Waitomo Caves, New Zealand (20th Mar 2008)
Taupo to Matamata via Waitomo Caves and Hamilton, New Zealand (20th Mar 2008)
Driver: MarkDistance Travelled:347.4 Km / 215.9 Miles
Accumulative Distance: 4302.3 Km / 2673.9 Miles
The drive from Taupo took much less time than we had expected and when we arrived we had a couple of hours to chill out, so we read and wrote our some of the blog that we have long needed to catch up on. We originally came to Waitomo to do a boat trip into the caves to see the glow worms but after looking at various leaflets and brochures Mark saw one that really caught his eye and pestered Kara to agree to do it instead of the boat trip until she finally gave in, and anyway it wasn't that much more expensive and would defiantly be a hundred times better.
As anybody will tell you, it is impossible to visit NZ without being bombarded, and ultimately tempted, by the constant stream of adrenaline activities and outdoor pursuits available. The cave expedition we opted for was 'Black Labyrinth', with a Rambo rating of 9/10 and is just one of the many cave adventures offered by the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. At three hours in length, the Black Labyrinth allows for the long, hilarious process of wet-suiting up followed by a short, pleasant bush walk and just over an hour's cave time - jumping backwards off waterfalls, gaping at glow worms and posing for photos. At the end, a hot shower, soup and toasted bagel await, the brochure made it sound great so who were we to argue...
With our ticket we were given a pass to the Waitomo museum that was just down the road so with time to kill we went to see what they had on offer, and the answer is not much, it's only a real small place which gives a bit of background / history of the caves and the surrounding landscape. One thing we also found out is that just a couple of months ago David Attenborough has been here to film for his new TV series!
At exactly 3 we were ushered out onto the balcony where we met our super keen guides and the rest of our group before heading out into the yard area to get suited up in the provided protective gear. We had no idea our outfits would be so sexy, but if we could've snagged a few we would have, we certainly made a fashion statement; full wet suit, aqua socks, short white rubber booties, protective shorts, and helmet with a headlamp in front. Our hour underground was supposed to go something along the lines of... trekking, floating around in the dark with our lights off constantly saying sorry to the unfortunate person you'd just accidently groped, jumping backwards off small waterfalls with our tubes, of course looking at all the glow worms.
After driving to the site, you pick an inner tube suitable to your girth, pose for a few cheesy photos, and then give your tube a test run in the river by jumping backwards off a small platform into what is possibly the coldest water in the world, the shock of the cold water was surprising, but not so much as the water at our starting point in Ruakuri Cave (Den of Dogs in Maori) which was even colder.
For starters we had to enter the cave through a near-invisible gap in the rocks that we would never have noticed had the guide not pointed it out and from there it was a short descent down a rocky slope into the dark cave, where we hiked through the shallow river for about 50 yards walking like old men to avoid the stalactites aiming towards our heads like upside down ant hills and avoiding losing our balance on the uneven floor beneath our feet. We finally reached the first spot to float in our tubes, The Limbo Rock where we stopped just inside to let our eyes adjust to the dark; it took a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the gloom, our nose to the dank smell and our ears to the reverberations of the water cascading down through the cave but after 5 or so minutes we were ready to get moving. Once inside the air became thicker and in the darkness you could just about see the air puffing from everyone's mouths as it was so cold. Just 5 minutes in to the cave and that hot shower seems a long, long way off.
To get us off to an adventurous start we had to squeeze through a section with had about 8 inches from the water's surface to the top of the cave, so laying head first on the tube we paddled along for about 20 metre into a clearing which was much more comfortable. It was great checking out the Stalagmites and Stalactites as we gently paddled along the first section of the cave and after only a few minutes we got our first glimpse of a couple of glow wormswhen we turned out our lights and looked above us.
As we pulled up for the first time and turned off our head lamps it was time for lesson one and although the explanation may not be the most scientific (or the most charming), it certainly is accurate. "Glow worms aren't actually worms at all - they're larvae" she explains. "The light comes from their waste (snot and poo) and they use it to attract insects. Glow worms begin eating as soon as they're born. If there's nothing around to eat, the first one to hatch will start eating its brothers and sisters!" To get the message across a little more simply, she then in a typical kiwi, non PC fashion shouts upriver through the echoey dark "Basically, what we're looking at is cannibalistic shagging maggots with shiny s***" A chorus of "Ewww!" bounces off the rock walls either side of us and for some reason we had suddenly become disenchanted by the mass of twinkling glow worms on the cave ceiling above us.
In all seriousness, it still looked amazing there were thousands of them, glowing fluorescent green and it was slightly mind boggling and their glittering beauty is only accentuated by the black silence and the surreal, serene feeling of drifting through a cave in the freezing water. Keen to escape the suddenly grotesque glow worms we switch on our headlamps again and continued to splash and slide our way downstream through the Ruakuri Cave.
Within minutes we were stopped again at the top of a small, but pretty powerful waterfall, which we had to jump off of backwards and this was a bit scary, but since nobody had a choice other ways you have to just get on with it and jump. So, edging backwards with the rushing river nearly sweeping us a way, one at a time we pulled our rubber tubes firmly on to our backside, took a deep breath and ignoring every screaming particle of common sense we possessed we jump backwards, down the waterfall into the darkness, with each of us landing with an all mighty 'splosh's' and a few cheers from the fellow Labryinthers. Looking back, the waterfall is pitifully short but at the time, in the dark it was a massive achievement. Buzzing with our accomplishments we all were told to form a long snake, hooking feet under armpits, and float determinedly onwards into abyss.
"Jump off here!" shouts the guide and all our headlamps create a criss-crossing laser show as we all try and master the simultaneous art of slipping off our tube, catching it before it floats away, getting our footing on the slippery floor and bracing ourselves against the flow of the river. Nestled against the rock wall once again we look up above us and far, far above, water drips down into our eyes but we can see light, day light, "that's a tomo," explains our guide "tomo is Maori for hole" and it is only then that we realise that just how far we have come underground (over 65 metres we are told).
With our lights off again and the river slowing to a gentle meander the cave is filled with a dense silence, punctuated only by the water dripping from the steatites above us into water, nobody speaks or touches and after a few minutes for all we know the others have disappeared into a secret side cave or paddled off without us; Strangely, we never really felt worried by this scenario - content with the tranquil darkness and smooth river, happily reclined in our tube heads tipped back and eyes to the ceiling as a Milky Way of glow worms stretches out for as far as we can see. As we kept paddling along, with our hands now frozen, looking back the way we've come, thousands of tiny lights twinkle back at us and it's like looking up on the clearest of nights.
All too soon a soft natural light begins to ripple across the river and it gets gradually brighter with the caves exit now in site; nobody wants' the daylight, we all just wanted to continue floating gently through the quiet trickling cave with only clusters of cannibalistic maggots to show us the way.
Right before we reached the end of the cave our guides told us we weren't allowed to use our headlamps any longer, and would have to find our way out of the cave on our own.This turned out to be quite easy (unless you count bumping into the walls, scraping your fingers, or having the person next to you kicking and slapping you), as you just had to relax and go with the flow of the water.
At the end of the cave and back into daylight, the sun was absolutely blinding and it took ages for our eyes to re-adjust to the light. We had now travelled about 2km underground at a depth of about 65 metres for most of it, in water that was colder than anything either of us have ever experienced, even Kara's lips were blue by the end of it. Back in the shack after a shower and getting out of the wetsuits we got round to warming up and filling our faces with some delicious bagels and cheap nasty tea.
After getting back in the van we soon realised that there wasn't much else to do around here and since it was already getting late we started driving again. After much debating, umming and arring we decided not to go to Rotorua since we had already been to the thermal springs in Hanmer and seeing some more would just be killing time so instead we headed toward Hamilton only to drive straight through as there wasn't much else for us to see there either. Eventually we made it to Matamata which is where much of the Lord of The Rings Trilogy was filmed and by the time we got there it was quite late and surprisingly we found it really hard to get ourselves a camp spot for the night but at around 11pm we finally got settled down near the museum just outside of the town centre, and it wasn't a minute too soon as we were both totally shattered.