Caves. Deep, intricate networks of tunnels, carved from limestone over thousands of years by running water. Decorated by stunning geological formations and inhabited by bizarre lifeforms evolved to live in perpetual darkness. It’s estimated that only a fraction of the world’s cave systems have been fully explored. There lies hundreds of kilometres of uncharted passages throughout the world. They remain one of the last pristine environments on earth untouched by human beings.
It’s my fascination with the exploration of caves that has led me here, to Waitomo on the North Island of New Zealand. Located about two and a half hours drive south of Auckland, the region offers some of the best adventure caving in the Southern hemisphere. The Waitomo cave system was created over the last 30 million years, and is best known for its glow worms, arachnocampa luminosa, which use bioluminescence to attract prey in the darkness of the caverns.
There are a number of tour operators, though for those looking for more adrenalin pumping experiences, the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (http://www.waitomo.com/black-water-rafting/Pages/default.aspx) has got you covered. They offer both dry and wet caving options and I can highly recommend doing both – the perspective of the cave is completely altered depending on the tour you pick. First up, the Black Labyrinth – cave tubing on an underground river!
We arrive at the caving centre and fill out the forms that say we won’t sue if we get lost in the caves or drown. This may be more exhilarating than I anticipated, I think to myself, slightly apprehensive about what I’m getting myself into. We head down to the equipment area, meeting our fellow spelunkers and are kitted up into our wet caving gear. There is something about strapping a helmet with a flashlight attached that really makes you feel like a fearless explorer of the depths!
We are driven by 4WD down to the start of the river system and are given the most important object needed for our tubing voyage – our rubber tubes! Our guides are friendly and go through some of the basics. They mention three things that make my heart start to pound – not only is the temperature of the water inside the cave a chilling 8°C, but it’s insanely deep in certain parts (12m+) and there are several waterfalls we will have to lead off backwards. My anxiety heightens.
Once we’ve checked that we’ve picked the right size tube it’s time for our first test – jumping off a platform backwards into the river four metres below. Okay. Wasn’t expecting this so soon. Okay. I can do this! I inch my way to the back of the line, and watch the rest of the group jump one after the other. I’m so going to drown. Finally, it’s my turn. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad, unlike the photo of me splashing down:
Once we’ve gotten soaking wet and been tested on our ability to fearlessly leap backwards into rivers, it’s time to warm back up and get ready to head underground. Apparently a good way to warm up is jumping, so we spend five minutes doing that. Then it’s back into the 4WD and finally off to the entrance of the cave.
We arrive at Ruakuri cave and begin our short trek to it’s fern-hidden entrance. The sound of running water is immediately apparent, and the valley seeps with moisture. As we descend you can feel the temperature drop and the humidity increase – the exciting feeling of entering a completely different environment overtakes me. It’s like entering a lost temple Indiana Jones style or descending into a lost jurassic world. And although I know many people have done this before, it’s hard not to feel like we’re the first ones ever to explore the caves we are about to enter. The area is so remote, so distant from anything, that a sense of isolation envelopes the experience.
Light begins to fade as we make our way through the passages. The tunnel path alternates between pools of waist-deep water and slippery but dry passages. Headlamps beaming, the group reaches a large, open cavern and assembles for a photo, surrounded by the amazing limestone formations. We’re reminded not to touch the stalagmites and stalactites; formed over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, bumping into these brittle natural wonders could cause irreparable damage and reduce the unique beauty of this cave system.
The sound of water snaps me back to the realisation that we’re about to jump into underground river. We follow the narrow passage downward, using out rubber tubes to stabilise ourselves on the rocky, uneven cave floor. The way isn’t too narrow – our huge rubber tubes wouldn’t be able to fit through – but the going is slow. Each foot placement as to be negotiated carefully, the wet walls covered in formations offering no assistance to stabilise ourselves.
And then suddenly we’re at the first waterfall, dropping 6 metres into the darkness of the rushing water below. One by one we jump backwards – our caving experts give us an extra push to ensure we clear the rocky edge of the drop.
I cannot describe the thrill of jumping backwards into the black. I hit the water with a huge splash, the river current already forcing me down the dark water passage. Our group gathers in the pool below, bumping into one another, like an aquatic version of dodgem cars. The sounds of the guides counting down our jumps and the loud splashes echo around the cave. The rubber tubes don’t offer much in the way of control, making it hard to avoid hitting the cavern walls.
The group enacts the protocol we learnt on the surface – linking our arms and feet together and forming a train of floating tubers. Everyone switches off their headlamps and we float silently on the glassy black water. Gazing upwards, the entire roof is suddenly alight with the green-bluish lights of the millions of glow worms that call the caves home. It’s eerily beautiful as we pass silently beneath them. One of our guides begins to softly sing as we peacefully float along – her voice fills the otherwise stifling darkness. It’s one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever experienced in nature, and one I won’t soon forget.
The river current picks up and it’s time to put the head lamps back on. The faint glow of the worms disappears with the harsh illumination of our artificial lights. We hear the approaching sound of another waterfall and another jump backwards into the darkness. I get slightly nervous again, fearing what may be ahead. But there isn’t time to panic because we’re already there. I turn around and get ready to jump. This time, I’m more confident, even a little excited. One. Two. Three. SPLASH. Whoo-hoo!
The feeling of the huge splash is thrilling, and at this stage I doubt anyone cares about the cold. We continue floating down the passage. It’s at this point the guides reveal that we aren’t alone in the water. Oh no. The river is inhabited by giant eels – luckily our limbs are so numb that I doubt we would have felt them brushing up against us as we floated through.
The current continues to carry us effortlessly through the cave. But somehow I’ve managed to fall behind, and I’m the last one in our flotilla of cavers. The river forks into two courses, and I’m suddenly heading down the darker of the two. Struggling against the current, luckily I’m spotted and helped along by one of the friendly guides, continuing along with the rest of the group.
Finally, after almost two hours underground, daylight suddenly makes an appearance in the distance. As we float along it gets brighter and brighter, rays of sunlight penetrating cracks in the cave roof.
The river current weakens and we come to a stop in a shallow pool at the end of the cave. We climb out, blinking, into the cool daylight.
It’s been an amazing journey floating beneath the ground, and one I won’t soon forget. For now though, it’s time to head back and relax in the spa. After all, we’ve got another epic caving adventure to embark upon tomorrow…
* Stay tuned for Adventure caving at Waitomo, New Zealand – Part Two