Heck, even The Goonies wasn’t exactly the pro-caving endorsement I was looking for when I decidedto do a little background research on the next leg of my Kiwi adventure.
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 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 King Country area of the North Island’s Waikato region, Waitomo is every caver’s wet dream. Hundreds of underground limestone caverns dating 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 adrenalin to suitable measure.
And so, after donning the always-fashionable skintight wetsuit, I stroll towards the entrance of the first cave. Clumsily stepping down a series of wet rocks, I turn to look at the light of day for what I’m convinced will be the last time, and before you can say “wait a mo” (sorry), the darkness envelops me.
Downtown Hobbiton, Waikato
Clipping myself onto the safety rope I begin a slow, steady and particularly ungainly 25-metre descent. With my feet slipping off the wall and an overall lack of hand-eye co-ordination, I crash to the floor. Dusting off what is left of my dignity, I switch on my headlamp and rise to inspect my surroundings.
I stand there, stunned. Intricate, timeless patterns cover the limestone walls while a number of underground waterfalls cascade off into the darkness. It’s truly incredible. Splashing my way through ankle-high water and ducking my head to avoid clonking my helmet on millennia-old stalactites, I next enter a crash course in abseiling down waterfalls and crawling through ankle-level holes that I reckon even Houdini would’ve balked at.
After a series of abseils, stomach-crawls, shimmies and jumps, we enter the belly of the cave some 80 metres underground. Turning off our headlights, we look up at a canopy swimming in luminescence. Hundreds of glowworms sparkle and shine from above, blanketing us in a canvas of light, 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”.
You see, 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 puts it, “They’re cannibalistic maggots with shiny shit.” I’m not sure if that’s the exact Latin pronunciation, but damn if it isn’t catchy.
Emerging from the glowworm cavern I come to the first major rock climb, roughly 15 metres high. There’s an option of scrambling up an adjacent ladder, but when the feeble-looking, boss-eyed girl with the claw hand next to you has just scaled up it with monkey-like skill, it becomes quite tricky to take that option.
Scrabbling up a sheer rock face composed of soft clay limestone isn’t as easy as it looks, and while the final squeeze feels like shoving a hippo through a drainpipe (or a hippo metaphor into a caving article), I finally beak 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’m now more than a little excited about my tubing adventure. Tooled up in my wetsuit once again (tool being the operative word), I head down to a nearby river where I take my pick of rubber ring, testing 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 begin a completely unique tubing voyage in water cold enough to grant me my very own mangina.
Once accustomed to the temperature, lazily drifting along blackwater rivers is effortlessly relaxing. With the odd adrenalin stop to limbo under six-inch gaps, jump off mini-waterfalls and barrel down natural rapids, I once again find myself switching off my headlight, looking up and coasting all the way to the exit via the guiding lights of the glowmaggots.
And here comes the sun. Back out in the glorious Waikato daylight, I make tracks for Pa Harakeke, an outdoor adventure region under the good-looking gaze of Mt Pureora-o-Kahu, about halfway between Taupo and the Waitomo Caves.
I’m straight on a bike and hurtling down the Pureora Descent, basically a 14km stretch of wicked downhill which forms part of the very cool 85km Timber Trail.
“On a good day you can see Mount Taranaki,” says my guide Daniel, after driving me to the summit. Loaded with cloud, today is not one of those days, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still one hell of a view. We’re not here, however, to look at pretty views. With nothing but a mountain bike, helmet and spare tube, it’s go time. Things begin with a slosh.
Starting 900 metres above sea level after some light rainfall the night before, it’s mudfest after mudfest. Depending on your speed, the ride can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, so I decide to go hard and fast. Fear, adrenalin and sheer excitement take over while now and then I remember to savour a glimpse of the amazing scenery. Trees cling onto a mouldy green moss, gradually becoming more petrified the lower we go.
The moss becomes brighter and greener. Trees jump up into the air. Postcard pictures of the lively forest become ubiquitous. Surrounded by serenity and peacefulness, I seem strangely at odds with the landscape as my slippery descent borders on frightening. I figure out how to use the rear tyre brakes to skid around corners, and almost immediately have several near misses. Whoosh, skid, accelerate, brake, slide. Careful, sharp turn ahead; tree branch ahead. There’s never a dull moment.
Adrenal gland suitably drained, I decide it’s time to slow the pace and so set off in search of more tranquil treasures amongst the green and rolling hills that made Waikato such an obvious location to use as the setting of Hobbiton in the Lord Of The Rings films.
Heading through coffee connoisseur favourite Cambridge, I pull up for the night in Pukeatua to rest my nerves under the shadows of Mt Maungatautari and Mt Ruapehu. Refreshed and rejuvenated, I’m then perfectly placed to head straight to Sanctuary Mountain, an incredible world of ecological activity safe-guarded by the world’s longest pest-proof fence. I’m shown around by my guide Justine, who explains how the 3400-hectare forested ancient volcano provides a safe environment for endangered animals to still live in the wild. Indeed, almost all of the forest on the mountain is virgin, completely untouched by human hands.
On the guided walk through the southern mountain enclosure, I’m given a rundown of the different species which are roaming the mountain. Birds, insects and endangered animals are the main focus. Depending on what creature you want to see, hear or experience, there are day and night walks available, with many different trails to explore so as to increase your chances of seeing a different type of critter. And, yes, there are some kiwi birds here, although they’re notoriously shy.
New Zealand birds, Justine explains, are different to Aussie birds – the Kiwis find each other through song while most Aussies rely on bright colours. It’s not just in the human world, apparently, that Aussies struggle to make intelligent conversation.
Showing off slightly, bird whisperer Justine then calls some of her feathered friends over for some food. I spot a kaka, a tieke and a cheeky blackbird who helps himself to everyone else’s peanuts. The other birds are more shy, preferring to sing high above us in Rimu and Totara trees. Luckily, there’s a canopy tower stretching up three stories to help catch a glimpse of the more elusive birds.
A bird watcher is not something I would have previously described myself as, and I still don’t. But walking out of Sanctuary Mountain, I feel as alive and wired as after the earlier adrenalin stunts. The fact that such places exist, and are so easy to explore, can only be a good thing. Waikato, it seems, is wild in more ways than one.
Details: Waitomo Adventures’ Haggas Honking Holes caving tours cost from $200; Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company Black Labyrinth Tours cost $119 waitomo.com; guided mountain bike tours of the Pureora Descent cost $49 ; beds at Out in the Styx, Pukeatua, cost from $85 ; Sanctuary Mountain guided tours cost from $25
Photo: Thinkstock; RST/Ian Brodie; Waitomo Adventures