Friday, August 12, 2011

Caving in Waitomo

Tuesday, May 17
North Island

Tuesday morning we were up and out early to give ourselves plenty of time to get to Waitomo for our afternoon cave tour. This was probably the tour we were most excited about, and feared the most at the same time. We booked the Black Abyss adventure tour with the Black Water Rafting Co., which was a 5 hour underground tour to include abseiling down into the cave, cave walking, zip-lining, rafting, and a little bit of waterfall climbing. We weren't exactly sure what we'd gotten ourselves into, but it was booked and paid for and we were committed.

But first, we had to get there . . .


 . . . cue more amazingly beautiful scenery.

It made us want to get lost for a while, letting the landscape wrap us up in some kind of enchanted dream.

But we had caves to conquer, so on we went!

We met our guides, Monkey and Jah, at the Black Water Rafting Co. center, where they explained how the day would go. Our first stop was a short walk out the back door of the center to get suited up - wetsuits, special boots, abseil and zip-lining gear, and helmets complete with lamps, as this would be out only light once inside the caves.

Stop two: photo of our group with inner tubes we'd be using later to float down the underground river. Chris is on the far left, with me beside holding a tube.

After a short bus ride to where we'd actually be entering the caves, we were treated to a crash course in abseiling. Four at a time, we hooked ourselves up to abseil ropes anchored at the top of a steep hill, and backed to practice moving with the equipment and stopping.

Alright everybody, JUMP!

I have to say, I kind of rocked the trial run.

To the right, Chris getting air, while I seem to be doing some sort of hallelujah move?

Clearly the most outgoing of the group, this guy was the first to lower himself (after Jah) into the caves to start the adventure.

One by one, we walked to the edge of a wooden platform where we could see down into a rather narrow-looking hole in the ground. Once hooked up by Monkey to the ropes and pulleys, we began lowering ourselves into the hole. But before we disappeared, SMILE!

To get through, we pointed our toes and slid through the hole into what suddenly opened up into an open cave. At that point, it's just you, your ropes, and your thumb to stop yourself from falling to the floor of the cave. That, and Jah holding the line at the bottom to stop you if you lost traction, but doesn't it sound more exciting the first way?

I went fifth and Chris followed. Before embarking on this adventure, my biggest concern was claustrophobia, and Chris' was heights. Though I was smooth-going outside on the practice hill, it was a bumpy ride as I lowered myself down. Sliiiiiide - STOP - sliiiiiiide - STOP! Nerves maybe? 

Once at the bottom and free of the ropes, I watched Chris lower himself like some kind of professional without a hitch down the eleven-story drop where our feet found solid ground again. ELEVEN STORIES. I was so proud of him, and to be frank, a little jealous that he was better at it than I was. 

Once everyone was together inside the caves, we only walked a short while before stopping again. This time Monkey hooked up first to be the "catcher" and Jah stayed behind to hook us up to the zip-line. This was what I was most looking forward to, and I couldn't wait. So with Monkey down below, we took turns flying through the air to meet him - through pitch darkness! Headlamps on to get each person hooked up and braced to fly. Headlamps off for the launch. Some screamed or yelled, others clammed up for the ride. I woo-hooed, myself. When it was my turn to go, it felt like I was hanging off the edge forever waiting for Monkey to get ready below. Then all lamps went off, Jah pulled me back and let me go. All I could see were hundreds of green glowing spots above me as I flew through the cave; these were the glow worms of the caves. Stopping was almost as fun as starting the zip, as the brake line catches and throws your body into an awesome swing. It was freaking fantastic, but sadly there was no way to get pictures of this part.

Once we were all down the line, we got rid of the equipment needed to abseil and zip, and Monkey and Jah had us sit along the rock ledge we'd just zipped down over. Below our dangling feet flowed the underground river, and in our hands, hot drinks and a sugar-loaded snack to keep the energy up.

After a short break, we got our tubes and jumped into the freezing cold river for a floating tour into the depths of the glow worm caves. We had to pull ourselves against the current by way of a rope anchored to the walls, but once we reached the end, we found ourselves floating in a kind of pool beneath a ceiling of glowing strands. This is where Jah told us all about glow worms  while we stared at the ceiling and bumped into each other in the dark. Since it was impossible to get a picture, here's one from the center up-close of what hung all around us in the caves, which we learned is actually an excrement of the worms to attract food. Mmmm...worm poo.

After the glow worm lesson, it was time to head back in the direction we'd come and carry on, but this time we got to form a kind of chain and get towed back, feet under the arms of the person in front of you. It was relaxing, and Jah provided excellent entertainment in the way of some pretty awesome singing as we went. Our guides were fun and laid back, a great attitude to have when some people are nervous.

After the tubing portion was done, we walked along the cave through shallow rushing water, navigating the irregular floor and keeping close to the side. We soon came to a slight hill where they'd created a slide to get people down, so one at a time, we got onto our stomachs in the rushing water and slid head-first to the bottom. Nobody knew Monkey was down there ready with the camera until they slid into him and got the flash in the face. I actually continued to slid past and was grabbed by someone who'd gone ahead of me.

Love the faces :)

After some more cave walking we stopped for another break, with hot chocolate and granola bars. Here we are, perched along the edge of a calmer stretch of river. Some places were shallow, but if you weren't careful, your next step could have you submerged for the holes in the rocks. One thing was constant, though, and that was the COLD. Keep in mind that we were there during the beginning of winter.

The last couple of major obstacles we had to face before leaving the caves involved climbing actual waterfalls without any equipment other than our own hands and feet. Monkey and Jah were awesome, and for the first waterfall, positioned themselves along the climb to direct us where to step and where to grab to hoist ourselves up against the angry waters pushing down on us. Beforehand they explained how it would work, a tap and a point instead of spoken instruction as the water was much too loud for anyone to hear over it. I wasn't sure if I had the upper body strength to make it up the first one, but with our guides' help, I did. I was less amazed at my own physical ability than I was at the fact that I didn't freak out as I sat in tiny cave rooms with water up to my knees. In some places the ceiling seemed a mile high, but on others we had to duck to move forward. This, I expected going into it, but I was still worried I'd freak out a little. After the second waterfall I walked right behind Jah as he led the group through the tunnels that would eventually lead us back to the outside, sometimes walking with each foot at the curved base of the walls to keep from being swept backwards by the water rushing down into the caves. There were a couple of places where the water was high enough, and the ceiling low enough that we had to crouch to move through a small stretch, the water to our chins. Again, no freaking out! 

We walked like that for a while, up, up, and up narrow passageways floored by rushing water, until we reached a spot where we were told to wait. Then one at a time we climbed through the rocky passage with water spraying down on and around us to find Monkey waiting with the camera for our "emerging from the depths" photo.

Jah had used my face for a canvas with the dark and heavy mud inside the caves, drawing designs and making me feel like a proper Maori. It didn't wash off easily.

After our last cave shot, I think we were all surprised that grassy land was just to our right. We climbed over the last few rocks and waited until everyone made their grand exit from the caves. Once all together, we posed for one last shot on (kind of) dry land.

After a hike back up-hill to where the van was parked that rivaled the waterfall-climbs in the exhaustion it caused, we were on our way back to the center to get warm. A hot shower felt like heaven, and once we took take of our gear, it was time for some hot tomato soup and bagels to continue the warming-up process.

Me, Jah, Chris, and a photo-bombing wooden man back at the center, post-hot shower and hot soup.

Monkey (who left before we thought to get a picture) and Jah were fantastic guides who kept it fun and exciting. I'd say to anyone going to New Zealand to be sure to stop in Waitomo for a tour with these guys, and if the one we did sounds a little too hardcore, there's one that's a little less strenuous and little shorter that seems just as popular. A little bummed we couldn't hang around and get drinks with some of our fellow cavers, we drove on to our next stop, Rotorua, so we'd have a shorter drive in the morning to get to our next tour.

1 comment: