February 17, 2014
The main draw at the Waitomo caves are the glowworms that light up the dark caves like stars on a moonless night. It is that impressive. There are multiple ways to experience the caves and the glowworms, the most of adventuresome of which is the Black Abyss Tour at Black Water Rafting Co.
Although the tour does require some agility and reasonably good physical health, it’s designed for the absolute beginner. You are taught and told what to do at every step with very little chance of making a life threatening mistake. The guides, Matt and Corin, were friendly and professional, albeit with a dry sense of New Zealand humor.
The five hour experience begins with suiting up in in wet suits and the harness gear needed for the abseil into the cave and the zip line. You need only a swimsuit and a towel as all other gear is provided. They have a communal locker at the office to store your other belongings during the tour.
Cameras are not allowed but they take several photos during the tour which they will sell to you on a thumb drive for 30 NZ.
We were 7 in our group with 2 guides.
A short drive takes you to the Ruakuri cave entrance where you receive a 10 minute lesson in abseiling. Very easy to learn. Next we descend, one at a time, into the “abyss” a 35 meter drop through a narrow opening into the darkness below.
It was much less scary than I thought it would be. Once we are all down they hook us up, one at a time, to the zip-line and it’s a short slide into total darkness. Having never been on a zip-line before, for me this was more intimidating that the abseil.
Once we are all down and the harnesses are taken off they feed us a very sweet oatmeal bar and hot chocolate to get our energy level up for the upcoming cold water plunge.
We are given inner tubes and told to jump, one by one, into the cave river. It’s enough of drop that sitting in the tube your head still submerges in the fall.
Next is a float down the dark cave river, lit only by our head lamps. For the first part of the journey we pull ourselves along a rope bolted to the wall. Then Matt, our guide, has us form a chain, each person hooks his feet on the inner tube in front of him, and he pulls us the rest of the way down the channel while we gaze up at the starry glowworm sky. An impressive sight and well worth the journey in the 10°C/50°F water.
Matt stops us at one point to tell us the story of the glowworm, not really a worm at all, but the larva of a fly or maggot. It’s the feces of this maggot that glows through the process known as bioluminescence. He gets a kick out of emphasizing that we are all starring at “glowing maggot shit”. The glowing feces, as it were, attracts flying insects to their fishing lines, spider web-like strands that hang down from the ceiling and walls of the cave. Each maggot tends 40-50 lines each about 9-12 inches in length. An amazing sight no matter what you call it.
Once we reach the end of the cave we turn off our headlamps and Matt pulls us back the way we came in complete darkness except for the points of light or glowing maggot shit. In the darkness the soft glow reflects off the dark water.
Back at the point where we jumped into the water we are given more sugary substance ( white chocolate washed down with sugar infused hot tang, yum!) to refuel our bodies and ward off the cold for the next part of our journey – the walk out through the “labyrinth” to the cave entrance.
The hour journey requires walking through water from a foot deep to more than over our heads in places – swimming really. The buoyancy of the wet suit keeps you easily afloat, however the uneven rocky floor makes walking more of a drunken stumble, for which this first section of the cave is named.
Next is crawling through tunnels and climbing water falls. The guides are extremely helpful and give precise instructions of where to place your feet and hands for the more difficult sections of the 15 foot climb up the waterfall.
Very manageable even for those of us with little climbing experience. Up one more smaller waterfall and through one last tunnel we are back out in the daylight.
After a short drive we are back at the office dressing room with hot showers available. Afterwards hot tomato soup and bagels are offered in the café.
The tour is very expensive, most everything in NZ is, but is professionally operated and well organized.
Photos in this post are courtesy of Black Water Rafting Co.