In the Maori language, wai (water) and tomo (hole or shaft) name the small village of Waitomo on the North Island of New Zealand. It has extensive underground cave systems famous for glow-worms that light up the caves. The tour operator in Waitomo, Black Water Rafting, has a variety of tour levels for the cave systems. I was privileged to discover and join the Blackwater River Rafting tour called the Black Abyss, the most extensive tour option (5hrs) they have featuring abseiling down a 35 meter hole, zip lining in the dark, rafting with inner tubes in the cave river, and finally climbing up water fall to get out of the cave. This was quite the magical, exciting and surreal experience. You just can’t believe you’re there doing these things.
My adventure starts from an early morning 6:30am pick up in Auckland from my hostel Verandahs Backpacker. We are collected by car, then transferred to a shuttle for a 2-hour drive to Waitomo village. The countryside is quite green with cows and sheep scattered across. The vegetation and trees increase dramatically as you approach Waitomo.
Upon arrival we get fitted and geared up with wetsuit, booties, boots, helmet with light, and harness. We are a group of 7 plus two guides James and George. The guides explain the next steps and we walked over to the training for abseiling. It’s a incline with several ropes where we each practice descending. The guides will ensure your safety and your level of comfort for each event.
The entry way into Ruaraki cave requires abseiling down 35 meters. I volunteered to go first down the hole which is hourglass shaped. I’m giddy with excitement and ready to go. It narrows to a one person only pathway then opens up before touching bottom. You make your way into a wider area and find a place to sit while you wait for the others to descend one by one. You turn your headlight off and immediately see the glow-worms lining the cave wall, like stars at night, they get brighter as your vision adapts to the darkness. I can still see the shaft illuminated by the headlamp of the next descender and their silhouette as they descend the shaft. The glowing of the worms frames them for surreal imagery. I only wish I had my cell phone camera with me but unfortunately no camera’s allowed. We have one of our guides taking pics for us. As I sit there waiting I’m still exhilarated of how surreal and beautiful this is and we’ve only just begun.
After everyone has descended we walk further into the dark to arrive at a zip line. I’m second this time. The first guy to go disappeared into the darkness without a sound. I said don’t worry I’ll yell out to let everyone know I’m OK when I arrive.
The next step is to grab an inner tube, place it behind you, hold onto to it as you jump a few feet down into the water. It’s quite the splash with invigorating cool water. As everyone get’s in we pull ourselves with a rope along the cave wall. At some point we end up walking while pushing the inner tube at some points. We have a hot chocolate break and take a group photo with a 30sec exposure.
We say goodbye to our inner tubes as the cave path narrows. We went up going through tight crawl spaces down a water slide, then a place called drunk alley. This is an area of the cave where the bottom is uneven and you walk and sometimes trip like you’re drunk. Everyone has a good laugh in this area.
We encounter Cecil a cute cave eel. He seems quite tame and curious about us.
We come to a point where our guide explains the free-climbing required to get up a waterfall exit from the cave. You crawl through another tight space and your in this very small cave opening with a raging water fall. This was the toughest and most exiting part of the trip. You can’t believe you’re here doing this.
Finally after much effort your back into daylight and on a trail back to your shuttle. The whole time went very quickly, it didn’t seem like you just spent 3hrs in a cave. We are shuttle back to the gear center, wash our gear, shower and change. Then we are treated to hot soup and a bagel as we watch our pictures displayed on the screen. We buy and download our pics, then back on the shuttle for the 2-hour ride back to Auckland. I’m enjoying the countryside scenery again as my mind keeps flashing back to my cave experiences with a smile on my face.
I did find a YouTube video https://youtu.be/hHQqJbYJbEo of some other backpackers that were able to video journal the experience. It’s a good depiction of all the cave action. However it doesn’t capture the glow-worm imagery of the cave which is much better in person.