Heading South on the North Island sends you through the small town of Waitomo. If you are not sure what you are looking for, you could easily miss it. Blink, you might miss it. There is nothing there but a hostel, campground, a cafe, and a couple of small shops.
You’ve heard loads of people talking about it and telling you that it is an area you shouldn’t miss when you visit the North Island. So what’s the draw to Waitomo? What you seek is under the ground.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide)
Waitomo is known for its amazing underground cave system that runs throughout the area. Secondly, for the large population of glowworms that live in the caves providing a spectacular view of their blue glowing lights in the darkness.
There are a few companies that will take you down into the caves, offering a variety of activities from above ground and dry glowworm viewing to more extreme caving expeditions that include abseiling (cliff rappelling), zip lines, rock climbing and hiking underground.
We spent our day doing some of the extremes with a company called The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. They offer 3 caving packages and on our plate for the day was the Black Abyss. The second most challenging package they offer where we would be spending 4 full hours in the caves.
After being dropped at the main office, we signed it and were assigned to our guide for the day. They briefed us on some of the safety concerns about caving and whisked us off to be fitted for wetsuits. These were the heaviest wetsuits I have ever seen. It was at that moment that we realized we’d signed up for a real adventure.
Each wetsuit was complete with socks and a jacket. We were assigned rubber boots that fit over the thick wetsuit socks, fitted to a harness and helmet with battery pack and light. The van ride to the cave entrance we used was short and once we arrived we were brought to a training area where we were shown how to use the abseiling (cliff rappelling) equipment.
This process involved learning how to stop and how to speed up and slow down your descent. We would be abseiling 35 meters into the caves through an hourglass-shaped opening from a platform above. As we made our way to the platform we all rushed forward to see the depth of the hole we would be dropping into.
By appearances, it didn’t look bad, but the part where the cave narrowed, into the hourglass shape, was surprisingly small and jagged. From above, it looked like you would have to maneuver just right in order to make it through.
The other two girls in the group and I were given helmet liners that fit over our heads like winter hats. These were used under our helmets to make sure our hair was securely stowed. If not, there was a chance that our hair could become tangled in the roped when negotiating the small opening in the drop.
From there it was pretty smooth sailing. David and I have both abseiled before, so we weren’t new to the concept. However, once you made it past the small opening, which was surprisingly easy once you were down to it, the remaining descent was pitch black. The only thing providing light was the small light on your helmet.
This was a bit creepy because the minute you drop out of light view the cave becomes very damp and cold. As you drop down you find yourself shining your light around and down. The floor is nowhere to be seen and all around you is just rock slabs. It’s not for the claustrophobic.
It took around 30 minutes for our group of 5 and 2 guides to descend into the caves. The minute you landed and turned your light off, the glowworms lit the place up. They really are as bright and blue as the photos show in the brochures. We were explained about the life cycle of glowworms and told them why they glow.
Long story short, what you see when they are glowing is their waste (or for lack of a better term, poo). Because their bodies are translucent it displays the chemical reaction in the digestive process and glows in the bright blue color that we see in the dark of the caves. Entertaining that we find their poo something worth staring at, but it is beautiful nonetheless.
The rest of our time spent in the caves was constantly on the go. We zip-lined off our landing platform into the dark to start the rest of our trek through the caves. With our feet back on the ground, we took a hot chocolate break before grabbing inner tubes and jumping off the cliff into the cave river system.
The method to this is to place the tube on your backside just right, so when you jump off the ledge and land in the water, you are sitting in the tube. The water was cold. Really cold and although we spent the first part of the trip sweating, we were grateful to have all that gear once we hit the water.
Floating through the river system gave us a chance to catch our breath and enjoy the ceiling as it glowed bright blue with more glowworms. They really do put on a show and it makes any downtime you have in the caves enjoyable.
The last part of our adventure would be on foot. This would seem to be the easiest part, but the reality is that it was the hardest. The cave rock on the floor is very uneven and covered with water. We were consistently walking through knee-deep water over uneven, rocky ground.
We negotiated several passes with various elements along the way including climbing up and through very small openings and sliding down waterfalls into pools. Once we reached the end we found ourselves rock climbing up a 5-meter waterfall to the upper level of the cave.
This was pretty intense and a really neat experience. Once we were all on top, we negotiated a few more tunnels before rock climbing up another waterfall, about 3 meters and heading out into the muggy, heavy ground-level air.
Caving in Waitomo was an amazing adventure and if you manage to make it to Waitomo without blinking and missing it, be sure to check out the amazing underground that makes it worth the stop.
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