Waitomo is a little village on the North Island of New Zealand. I don’t think anybody who’s been there would disagree with me when I say that, above ground, the village doesn’t have much going for it. Nah, as all the fun is to be had about 30 metres beneath the surface. Waitomo Caves is an extensive tangle of tunnels and caverns and rivers that’s jumbled and ragged like the London Underground’s Neanderthal ancestor.
There are several tours on offer of varying lengths, between 1 and 5 hours. I chose the 5 hour journey, which according to the brochure included rappelling, zip-lining, and a healthy amount of squeezing through minute crevices in waist deep water. Perfect for me then, who has an intense dislike of heights, murky/deep water, and small spaces. It seems my desire for adventure got the better of me. Or perhaps it was the three very pretty girls who signed up for the tour before me. I suppose we’ll never know.
We were given wetsuits that squelched happily as we wrestled them on. We schlepped to the field where the cave mouth was lying in wait in the undergrowth. After a brief instruction in how to rappel, we took turns to enter the cave. The opening wasn’t a yawning Aladdin-esque cave, though. In the middle of the field, circled by trees, the ground simply dropped away into a black hole, like an upside-down volcano. A rickety platform stretched across the top, and to enter the cave you must clip yourself into a rope and lean backwards off the platform, and sail quietly into the pit below.
At about 9 metres down, the invert-conical shape of the cave mouth narrows to a couple of feet across, an impenetrable blackness beyond. Fuck. Trying to breathe steadily, I scraped against the walls as I shakily lowered myself through the gap and into the cave. I’m not going to lie, I’ve probably had manlier moments in my life. After squeezing through the entrance, I’d entered a monstrous chasm, stretching away into blackness on all sides.
The rope disappeared into the gloom 30 metres below. I quietly shit myself and gripped the rope for all I was worth, all training and advice gone out of the window. I was a hyperventilating mess, rebounding gently off the cave wall and slowly twirling in the blackness like a dangling spider in a light breeze, only with a lot of very creative swearing.
“Oh cock off, you bastard wall. Shitting wankstain god fucking dammit shit. ARSE.”
White knuckled and wheezing, I eventually bounced my way down the cave wall to land on solid ground, with rope burn on by thumb from gripping so tight. The pretty girls cheered my landing, and I shrugged it off with a casual smile and walked with spaghetti legs to the nearest boulder to sit and to recuperate and wordlessly thank Jebus.
Once the last of our group, a hefty German named Pascal, had been gracefully winched down into the cave, we walked along the damp rocky passage way on creaking metal walkways. Ahead, we found our next challenge – the ‘flying fox’ zipline.
Basically, you buckle yourself onto a zipline and shoot off down the wire into the distance. Standard fare. The difference, however, is that on this zipline we were made to turn out torches off, so you shoot off into a wall of blackness. Hmm. One by one we were clipped in and booted off the ledge into the abyss. The same sounds echoed back every time someone had a go: the initial rush of the ropes, a second of silence and a blood curdling scream. Oh, joy. Impress the girls, Dan, do the scariest option, Dan. You tit, Dan. I was clipped on, shoved off the ledge and soared flailing into the darkness shrieking like a banshee. After maybe 25 metres you hit the end of the line and the momentum hurls you into the air, and all of this while you’re blind. It feels like what I imagine being swallowed whole by a whale would feel like, all moist warm wind and thunderous echoes.
One of the guides unclipped me as I hung limp and emotionally burned out, and I flopped down onto a ledge where the pretty girls were sat. We ate biscuits and drank juice as the last of our group flew screaming past us. Pascal’s huge German bulk tore through the night like an out of shape Dracula, and finally we were all at the bottom. Dangling our legs over the ledge we had sat on, we saw a gurgling black river, flowing quiet and menacing.
Our guide strolled between us and handed out weighty black rubber rings. Calmly, he instructed us to jump off. Into the black underground river. Nine feet below. Oh, good. He demonstrated, leaping off the rock and plunging into the river. He partially disappeared beneath the water, before the rubber ring heaved him back to the surface and he popped up. He wiped the water from his face and bobbed serenely in the water. ‘Come on!’ he yelled, cheerfully. ‘Fuck off!’ I thought, bitterly.
We all jumped though, once again flying through the air and smashing down into the ice cold water, drips of it creeping down the neck of my wetsuit. I have a fear of deep or murky water at the best of times, and floating on this opaque river, my mind raced with horrid creatures with awful tendrils flexing and grasping inches from my bobbing bum. Nope, don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.
“Does anything live down here?!” I shakily asked our guide as we floated downstream.
“Yeah, there’s glow worms and a few small spiders, mostly. Oh, and the eels, of course.”
Ah, splendid, eels.
“Er… how big are the eels?”
“Ah, ’bout the width of your thigh, I guess.”
We bobbed along like sprouts in a pan, gently rebounding off walls and spinning idly along the lazy river. Our guide told us to turn our torches off. We looked up in the darkness, and saw above a cosmos of glow worms, scattered across the ceiling and clustered on every ledge. In my wonder, I forgot all about the murderous eels circling beneath me and stared at the strange glowing specs. Their stomachs produce a blue phosphorescence, part of their digestive process. They ‘fish’ for minuscule flies with long saliva-like strings which they spin. They are glow worms all their lives, until finally, after nine months, they metamorphosize into little flies. They fly out of the cave, and experience life outside. Once free, they engage in a three day shag-a-thon, and then die. Such is life.
Our lazy river finished as the waters got shallow enough to walk in. I pushed the eels out of my head and tried to keep my terrified yelps to a minimum every time my foot touched something odd. We waded along amidst the glow worms and eels and the ancient, cold rocks, and slid down a mini waterfall. Then, it was time to climb.
Following the towering corridor of the river, our guide took us down a side passage leading to our exit, although not before giving us the opportunity to squeeze through a beach-ball sized, water filled hole called ‘The Rebirth‘. On the way out, we climbed up two waterfalls, a fierce task when hundreds of tons of water are crashing down on you every second. At one point, I found myself wedged into a gap so narrow that the back of my head was touching one wall and my nose was touching the opposite one, all while crouched, half submerged in freezing waters. Bizarrely, despite literally being surrounded by my absolute worst fears, in an environment more wild and intense than my nightmares, I didn’t feel for one second unsafe or afraid. Uncomfortable, sure, but everything else was overwritten by the sheer brilliance of it all.
After only one minor fall which sent me plunging under water into the surprisingly deep basin beneath the waterfall, we clambered our way out in a series of bizarre climbing manoeuvres that would grab you first prize in a game of Twister. We emerged suddenly into a breeze, and the noise of the woods at night. Over the 5 hours we spent below ground, the earth had kept turning, a completely separate world, and the sun had set. I’ve never been so exhausted as I was on the coach back to the hostel, or so thankful to peel a sodden wetsuit off of my body.
Whether you’re a bold adventurer or a shrieking moron like me, you’ll love the subterranean delights at Waitomo.