New Zealand is a country that thrives on adventure, and the Kiwis have made it possible to jump, drive, slide, roll, fly or hike through pretty much any part of its terrain. The Waitomo Caves are one of the best examples of this and, while exploring the belly of the earth isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, if you can muster the courage it’s worth heading deep down into a damp, dark tunnel for a day of extreme caving where you can explore a hidden world.
Waitomo, sitting in the heart of the North Island, is every caver’s wet dream. Hundreds of underground limestone caverns ageing back millions of years spiral deep below the surface, intertwining to create a subterranean labyrinth of Neolithic proportions.
Coupled with this geological marvel are thousands of glowworms (larvae with glow-in-the-dark poop), which help to create an unearthly underground world that mixes aesthetics and adrenaline to suitable measure.
Over the years, we’ve sent a few intrepid explorers down into the caves. Here, they share their experiences…
Finding the lost world
Paul Franklin abseiled down a Waitomo sinkhole about 100m deep and tried out a ‘Lost World Epic’ tour with Waitomo Adventures. Here he shares his experience…
“Meaning ‘water passing through a hole’, Waitomo is just a village with a pub, campsite and a peculiar motel,” Paul says. “In the 1800s, a bunch of waistcoat-wearing chaps went to investigate the land’s suitability for a railroad and almost fell down a bloody great hole. This sinkhole is about 100m deep, and is where my brother and I commenced our ‘Lost World Epic’ tour.
“We were clad in rubber wetsuits that, if condoms, would be the opposite of Fetherlite, latched to a slender cable and dropped into a mossy abyss. I’ve abseiled before, but it’s different when you aren’t leaning against a sturdy wall. You’re just dangling, easing out the rope, trying to find the balance between ‘too slow’ and ‘fuck, stop!’.”
The Lost World hole is aptly named, says Paul, since (a) you can see how someone might lose it, and (b) it’s very Jurassic Park-like, with its prehistoric age and verdant rainforest feel.
“This is the beginning, the literal scratch on the surface, of a 45km-stretch of limestone caves that concede the volume of a double-decker bus each year to acid erosion.”
Once at the bottom, the pair scrambled up some hefty boulders and stopped to make amusing silhouettes against the backlit scene of the entrance behind. Nice.
“Venturing on, we saw the route we would’ve taken had it not recently rained,” Paul says. “Gushing is the word. Plan B seemed preferable to drowning, so we side-stepped that via some glowworms and braved a big ladder. After a surprisingly arduous climb that made my forearms ache like I had been whipping meringue for too long, we ducked and dived and occasionally crawled until we reached a rope and a hole.We clipped on, turned around, and abseiled down a drop of unknown height whilst a gush of cold water coursed over us.You know those ‘invigorating’ shower gel adverts? Similar,minus the minty aroma.
“After I’d hit the bottom, fallen on to my arse and stood up again, I got my bearings (‘I’m somewhere in a dark wet hole’) and splodged to one side. Once we were all down, grinning like soggy hyenas, the guides led us through more tricky channels and to another waterfall. We were made to tuck our limbs in and turn out our headlights… then we dropped into darkness. Screaming like we were on a log flume… without the log.”
Further on, past ancient whalebones and oyster fossils, he met another waterfall. But this one he had to go up. He had the option of using a ladder to the side or to climb it. Paul climbed.
The first few metres were easy enough, but near the top was an overhang and a narrow cleft to wriggle through.“The guide at the top urged me on, but I found I was hindered not only by my belt buckle snagging in the tight gap, but my right boot, filled with water, which was surprisingly heavy to lift. With one big push and a tennis player grunt,I made it. Then I crawled through a few more passages into yet another cave, flicked off my light, and enjoyed a chocolate bar in total blackness.
“Eventually, after a relatively gentle ascent but still flanked by some vertiginous drops, we emerged, blinking, through a small leafy hole into the daylight. My immediate thoughtswere, ‘I could do that all over again, right now’. But, next on the agenda was a hot shower, which I happily settled for.”
Paul’s tour took seven hours and costs $490 (it is cheaper if you book an Early Bird special). The Lost World Epic includes lunch, a dinner barbecue meal and all drinks. Take your swimwear and towel. Booking is essential.
We sent Jahn Vannisselroy to Waitomo’s main attraction, Ruakuri Cave, for a day of extreme caving with Waitomo’s Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. Here he shares his take on the Black Odyssey experience…
“As we enter Ruakuri through two massive doors and stamp our way down a seemingly never-ending spiral staircase, the feeling is a descent into the underworld. The smallest sound produces an echo and the knowledge that an ancient Maori burial ground is nearby provides a chilling atmosphere.
“The butterflies in my stomach have not yet settled, but soon guides Drew (a chirpy Canadian) and Jed (a super-chilled Kiwi) are taking us through a practice run, teaching us howto use our carabiner clips which attach to the ropes snaking throughout the cave system. We get taught to fight our instincts and lean back on the ropes, relying on our metal clips. We’re also reminded of the buddy system – looking out for our appointed partner at all times – before we squeeze into a crevice and make an ascent along what appears to be just a minute crack in a massive limestone slab.
“I creep gingerly onto a tiny ledge and begin the painstaking task of attaching and unlatching my three carabiners as I shuffle along in my gumboots, part of a slow army of human spider-walkers, silent except for the clacking of the clips and Drew’s ever-enthusiastic cheer leading. At some places in the cave there doesn’t even seem to be a ledge,and I peer into the shadowy stone in search of a foothold. There’s always one to be found, though; it’s amazing how resourceful you can be when you’re miles underground, living only on your wits and the strength of your rope.
“You learn things about yourself in a place like Ruakuri.Fears are conquered; new strength is discovered; and you learn that even in the darkness your determination can light a path for you.”
Jahn’s tour took four hours and all his equipment was provided, as was a hot shower and some soup at the end of his adventure. Black Odyssey Tours take place twice daily and cost $175.
Image courtesy of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.