Why Waitomo?

Did I say it was near impossible to take a wrong turn? Well I took a wrong turn. Consumed by the view of the coast on our way out of Napier, our little Subaru continued along New Zealand State Highway 2, instead of turning onto State Highway 5 to Taupo. We’ve made the drive to Taupo twice now, so this should have been a piece of cake.

A lovely view of the east coast.

A lovely view of the east coast.

Well about 2 hours into our journey, as I admired a beautiful lake and the hydrangeas that grew wild along the side of the highway, it suddenly struck me that I didn’t remember seeing either of those things on our previous drives. "Are we going the right way?" I asked Joe. He'd been dozing off for most of the journey. I pulled over and looked around. We’re half way to Gisborne. I try not loose it. We can probably just cut across, right? Well as I mentioned in a previous post, there are very few roads in New Zealand (and that’s where I also said, “it’s near impossible to take a wrong turn”). I quickly determined that very few roads, meant no cutting across. We'd have to drive all the way back to Napier and then another 2 hours to Taupo.

As you can see, we went waaaay out of the way.

As you can see, we went waaaay out of the way.

At that moment, I almost lost it. I angrily slammed my hands on the steering wheel and we headed all the way back home to Napier before starting our road trip all over again. Breathe. Tomorrow is a new day.

“Tomorrow” turned out to be one of the coolest days ever. We drove another couple of hours from Taupo to Waitomo to visit the famous glowworm caves. There are about 300 limestone caves beneath the hills of Waitomo, that were formed as a result of geological and volcanic activity over millions of years. Water and subterranean waterfalls flow inside the caves, creating large caverns, where thousands of tiny glowworms radiate bio-luminescent light from the ceilings. Visitors from around the world flock to see this unique attraction and tour the insides of the caves.

The view Inside the caves at Waitomo is magnificent (and near impossible to capture on film, unless you're a professional). Source

The view Inside the caves at Waitomo is magnificent (and near impossible to capture on film, unless you're a professional). Source

After some debate over which tour to purchase, I reluctantly agreed to the $200 5-hour Black Abyss Tour instead of the $83 boat ride. If you’re ever in Waitomo, I highly recommend you do the same. It was so worth the money, and our tour guides Ben and "Pirate" of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company showed us an incredible time.

We arrived to our meeting spot, introduced ourselves to our group of 5 others, and suited up in thick, damp and cold wetsuits. We donned helmets with headlamps and white rubber boots over our wetsuits. Then our guides helped to strap harnesses around our waists and crotches. Despite my slight discomfort, I felt like a total outdoorsy bad ass who was ready to do something cool... but wasn’t quite sure just what.

In hindsight, I realize I felt a lot cooler than I actually looked.

In hindsight, I realize I felt a lot cooler than I actually looked.

We piled into the van, and took a 10-minute journey to a little field with a practice area set up for rappelling. Wait a minute, we’re rappelling... down a hole... into a cave? I was suddenly stricken with a bit of anxiety, considering I’m not much of a fan of heights; I have zero upper body strength; and I wasn’t entirely sure what was required of me to successfully stay alive. Pirate and Ben did a good job of keeping us focused on the present task at hand, by not telling us much about what to expect along the way. So after doing a few simulations and teaching us some tips and tricks for what to do if you’re suddenly free falling down a hole into a glowworm cave, they suddenly revealed that we’d been standing next to that hole in the ground for the last 10 minutes. It was now time to descend into the cave.

Headlamp is on. Let's do this!!

Headlamp is on. Let's do this!!

I decided to just get it over with and not allow my anxiety to heighten, so after watching the first 2 girls survive, I strapped myself in and dangled above the hole, placing my life in the hands of my rope and harness. Then I began to lower myself down the 35-meter hole (about 10 stories).

I looked down and could see nothing but darkness.

View from the top of the platform.

View from the top of the platform.

I looked up and said, “This is awesome!” My fear melted away. I felt so excited and empowered to be doing something that was out of my comfort zone. Finally and without much notice, my feet reached the bottom of the dark damp cave. I sat with the group in the dark, as we waited for everyone to rappel down the hole. I looked up and could see hints of blue light sparkling overhead. I absorbed the moment of relaxation before Joe asked, "So what happens if there's an earthquake while we're in here?" Thanks for that Joe.

View looking up from below.

View looking up from below.

Photo courtesy of Legendary Black Water Rafting Company

Photo courtesy of Legendary Black Water Rafting Company

Once we each made it down the hole, we began crawling through a small space in the cave and onto the next leg of our journey. In typical tour guide fashion, without much explanation, Pirate began strapping metal hiking clips to a rope along the wall and then to our harnesses. I could see another rope overhead. “Are we zip lining?” I asked. “How far do we go?”

“You’ll see,” Pirate replied. “Now hang onto this.” He handed me the handle bars, clipped me onto the rope, turned off my head lamp and shoved me into the darkness. Weeeeeeee! It was such a rush. Below me I could hear water gushing and above I saw nothing but blue specks of light glowing in the darkness. It all ended suddenly as I hit the end of the line and was whipped backwards, swinging back and forth until I jumped down to sit with the rest of the group.

Once everyone was accounted for, we dangled our legs off the edge of a small cave cliff and indulged in some “cave cookies” and hot chocolate that the guides had kept in their packs. (If anyone knows with recipe for these, please post in the comments!) I had already really worked up an appetite! After our snack break, we discarded our harnesses and traded them in for inner tubes.

Enjoying cave cookies before jumping in the freezing water.

Enjoying cave cookies before jumping in the freezing water.

Inside the cavern

Inside the cavern

One by one we launched ourselves and our inner tubes off the small cliff and into the 50 degree (F) water. It was SO cold!! I could hardly dip my hands in the water to paddle.

The steep and muddy climb down from the cavern.

The steep and muddy climb down from the cavern.

We pulled ourselves through the water and emerged in a larger opening, where we proceeded to climb 25 feet up into a small cavern filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and cave coral. The limestone dripped and glistened in the light of our headlamps, and crystals formed on rocks creating “cave coral”. After a very steep, slippery and muddy climb down, we hopped back into our tubes and were instructed to link feet, creating a long chain of inner tubes.

We laid on our backs while Pirate pulled us down the river. Above, the tiny glow worms twinkled like millions of little blue-green stars overhead. I felt so relaxed and happy, in awe of the natural beauty and light produced by a bunch of glowworms burning up food to attract their prey. By the light of our headlamps, we could see the delicate silk lines of string sparkling and dangling below the light. It was majestic.

 

How it looked when we all turned off our head lamps. Source

How it looked when we all turned off our head lamps. Source

Finally, our relaxing river cruise was over, and it was time to find our way out of the cave. We quickly recharged with white chocolate and what tasted to me like hot Fanta. (Hmmm I think I preferred the cave cookies.) But my sheer exhaustion made everything taste OK.

Our team taking a little breather and a snack break... and someone getting strangled?

Our team taking a little breather and a snack break... and someone getting strangled?

Trudging through the freezing cold water.

Trudging through the freezing cold water.

We continued to walk along the freezing stream. I clung to the sides of the cave wall, making my best attempt to avoid the freezing water.

Then our tour guides challenged us to find our way out of the cave on our own, and attempted to squeeze us through some very small spaces along the way. This was my moment to shine! It's not often my small size comes in handy. I volunteered to be the first to climb through the tiny tunnel.

Unfortunately, Joe did not have quite as much success as I did in getting through the tunnel. His rugby player physique just isn't cut out for small spaces, so he opted for an alternate route.

After a bit more crawling, we finally reached the sound of a rushing waterfall. At this point, Ben announced that we would be rock climbing up the waterfall to make our way out of the cave. After an extremely short tutorial, we each scaled one by one up the waterfall. Along the way our guides pointed to their best choice of rocks to grab onto, and all I could do was trust. I know zero about rock climbing. Once I reached a certain point, I was on my own. I shimmied on my stomach, as the waterfall pushed against me, and Joe reached out to pull me up.

Exiting the glowworm cave.

Exiting the glowworm cave.

Together we crawled toward the light and the sound of more flowing water and finally emerged from the cave. The warmth of the sun welcomed us back above ground, and we both felt so excited for having completed such an excursion. The whole way home, I just kept saying, “That was awesome!” I accomplished quite a few things that scared me, that I didn’t think I was capable of doing, or that I hadn’t even considered doing before. I felt energetic and proud – like I could take on the world, or whatever our next adventure may be.

Back above ground!

Back above ground!

Again, if you're in Waitomo, I highly recommend splurging on a Legendary Black Water Rafting tour. Many thanks to The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. and our incredible tour guides for such a thrilling adventure!

Special thanks to our photographers, Ben and "Pirate", for capturing all of the action along the way.