Heck, even The Goonies wasn’t exactly the pro-caving endorsement I was looking for when I decided to do a little background research on the next leg of my crazy Kiwi adventure tour.
With a string of bad luck that had found me homeless, penniless and living in a van that broke down more often than Britney Spears, flinging myself face first into a dark wet abyss was not on my “to do” list. No matter what Freud would have to say on the matter.
Still, I’m a glass half-full kind of guy and with the sun shining on a beautiful day above the rolling hills of Waitomo and happy childhood memories of Fraggle Rock blurring fiction with reality, I merrily set off on a two-day rafting and caving extravaganza.
Sitting in the heart of the North Island, Waitomo is every caver’s wet-dream. Hundreds ofunderground limestone caverns aging 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, combining to create an unearthly underground world that mixes aesthetics and adrenaline to suitable measure. After donning the always-fashionable skintight wetsuit I strolled down towards the entrance of the first cave.
Clumsily stepping down a series of wet rocks, I turned to look at the light of day for what I’d convinced myself was the last time, and before you could say “wait a mo” (sorry), the darkness enveloped me and the last sliver of daylight slipped away from sight.
Clipping myself onto the safety rope I began a slow, steady and particularly ungainly 25 metres descent that soon gave way to a rather hasty landing. With my feet slipping off the wall and an overall lack of hand-eye co-ordination, I crashed to the floor faster than you can say “geriatric twister”.
Dusting off what was left of my dignity, I rose up to properly inspect my surroundings and switched on my headlamp. I stood there stunned, marvelling at the intricate, timeless patterns on the limestone walls and a number of underground waterfalls that cascaded off into the darkness.
Splashing my way through ankle high water and ducking my head to avoid clonking my helmet on millennia-old stalactites, I soon entered a crash course in abseiling down waterfalls (with my helpful guide kicking water on me from up high) and crawling through ankle-level holes that I seriously reckon even Houdini would’ve balked at.
After a series of abseils, stomach-crawls, shimmies and jumps we entered the belly of the cave some 80m underground. Turning off our headlights, we looked up at a canopy swimming in luminescence.
At least a hundred glowworms sparkled and shone from above, blanketing us in a canvas of light and evoking romantic images of lost travellers finding their way by a constellation of subterranean stars.
That is, until our guide delivered a quick lesson in “Glowworm 101”. Technically the glowworm is a small gnat at the larvae stage of its life cycle. To you and me: a maggot.
The beautiful, spellbinding glow it emits is a sack of biowaste that, due to a chemical reaction with oxygen, burns bright and attracts other flying midges onto a dangling spit line to be consumed later.
As our guide so delicately put it: “Cannibalistic maggots with shiny shit.” I’m not sure that’s the exact Latin pronunciation, but damn if it isn’t catchy. I emerged from the glowworm cavern and came to the first major rock climb, roughly 15 metres high.
While there was the option of scrambling up an adjacent ladder, when the feeble-looking, boss-eyed girl with the claw hand next to you just scaled up it with monkey-like skill, would you say no?
Scrabbling up a sheer rock face composed of soft clay limestone isn’t as easy as it looks, and while the final squeeze felt like shoving a hippo through a drainpipe (or a hippo metaphor into a caving article), I finally broke through to the last stretch of our trip. A short wander and ladder climb later and daylight was upon me once again.
Confident of my new found caving skills, I was more than a little excited about my tubing adventure the next day. Tooled up in my wetsuit once again (tool being the operative word), I headed down to a nearby river where I picked a rubber ring and tested its relevant size by bending over with derriere in place.
Waggling my arse at a bunch of strangers and asking if my ring is the right size is not something I tend to do on a regular basis, but with the obligatory humiliation out of the way I began a completely unique tubing voyage in water cold enough to grant me my very own mangina.
Once I’d become accustomed to the temperature, lazily drifting along black-water rivers was effortlessly relaxing. With the odd adrenaline stop to limbo under six inch high gaps, jump off mini waterfalls and barrel down natural rapids, I once again found myself switching off my headlight, looking up and coasting all the way to the exit via the guiding lights of the glowmaggots.
The Mark Twain dream I’d found myself living was intoxicating and I emerged from the cave with renewed perspective and a refreshingly chilled outlook. Despite the glowworm misnomer, it turned out my caving trip had been enlightening in more ways than one.
The damage & the details: Haggas Honking Holes tours with Waitomo Adventures (www.waitomo.co.nz) cost $195; a Black Labyrinth Tour with The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company (www.waitomo.com) costs $94.50 (book online).