Black Water Rafting in the Waitomo Caves

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In planning our adventure portion of the trip in Rotorua, Dave had always mentioned something about black water rafting and something about caving and some other water based adventure things that I kind of half-listened and agreed to doing. Lesson learned on my part because today we drove 2 hours each way to the Waitomo Caves for a Black Water Rafting adventure.  Remind me to listen next time!

En route to the caves we come across a huge corrugated steel structure of a sheep and one of a dog and I recognized them from some tourism information.  There is a nationally famous corrugated steel artist in the area and they built these structures for tourist purposes which now house some shops and an ice cream shop. More on that later.  So we make it to Waitomo at around 10am and we had signed up for the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company Labyrinth adventure that started at 10:15.  So we find the office since all the signage is very clearly marked, find a safe spot for the limping Britzy and head on inside. We check in and pay and for the zillionth time on our trip sign yet another waiver.  They tell us to wait in the café and our leaders will be with us shortly.  I don't like downtime before these adventure excursions because during the down time I start to get really nervous about what’s to come and almost opt out before it’s even begun.  In particular, this adventure tour was fairly involved and I’d never been rafting or anything before although Dave has. Eventually a gentleman a few years older than us (Tony) and a really young guy (Luke) gather us and a group of 3 friends and take us outside for the introduction.

We first head to the wardrobe section where we are told pick out wet-suit socks from a bin and meanwhile Tony hands us a wet suit he thinks will fit us.  We then also pick up a matching wet-suit jacket and an undergarment – a long sleeved almost fleece type pullover to keep us warm under the wet-suit.  Not only is this activity dangerous it’s also going to be very cold.  Excellent.  So the two guys go into the men’s changing rooms and there are 3 of us ladies trying to wriggle into damp wetsuits.  It takes us a good while, so long that the boys call in to make sure we’re okay.  Once suited up we get our stylish rubber shoes (Jimmy Choo eat your heart out) and helmet with a head torch.  I’m shaking by now and it could be either from the cold wetsuit or my nerves.  We’re ushered for a group photo in the official photo-shoot spot but I find it rather awkward that we have a group photo with these people we’ve never met nor will ever see again so I ask Tony to take an individual picture for us.  Photos done we put our cameras away because we can’t bring them with us and head to the mini-bus to take our group to the caves. 

We pull up and are dropped off at the tour company site where they have stacks of inner tubes for us to choose from.  We use the official sizing method of squeezing our butts in and all find tubes that are the perfect fit.  Task complete, Tony then asks us to form an 'eel’, a chain of inner tubes where you hold the feet and ankles of the person behind you to form a connected chain.  We all find it strange to practice this on solid ground but what do we know.  Tony then tells us that he’s taking us to the official simulator to practice jumping over the waterfalls while in the caves and before I can ask about this contradictory image Tony shows us a muddy river and a short wooden bridge around the corner.  He shows us that we should back up to the end of the bridge, stick our tubes on our butts and jump backwards (going for distance not height since we’re in a cave after all) into the water.  Everyone immediately backs away and looks at the others to go first.  One of the girls from the other group was nice enough to eventually volunteer to go first (we all know that I never go first in anything these days).  She seemed to get the hang of it and it helped that Tony guided her backwards over his knee.  My concern was whether this was a true simulator – will Tony be there guiding us once in the caves or are we jumping backward unattended?  Luke hears my cries and calmly answers that this is just like it is in the caves and we’ll be just fine.  After the other two folks from the other group go I head up to the top of the bridge because we also know that I don’t go last in any of these kinds of lines.  I do get a bit nervous as I’m backing up to the edge because the drop looks further than it does from further away but I take a deep breath, hold it and jump.  The splash is huge and quite a shock as the water is freezing cold and I can still feel it through my wetsuit.  I’m also not pleased with the cleanliness of the water so I quickly paddle to the exit ladder and watch Dave jump off with no problem. 

Dripping wet we head back out to the parking lot and Tony tells us we’re going to head up to the caves.  So Luke leads the way and I’m somehow right behind him leading the pack so I can’t slow down.  But right away we start hiking up the side of a mountain in all this brush in our wet-suit gear.  The first few minutes were alright but after about 7 minutes I started to get tired and the wetsuit started to stick so I felt like I couldn’t lift my legs up anymore.  Let’s just say by the time we got to the top which happened to be the entrance to the caves we were good and warmed up.  As we approach the entrance to the caves one of the girls from the other group starts to get super nervous.  The entrance was fairly narrow and you couldn’t see inside but Tony had already hopped on in and I figured they wouldn’t be ushering us all in if we couldn’t fit.  But she had some sort of meltdown and decided it was all just too much for her so Luke had to stay back with her to be picked up and Tony carried on with our group which was now down to 4.  We all gathered just past the narrow entrance with our tubes for Tony to give us some direction and for us to get adjusted to the darkness inside the caves.  The caves themselves were amazing; they were beautiful stone with huge stalactites on the cave ceiling and walls. We heard rushing water but didn’t see it quite yet.  We ventured a little further on and Tony asks us if we prefer to crawl or limbo.  Thinking that whatever limbo was must be physically challenging we opted for crawl.

We had to hop up into a crawlspace inside the cave that was just as big as we were while in crawl-position.  Tony tells the other guy who opted to be the leader to take the first left, then a right and then another right and he’ll meet us at the end of the tunnel.  So we all hop up and crawl through the cave and I’m focusing on moving one arm and leg at a time not thinking about the small space we’re in when the leader of our group stops and says that he’s at a dead end.  Not believing him Dave moves forward and we see we have a few options: a sharp left that looks to take us back to where we just came from, a soft left that takes us down a level into something unknown and a tunnel to the right which is in the completely wrong direction.  Dave tries exploring the sharp left tunnel but honestly he can’t really fit so I’m very nervous about going into a tunnel were we could get stuck.  Then he tries to drop down to the soft-left tunnel but can’t see anything and it looks to be another dead end.  I’m trying to pull him back up but he can’t leverage anything with his feet to push himself up so it took a few of us to bring him back to our tunnel.  We thought we tried every option so we turn around and go back out of the tunnel to where we entered it and bypass this task all together.  If we were on the Amazing Race we totally would have blown this detour.

We’re back on track now and walking over the rocks in the cave and the water level is starting to rise.  You have to be really careful walking so that you don’t step in a hole and fall down so each step I am gingerly putting a foot down before moving on.  Dave was very patient with how slow I was going.  We now come to the first real life hole where we have to jump just as we were taught in the simulator.  Tony positions himself on the side and puts one foot up on the top rock above the hole.  One by one we back up into our inner tubes and jump backwards into the water below.  It was scary but honestly not a scary as the outdoor simulator.  I think that was because outside you could see everything and it was fairly dark here so you couldn’t really see what was going on.  We float on our inner tubes for just a bit and then pick them up and walk again over stones.  We come a narrow walkway in the cave and Tony tells us to take a break so we sit on the rocks on the side of the cave and he hands us a treat – chocolate fish!  I’d heard of these but hadn’t had them yet.  They are some a national treat in NZ and are marshmallow type candies with chocolate coating.  So here we are in the underground caves munching away on chocolate fish.  It’s around now that Tony tell us to turn off our headlamps and look up and we see the ceiling covered with hanging glowworms all lit up in blue.  Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. 

Now we have enough energy to venture on and we come to another hole that we have jump over and we do it one two three. Only this time, after landing in your tube you stay in it and grab on to ropes on the side of the cave and we all link together in the human eel chain we simulated outside.  Tony tells us to turn off our head torches and we are floating down the water staring up at the glowworms that line the ceiling and walls of the caves.  There are so many of them they look like little blue stars in the sky and form patters so that Tony can guide us along.  It was spectacular and I’m so glad I didn’t back out of this adventure because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this.  We joke that it became really quiet with the still water and us gliding along so Tony asks if we want to sing.  I started with some Ke$ha and our new friends joined in which was pretty funny.  But we didn’t keep that up for long since we were so focused on the fantastic glowworms. 

We come to a stopping point and separate from our eel chain.  Tony says that we’re very near the cave exit and challenges us to keep our headlamps off and sends us off to individually find the exit in the dark.  This was not my favorite part and I’m pretty sure I didn’t accept the challenge and made it clear I want my light on but I was ignored and everyone starts paddling off on their tube in every direction.  Dave stays close to me and we linked tubes because I wasn’t very happy about this portion and with just a few bumps into the cave walls we eventually saw the light at the end of the tunnel – literally.  We came out right into the forest area and stopped for some quick pictures and to shake off and get our land-legs back.  I’m very proud of myself that I made it without any disasters or getting stuck in the cave or in a hole.  We make our way back to the parking lot where the mini-bus is waiting to take us back to the tour shop.  We drop our inner tubes where we had picked them up and head back to the tour center.

Once there we can take a hot shower which was pretty nice and get back in our warm clothes.  We rinse out all our wet-suit gear and put it away and head up to the café for our free soup and bagel that’s included in the tour.  We all sit together at the table and get to know Tony a bit more as he chows down on a bacon, egg and cheese pie which looked very tasty.  His wife is from Canada so he’s been there several times, but of course prefers the natural beauty of New Zealand.  We also meet back up with the third member of the other group with us who is acting a bit surly but we try to be nice to her since it could have been me backing out of the tour. We purchase the obligatory photos, say our goodbyes and hop back in Britzy for the long drive home.  The weather was quite nice, sunny and warm, so we stopped along the way home at the corrugated metal sheep for a look around.  We didn’t purchase anything but they had beautiful merino wool clothing.  We did, however, try some Hokey Pokey ice cream in the shop.  I’m a big ice cream fan but I have to say this wasn’t my favorite flavor.  It tasted kind of like butter pecan but even sweeter (if that’s possible) and crunchier bits.  I’m glad I sampled it though as we did get approval from the locals in the shop.  We made the rest of the drive back to the campground in fairly good time and took care of chores – several loads of laundry and cleaning out Britzy in preparation for her return to the shop.  We started by cleaning out the kitchen part for dinner and then went through and cleaned up the rest because tomorrow we leave Rotorua and drive north to Auckland.
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