From Auckland, we journeyed to Waitomo, famous for its glow-worm caves. We stayed at a backpackers’ lodge near town – I know it’s a backpackers’ place because the Kiwi on the door of our room was wearing a backpack. Waitomo was also the chance for many of us to go black water rafting.
Black water rafting is only available in New Zealand and perhaps only in Waitomo. “Rafting” is a bit of a misnomer – it’s more like spelunking with an inner tube, but more on that in a moment. Those of us who signed up were picked up at our lodge and taken to the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., the first in New Zealand to offer the service. After filling out a detailed survey about our physical ailments and limitations, we were taken down to get suited up. Each person got boots, booties, a helmet with light and a two-piece wetsuit: jumpsuit and jacket. After wriggling into this ensemble, we were given a brief one-on-one interview with a guide to ensure we hadn’t left anything out of the questionnaire. I confirmed my fear of heights, but caves and close spaces don’t bother me. Then a Before shot was taken.
At this point, we loaded up into a van and drove over to pick out our inner tubes. Apparently inner tube selection is important on this kind of deal, so we were encouraged to try out our choice before making a final selection. Translation: we pushed the inner tube of our choice onto our rear ends, and danced about to see if it fell off. If not, it’s a good inner tube.
After selecting our inner tubes, we practiced the Eel position on dry land. Eel is a line of inner tubes wherein you hold the feet of the person behind you. This will be important later.
Next we got to practice the technique for jumping off waterfalls in a cave. There are two waterfalls in the cave for which we would need the technique, and it seemed prudent for us to practice this bit in the sunshine first. The technique is this: you push your inner tube onto your rear, turn around so your back is facing the waterfall, inch your boots to the edge of the precipice and jump backwards. At this point, the necessity for wetsuits became apparent as the water was quite cold.
Now that we’re good and worried, they loaded us into the van again, and it was time to go into the cave. We walked down a set of rough stone stairs and filed into a crevasse in the earth. More photos were taken. Thus began the spelunking portion of the adventure. We carried our inner tubes or floated in an underground river in them variously throughout the time we were in the cave, being careful not to touch any stalactites or stalagmites. Our guides knew exactly which spots were tricky and were very careful to give good advice. The boots we were given were awkward, but they were very good at gripping the rocks. This was especially helpful since everything down there was wet and slippery. But almost immediately you could see the glow worms: little dots of bioluminescence on the cave ceiling, and they are glorious. The promo photos here don’t do them justice at all.
Before long we came to our first waterfall and executed the technique described previously one at a time. This was the tiny waterfall – only about 7 feet high, I think. It wasn’t the height that was unnerving – it was the dark and jumping backwards. But everyone did fine, including yours truly.
After the first waterfall, we floated for a brief time and then continued navigating the rocks, carrying our inner tubes. We took a break for the guides to tell us more about the glow worms, which are actually maggot waste, no kidding. And then it was time for the second waterfall, which was at least double the height of the first, but over we went. It was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting, and all was well.
Now came the real show. As everyone finished jumping the waterfall, we all arranged ourselves into Eel position, hanging onto the feet of the person behind us to maintain the formation as we floated. And then our guides told us to turn off the headlamps that had been our only light throughout this adventure. And when it was completely dark in the cave, we floated under the most magnificent display of glow worm clusters. They were downright magical. I could have floated there for a long time, just watching the glow worms.
But we still had exploring to do. So we continued our trek through the cave, sometimes in the inner tubes, sometimes walking until the final stretch where we had to paddle to go anywhere. And finally, we could see the light from the outside, and it was time to leave the cave. The exit from the cave was especially beautiful – all green and glowy after being in the dark for so long. We took our After picture with great pride. After farewelling our inner tubes, we were then loaded back in the van and taken to the main building where we were given hot soup and a bagel after we peeled off our gear and put on dry clothes.
That night we had a BBQ at the backpackers’ lodge, and it was all quite delicious. Honestly though, I was a little too exhausted to notice. Between the cold water and the rock-navigating, the adventure black water rafting had really taken it out of me in the best way possible.
Title quote: A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh