NZ Post #30: Caving In

03/02/11 - Waitomo

For anyone out there who ever wondered why I'm such a goody-two-shoes, here’s my answer: Because I never get away with anything! One little lie, one little wrong doing or act of ill will and it inevitably comes back to haunt me. Some call it karma. I call it a pain in my ass.

Katie and I cruised out to Waitomo through some of the most scenic farmland I’ve ever seen. We stayed at a hostel called Juno Hall Backpackers. The drive was far more enjoyable than the hostel… 

Once again, this place had flies aplenty. So many, in fact, that one of the workers gave some young female guests a bottle of Raid to use while watching a movie in the lounge. That lounge was adjacent to the kitchen and dining room with no separating wall, and we just happened to be having supper during the housefly genocide. So, on top of having to slap the little buggers away from our food, we now had to inhale their poison. What dinner isn’t complete without the spicy flavor of toxins?

 The Toughest Cave Explorers You'll Ever Meet

The Toughest Cave Explorers You'll Ever Meet

Our room was adequate. It sported a simple view of the camping area with a farmland backdrop. The kitchen was fairly spacious but I wasn’t too keen on the shelf-less refrigerator that forced you to stack your food bags one atop the other. After just one day I couldn’t find our meager sack of perishables. Had it been stolen? No, it was just buried beneath a heap of other bags. Katie found it hidden on the very bottom, now coated in what I hope was water. I don’t actually want to think too hard about what it was. We replaced the bag. 

Even more disturbing, however, were the giant bugs that had an open door policy with our room. These insects looked like cockroaches, but after seeing them crawling on the street in the light of day Katie and I decided they were some kind of large cricket. Perhaps a type of weta. Either way, they were big, black, ugly, and not the kind of companion I like to have in my bed.

 Super Alice!

Super Alice!

The first time I saw one Katie and I were lounging on the comforter. I witnessed a dark winged creature fly around the room Boba Fett-stlye before landing on her back. I froze, my eyes reflecting abject fear. She read the terror on my face before hearing me whisper "Katieee…" She flew out of bed, knowing a creepy crawly was in our midst.  We then saw it scurry under the luggage but were able to vanquish it before it could get away. That was our first encounter but wasn’t our last.

Were these foreboding insects a natural occurrence or a bad omen? A plague wrought down upon us for past misdeeds? A warning of what can happen when you don’t offer people a ride?! Because not long after, while Katie and I sat uncomfortably in the Juno Hall fly lounge, Blondie came walking through the front door! My stomach dropped to the ground. The very person we’d fibbed to in order to avoid giving a ride strolled into our hostel and caught us sitting cozily in a web of lies! Now she knew the truth: We’d driven north, not south. She looked just as astonished by the sight of us as we were by the sight of her. All we could do was exclaim surprise, smile, and give a friendly greeting. She then explained that she’d skipped Tongariro Crossing and hitched a ride to Waitomo. I grimaced inside. She still needed to check into the hostel so we parted ways quickly. We swiftly made ourselves scarce, all the while guarding a secret knowledge that we had not one, but two extra beds in our room! But as guilty as I felt the last thing I wanted was a roommate.

From that point onward my overactive psychosis kept me agoraphobic. Katie shrugged her shoulders. What was done was done. It was our trip and we had nothing to feel bad about. She was right, of course, but through shame I managed to successfully avoid Blondie for the next 24 hours.

On to the enjoyable part of our visit, or rather the FREAKIN’ AWESOME part of our visit!!!!

 Ready To Go

Ready To Go

We went to Waitomo for one thing. It’s the same thing everyone goes to Waitomo for: The Glowworm Caves. Many moons ago, after toiling over research and crunching the numbers, we decided to book with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. and chose to go all out with the “Black Abyss” Tour. I’d tell you what that tour included on paper but that would ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it? Instead I’ll let the story unfold, just as it did for us, because the truth of the matter was that we’d booked it so far in advanced we’d forgotten what it entailed!

We showed up on time (you gotta be on time in New Zealand, no joke) and were ushered over to where our fellow cave explorers were. There was an older English couple, a pair of American couples, and us. Eight total, which I discovered was the maximum number for this tour, so it was a good thing we booked in advance. Soon we were introduced to our guide, Terry – a tall sinewy length of muscle with a roguish air and zero fear. In his Kiwi accent he asked us a few questions about general health and well being all the while reminiscing about the many bones he’d broken over the years. I have to admit, he was rather handsome in a devil-may-care sort of way. Definitely easy on the eyes. Then our other guide, Jan, appeared. Also Kiwi, Jan was Maori with a thick and sturdy stature and multiple facial piercings. These guys were tough and very funny as they quickly explained all the pieces of our uniform for the day, which would be a padded wetsuit. And when I say wet, I mean wet. Each segment was already soaked through, constantly saturated from continuous caving, no doubt. Before disrobing we were given one warning: Do not pee in the wetsuits! They said it would mix with the fresh water and cause a horrible stench that would stick to you – they’d know who did it! And they were open about the humiliation that would be heaped upon you if this rule was broken. We all made sure to hit the toilets first.

Clothing in tow, the women gathered in the outdoor changing room where we wrestled our garments like confused babies trying to crawl back into the womb. The first thing I noticed was how bloody cold they were! It was a warm sunny day, so it was impossible not to flinch when the wet rubber gripped my limbs. Katie strong-armed her way into the suit and ended up helping me tug and pull my way in too. Once finished, I felt like a ripe piece of fruit aching for a peel. And moving around? Dear Lord! That outfit was essentially a giant rubber band wrapped around my body. Lifting my arms was an effort. Each step met resistance. If you want the ultimate workout try jogging in one of these puppies! (If you don’t pass out first)

 Rappelling 101

Rappelling 101

I struck a superhero pose before padding outside in my rubber socks and donning the rest of the necessary equipment: Boots, helmet with headlamp, harness, ropes – the works. Standing in a semi-circle of moist exuberance, we all pulled tough-guy poses for the camera. None of us knew what we were doing, and we had no idea what lay in wait below, but we were anxious to jump into the black abyss!

First, though, we had to survive a pungent drive to the cave entrance. I thought the huts on Milford Track were rank, but they had nothing on this van! A musty wall of body odor hit me when I entered and plopped down on a squishy seat. Liquid literally dripped from the windows, the condensation was so thick. I hurriedly cracked open the tiny window next to me and leaned my face into the fresh air. Hip Hop pumped through the speakers while we rolled down the road. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention...we were having a blast! Now this was an adventure! Katie and I had huge grins on our faces, and they only grew wider as the hours passed.

 Down The Rabbit Hole

Down The Rabbit Hole

We stopped along a dirt road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and there, amid the bushes and trees and curious cattle, sat the entrance to the cave. Right beside it rested a few climbing ropes trailing down a slope. Before we could go underground we all had to pass a short class on rappelling 101. Terry taught us a nursery rhyme showing us how to quickly weave the rope through the metal ruts attached at our waists. This would act as our brake as we rappelled down the cave tunnel. Press your thumb against it and your descent stops. Release it and your body weight carries you down the rope.

We all hooked on and jumped backwards down the small hill a là stuntmen. I found myself releasing the brake completely and pulling against the rope just to keep moving. I guess the angle wasn’t giving gravity enough to work with. Regardless, we all passed the test and moved on to the cave entrance. A little catwalk stretched across the pit, and when they asked for a volunteer to go first my arm shot up. It was unexpected. But like any Alice, I was excited to go down the rabbit hole first.

I snapped onto the safety line and followed Terry’s instructions, sitting down over the pit like I was taking a seat. Hanging in the harness, I released my foothold. Then I let my weight do the rest, slowly inching downward into darkness. The hole wasn’t straight and it was also thinner than I imagined. I had to kick away from the wall and adjust my angle in order to slide through. Once that was done I wanted to drop faster but gravity had other plans. My thumb wasn’t jamming the brake (far from it), but I didn’t have enough heft to plunge down the rope James Bond style. Other than one short spurt of speed I was relegated to moving at a moderate pace. Not exactly the hero’s entrance I was looking for.

(A brief side note – those harnesses are murder on your back! The strain was instantaneous and completely foreign. I’m sure muscles were in play that had never been used before. It gave me a new appreciation for what stunt people go through.)

 A View From Below

A View From Below

I dropped deeper into the black below, the only light emanating from Jan’s tiny headlamp. It got brighter and brighter until I came to rest beside him on the underground platform. I’d just dropped straight down the equivalent of a twelve story building! The only thing stopping me from falling to the bottom: My thumb.

Jan unhooked me and told me there was a possum in our midst. It was currently hidden beneath a rock behind a boulder. He’d already called Terry above to halt the abseiling process so he could fish out the critter. I saw it’s little nose peaking out from a crevice and, not surprisingly, Jan had no luck getting to it. I asked why a possum would be in the cave at all and he said that it must have fallen down the shaft. You could see some leaves spread around as evidence. In the end, Jan had to leave him there where he would most likely die. He certainly wasn’t going to climb out of the cave. But that’s the circle of life, I suppose. Hopefully it would be kinder to us.

 The Flying Fox

The Flying Fox

Each person dropped down in succession. Katie was third to go, and I was green with envy when she whipped down long stretches of rope with quick kicks off the wall. She was rappelling like a pro! Maybe my form was wrong… Jan told me that this group was one of the faster ones at abseiling that he’d seen. Usually there are some real slow pokes, he said. Hooray for us! Terry was the last to come down and he, of course, dropped to the bottom in 5 seconds flat. Show off.

Our headlamps twinkled in the dim light while Jan sat us in a circle and Terry went on ahead. We did a brief “getting to know you” session, each stating our name, birthplace, favorite film, and what we’d choose to be for just one day. I instantly decided on being an eagle for a day but the film question was a bit more tricky. I have a lot of favorites. I settled on “All About Eve” since it was the first that came to mind. Katie went with “Fargo” and cracked everyone up when she answered what she’d choose to be for a day –  “Tall.”

A whistle sounded from the tunnel ahead signaling Jan to lead us onward. I was in the front of the group watching my footing and keeping on Jan’s tail. He then stopped us and told us to switch off our headlamps. His was the only light shining as he started pulling ropes and clipping them onto my harness. There was an immediate drop into darkness sitting before me. I waited for him to explain what we were about to do but nothing was forthcoming, so I asked him, “What are we doing now?” He continued his work silently. Clip, clip, clip. Then he started pointing, commanding, “Put your foot here. Your hand here. Other hand here.” He flipped off his light, put his hand on my back, and shoved.

I shrieked in terror as I flew through pitch blackness. The only light was that of the glowworms above, cluttered together like constellations in the night sky. The air rushed passed me and my scream faded to laughter when I hit the invisible end. A thunderous smack resounded off the walls while I swung on my tether like a blinded fish.

A light flicked on. Terry stood right in front of me, grinning. “Holy s—t, that was awesome!” I declared, still laughing. He released the clasps and helped me down. Now that I saw the lights at the other end of  the zip line and I realized just how short the distance was. It was probably only 100 feet, but it felt like an eternity when I was soaring through the darkness. I think, being the first to go, I didn’t know what to expect. It made the space in front of me feel vast, infinite. I felt so grateful to have been unceremoniously shoved into the unknown.

 Katie's Leap Of Faith

Katie's Leap Of Faith

Sitting to the side while Terry readied the line for the next victim, I said I assume he’d zipped down the line all by himself while we were waiting at the top talking to Jan. He responded yes. He’s been touring groups through the caves for several years, he said, and every day when he flies down the line with glowworms all around he still thinks it’s totally awesome. “My job is the coolest,” he added. I’d have to agree with him.

Katie was the third to come plunging down the line after me. We pressed our bodies against the wall as each caver came swinging through. That loud smacking I’d heard when I hit the end of the line turned out to be Terry slapping an inner tube on the cave wall whenever finished the zip line. He was trying to scare us! It was excellent. Once everyone was done Jan pushed off the top and flew down while whipping his body out and kicking the rock wall above our heads. Show off.

 Jumping Into The Black River

Jumping Into The Black River

Harnesses pulled off, Terry led Katie and I over to a cliff edge that rose high above a black river below. He told us we were going to go first. Katie and I looked at each other with excitement and more than a little trepidation. “Link arms,” he ordered. I felt relieved we were both good swimmers. “One…” Though I was surprised we were jumping down all alone. “Two…” With no support or immediate aid if needed. Oh God what were we doing?!! “Three!” His arms wrapped around our shoulders, hands holding bright plastic cups. “Who wants some hot chocolate?” He tricked us! These guys were sneaky…

They pulled out a thermos of hot cocoa and a bin of granola bars. We snacked while sitting on the rock ledge swinging our legs over the underground river. From here we could stare down into the dark flow. It’s no wonder they called themselves Legendary Black Water Rafting Company – that water looked as black as tar! We’d shine our lights into it and get no reflection, no glint. It was uncanny. At this point we were all cold from the chilly cave air, but the hot drink was warming our centers. The granola bars were scrumptious too, but big. Our guides had us throw any remaining chunks into the water below. You know, to feed the eels. They liked the granola bars. You think they were messing with us? No such luck. Eels lived in them there waters. The same waters, as it happened, that we were about to jump in!

Each of us was given an inner tube. This time I was at the end of the line watching while people hugged rubber tubes to their bums and leapt off the edge. Headlamps were lit, but light was low, and Katie and I were shivering with cold and nervous anticipation. Finally, it was Katie’s turn. She hurled her body out and landed upright on her tube with a huge splash. I followed suit, flinging my whole body out, falling fast, and submerging before bobbing back up to the surface. I popped up, smiling at Katie, and then we both acknowledged what we’d already suspected: The water was cold.

 Warming Out Tummies

Warming Out Tummies

The wetsuits were needed, that was clear. Not only for temperature but for protection. Any possible bumping of joints was shielded with padding. It didn’t make it easy to move, but it was nice in those tight spots. We lined up along the wall, tubes keeping us afloat, and grabbed onto a wet rope anchored to the rock. Hand over hand, we pulled ourselves along the tunnel until we heard Jan yell for us to stop. Then he caught up, sat on a little ledge, and told us about the glowworms surrounding us. They weren’t in fact worms, he said, but gnat larvae. The larvae excrete a light and drop down sticky threads like fishing lines in order to catch other insects. This stage lasts 6 – 12 months before they become adults. As adults they cannot feed. All they do is mate until they die. You can imagine the jokes made about that little tidbit.

After biology class we locked together in a long floating train and turned out our lamps. We were then tugged along the river, heads tilted back, staring up at the glowworm sky. Clusters of tiny white-blue stars hovered above us. Jan was behind me in the back of the line singing songs and whistling tunes. He had a beautiful, full voice that echoed off the chamber walls as though we were in a cathedral. Katie and I both found it to be lovely to listen to while enjoying the phosphorescent glow.

 Underground Water Slide

Underground Water Slide

Bye, bye inner tubes. Hello waterslide. A short metal slide rested in the throws of rushing water. Down we went, face first, while Terry snapped photos of us splashing at the bottom. Then Terry made us some invisible alcoholic beverages at an invisible bar (yeah, we were confused too). He explained that we were about to walk through what they like to call the “drunken pathway.” The water in the tunnel was only one to two feet deep, but you couldn’t see the floor, which was jagged and uneven. That’s why they called it the drunken pathway, because people struggle through; bumping into walls and falling on the ground until they reach the other side. I, myself, took a dive before reaching the end.

We all squeezed our way through a tight crevice before pausing for a chocolate bar and hot orange juice. After our tummies were warmed we trudged along watery tunnels, got down on all fours to crawl through narrow openings, and saw an eel swimming beside us. Jan stopped and played with him for a bit, putting his wiggling fingers out like food. He said this eel was a 40 year+ resident of the cave. He warned not to accidentally step on it as we passed through. The eel was actually kinda cute.

 Through The Crevice

Through The Crevice

Then they gathered us together and raised an all-important question: Are we tigers or are we pussy cats? We could choose to turn right and crawl up two underground waterfalls or we could choose to turn left, which was the easy way out of the cave. Tigers or pussy cats. I think it’s obvious which route we chose.

I rounded the bend, my warm breath clouding in front of me before being splashed away by a downpour of water. I was a bit taken aback by the force. The waterfall wasn’t high, but it seemed insurmountable at first glance. Katie and I both admitted to each other later that if we’d encountered this on our own we would’ve turned back around. I guess I’ll have to keep that in mind if I’m ever lost in a caving system, because if this experience has taught me anything it would be: If you can touch it, you can climb it.

 Waterfall Climb

Waterfall Climb

Terry said if we followed his directions we’d all make it up just fine. I put my trust in him, straining to hear his voice over the pounding of the water. “Left hand here. Right foot here…” He was sitting at the top of the falls touching and pointing at each of my anchor points. Like a robot, I latched on to them, my limbs keeping me above the full force of the water until I pushed my knee into it and wrenched myself up. I crawled forward and stood crouching at the top. I’d done it!

I waited in a little alcove while the other climbers scaled up. We’d cheer each person’s arrival. The second waterfall was easier to overcome and didn’t require instruction. It unleashed sunshine upon me at the top. By then, Terry had gone ahead, and was waiting with a camera as Katie and I both took our first breaths of fresh air. We posed like Gods; conquerors of the underworld.

We rested in the outdoor pool that fed the cave. Floating on the surface, tired and happy. One last group photo was taken before our short hike back to the van. The sunshine beat down through humid air, making me feel hot and constricted in my wetsuit. I started pulling at my rubber jacket unsuccessfully until Katie peeled it off me. Filling my lungs, I breathed a hearty sigh of relief.

During our walk I asked Terry if there’d been any serious injuries during one of his tours. He told me there’d been several, the worst being two dislocated shoulders and a smashed foot. He said he, himself, had been knocked out before underground, almost drowned! Yikes! I’m glad we had a safe go of it.

Back into the vaporous van we went, and once back, the wrestling match started anew as we yanked our wetsuits off. Mine was sticking to me like a suction cup. Terry helped me by grabbing the top and yanking it off inside out with one massive tug. They were then thrown into a large bath of soapy water, but not before one final warning: If we’d succumbed to peeing in our wetsuits we had to set them aside. If anyone broke that rule they’d be punished with outright humiliation. Thankfully, they’d done a proper job scaring us in the first place, so no one had to set theirs aside.

 Gods In The Making

Gods In The Making

Hot showers were followed by hot soup and bagels. Katie and I dished out the money for the disc of pictures taken during our tour (how could we not?) and eagerly ate the free meal. Terry invited us to sit outside with him but Katie didn’t seem interested. I decided not to take him up on the offer, either. After all, Katie knew I thought he was attractive, and I didn’t want her to make her too jealous…

Our tour turned out to be an amazing experience. So much more than glowworms. It was caving, crawling, climbing, jumping, and floating down an underground river in the chilly darkness. It was outright adventure. Worth every penny. So, if you’re ever in the Waitomo area and are looking for an out-of-this-world experience, I’d wholeheartedly recommend the “Black Abyss” Tour. Oh, and tell Terry I said hi. ;)