he tries to take pictures of the group. A camera flash just lights up the air like when you try and take a picture at a smokey campfire.
The wet suits insulated us from water that was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. A rule of thumb with cold water swimming is the 50/50/50 rule which says that you have a 50 percent chance of surviving for 50 minutes in 50-degree water. The wet suit seemed like an exceptionally good idea.
The first time we had to jump into a pool of water off a particular rock the cold water poured down the inside of my wetsuit in a way that recalled to mind several Anglo Saxon words that I don’t normally use but then caught them in my throat with the sudden intake of breath. Two of my companions were quite thin in a manner that suggested they had never worked at a company that offered free doughnuts in the morning. My years of preparing additional insulation kept me from shivering, like they were, by the end of nearly an hour in the water.
My hands were exposed and quickly lost feeling from the cold. Losing feeling might be helpful as they got scuffed and scratched as I clambered over rocks carrying my tube one minute and then the next minute pushed off against the sides and roof of the cave to propel my inner tube.
At least one person has commented since my trip that they would much rather jump off anything than enter a dark sometimes claustrophobic cave filled with water. They would not have enjoyed the few moments we walked our tubes through the underground river by pushing along the cave’s roof. At times that roof was close enough to the top of the river that you had to put your head back or sideways to breathe in the small space. But at other times the roof would rise up and off into the distance where your headlamp would not illuminate it and we would turn off our lamps and float lazily in a dark chamber lit only by the glow-worm light show.
“OK, this is the waterfall I told you about”, T Ve shouted above the roar. It was not tall for a waterfall but in the dark whatever rocks were at the bottom were hidden from sight but were looming large in my imagination. I chose to face forward and lept out into the dark of the cave and into the deep (enough) inky waters. My head broke the surface of the water as I bobbed back up. Frigid water ran down my back that made me truly awake if not truly alive. It was not jumping off a bridge or jumping off the Auckland Sky Tower but it was an adventure, just enough adventure for me.
If you go
Air New Zealand (AirNewZealand.com) flies to Auckland direct from San Francisco. Flights start around $1000 but get more expensive in our winter which is New Zealand’s summer and high season. Waitomo Caves is reachable by rental car but is also on the route of all of New Zealand’s tourist buses which are favored by younger travelers.
WHAT TO DO
Children must be at least 12 years old to go on the Black Water Rating trips.
WHERE TO STAY
Waitomo Lodge; 62 Te Kumi Road, Te Kuiti. 15 minutes south of Waitomo Caves this small recently remodeled motor lodge includes some family and deluxe units.
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