Waitomo, New Zealand
October 9, 2001
We stood on the brink of a cliff that dropped thirty-five meters down a narrow shaft to the entrance of a cave. Our guide Sarah, was giving us beginner abseiling instructions. Between my healthy fear of heights and Sarah’s strong Kiwi accent, I found it difficult to follow her barrage of instructions. This last bit I did hear, ” . . . and if you’ve done all that you can only pray that everything will go all right. Any Christians?”
Any Christians, I thought. That’s a funny question. Are we going to get the last rights?
Where it Began
We had been evacuated from Pakistan for an undetermined time period, due to the invasion of Afghanistan after 9.11. Many of our teaching colleagues at the International School of Islamabad chose to return to their native lands for the duration of the evacuation. Lory and I thought, “Let me see . . . Canada in October, or anywhere else?”
We decide to spend out time on the north island of New Zealand. After two weeks of touring in great sunny weather, we had encountered four days of rain in Rotorua and Taupo, and another rainy day in Turangi. Lory’s aversion to cold was uppermost in her mind and a critical factor in her decision making as we planned the next steps of our New Zealand holiday.
As we drove from Turangi to Waitomo, I was browsing through our Lonely Planet: New Zealand and sharing with Lory, my adventure-seeking wife, some of the “challenging activities” offered at the Waitomo Caves. I felt pretty confident that this was merely an academic exercise. When our new friend Peggy, over a glass of wine in Turangi, had suggested we try the underground rafting at Waitomo, Lory had emphatically replied, “Getting into a tube and floating down a river in near freezing water is just not an option!”
To my surprise, and concern, Lory now seemed somewhat interested in the descriptions that I was sharing of the underground cave experiences. In retrospect, this should not have surprised me. After all, we are talking about the woman who, thirteen years earlier, had tricked me into challenging the famous “West Coast Trail”, a forty-five mile, six-day trek on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, a trek I barely survived. But that’s another story.
Anyone who knows Lory would not be surprised that we would soon be inquiring at the Visitor Information Center about the adventure activity options in the Waitomo Caves. Fiona, the activity guru of the Info Center, was very helpful. She highly recommended the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company‘s “BLACK WATER II” package (now entitled “The Black Abyss Tour”) that included “a magical combination of abseiling, glowworms, tubing, caving, climbing and other surprises.”
Lory expressed with genuine concern, “My husband has never done any abseiling or rock climbing before.” Fiona offhandedly replied, “No worries. You don’t need any previous experience or training. You will be with experienced caving guides who will lead you through it step by step.” Now Fiona was a middle aged woman with teenage sons, and she seemed so casual about the experience that I got a false sense of confidence that was to stay with me right up to morning of our “abbysful” adventure.
After a good night sleep, and a delicious breakfast, Lory and I set out from our idyllic B&B to the Long Black Water Café which serves as a waiting station for the victims of the Legendary Black Water Company. As a bald and white-bearded Canadian male who was pushing 55, I was impressed with the youth and fitness that populated this establishment. Here was no mixture of ages, shapes or sizes. It occurred to me at that point that I had not asked Fiona if any one my age had ever done this Black Water experience. My confidence was beginning to wane.
Never mind that the extent of my interest in Waitomo was to look at a few glowworms lighting up a limestone cave, preferably from the perspective of a large dry boat peopled by mainstream tourists, many in high heels and fashionable dress. Instead, I would apparently be spending five hours in a dark cave, putting my body through a various forms of abuse.
Nevertheless, Lory and I were committed to this thing, for better or whatever. Knowing that I would soon be donning a seven-piece wet suit, I refrained from having a cup of coffee while we waited for our guides. In fact, I made a concerted effort to relieve myself as frequently as possible during this interval. Ah, the injustice of aging!
As I nervously awaited the arrival of our guides, the much younger patrons were reading newspapers, checking e-mail, and shooting pool. There was not another nervous person in the room. At 11 am on the dot, we were greeted by the smiling faces of Sarah and Angus, our cheerful guides.
Sarah approached Angus with my medical checklist and pointed out that I had indicated under other medical conditions: “healthy fearofheights.” Sarah had never had or heard of “fearofheights” but noting our home address in Islamabad she probably assumed it was a rare contagious Pakistani disease. Angus put her mind at ease by breaking up the syllables for her. “Norm,” he said, “has a healthy fear of heights.”
Lory had indicated on her form that she has mild claustrophobia. She was somewhat alarmed by a photo we had seen in the Waitomo Museum, which showed a young boy pinned in a narrow underground cave opening. Angus assured us that the photo was really a fake and that Lory shouldn’t worry.
Our caving companions were three young adults from London. We were all suited up with wetsuits, rubber boots, hardhats with miner’s lamps, harnesses and safety buckles. The wetsuits were, of course, wet and cold, and on this rainy day we were questioning the wisdom of our decision. There is a kind of logic, however, in the maxim, “When there is no sunshine, you might as well spend the day underground.” We all piled into a van and were transported to the cave entrance, seven and a half minutes, according to Angus, from the Long Black Café.
We stood on the brink of a cliff that dropped thirty-five meters down a narrow shaft to the entrance of the black water cave. Our guide Sarah, was giving us beginner abseiling instructions. Between my healthy fear of heights and Sarah’s strong Kiwi accent, I found it difficult to follow her barrage of instructions. This last bit I did hear, ” . . . and if you’ve done all that you can only pray that everything will go all right. Any Christians?”
Any Christians, I thought. That’s a funny question. Are we going to get the last rights? Then Lory piped up, “Yes . . . I have a question.” Right, thought I, “Any questions?” Perhaps I’m not going to die today.
So then it was on to the first of our challenges, the thirty-five meter abseil down a narrow shaft to the entrance of the cave. Surprisingly, I was relatively calm as I rappelled down the shaft because I was securely belted and buckled and I had control over how fast I let myself abseil. I didn’t realize, until I reached the bottom of the shaft, that every muscle in my body was contracted with tension. Already I was physically exhausted. But never mind, my first rappelling experience, at age fifty-five, had been a success. Of course for Lory, with her previous climbing experiences, the abseiling was a piece o’ cake.
The Flying Fox
Once we were all gathered at the bottom of the shaft, we walked through a narrow tunnel, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites of the limestone caves. We had to clip our safety harnesses onto a rope as the cave wall fell away into a deep crevice. We were on a secure narrow metal walkway, which led to the cave opening. The opening was a cliff ledge, which dropped another ten or fifteen meters to the underground river below.
At this point, Angus strapped us in for the Flying Fox, a zip-line to a ledge on the other side of the river. He instructed us all to turn off our hardhat lamps. He alone kept his light on until each of us was in place ready for the Flying Fox descent. Turning off his light, he immediately released his hold, which would send us, one at a time, flying at lightning speed in total darkness. What a rush!
When Angus came down the flying fox, we all had our lights on, and could visualize what we had experienced. At the end of the ride, Angus was thrown backwards and bounced to a stop on the zip-line. I was surprised how close he appeared to be to the cave wall just before rebounding and it occurred to me that it was just as well I had not seen the wall coming at me.
We all sat down on the ledge, dangling our feet above the river ten feet below. Angus and Sarah served us sandwiches, and our choice of hot tea or coffee, as we watched an eel swimming in the quiet river below us.
Black Water Tubing
The next segment of our adventure was the tubing experience. We were given two options to get our tubes into the river. The first option was jumping backwards off the ledge, ten feet down into the water, holding your inner tube so that when you hit the water, you were sitting in the tube. The other option was to use a rope to scale down the ledge to the river where Angus would give you your tube. Of course, I chose option ‘B’.
The water was freezing! Not literally freezing of course, but it was damn cold! We walked and swam up the stream, admiring the limestone caves with our lights on. After about ten or fifteen minutes, we reached a point where Angus instructed us to sit in our inner tubes, all linked together with one person’s feet hooked under the next person’s arms. He then instructed us all to turn off our lights and he led our floating barrage down the river as we enjoyed an incredible glowworm light show.
Angus dubbed this the romantic part of the adventure. The glowworms emit a green light that attracts their prey and their sexual partners. The green glow is similar to looking at the constellations of stars in the sky on a clear, dark night.
When we got back to our starting point on the river, Sarah was waiting on the Flying Fox ledge and we all threw our tubes up to her, ready to find out what would come next. Angus and Sarah were religious about not telling us anything in advance, so that every segment of the adventure was a surprise.
We continued down the river, wading and swimming through caves as we approached the sound of rushing rapids. This was also the part of the adventure that included the claustrophobic cave crawlspaces. The first narrow and confining crawlspace we came to was right next to a broader passage. So when Sarah told me to go through the cave on the left, I took one look and, protesting that my body would not fit, opted for the broader passage. When the other four went through with little difficulty, I still felt like, “Well why bother when there is a bigger opening over here?” Bad attitude, eh? Yup!
We climbed up three successive waterfalls as the fast flowing water pounded down on us. The specially designed rubber boots that we were given were just amazing. No slipping, even on wet rock. But the climbing up the waterfalls was physically rigorous and at the top of each waterfall you had to crawl through a narrow, low overhead space.
At this point I was feeling exhausted and ready to get to the end of our journey, so I had taken the lead and Sarah was right behind me, guiding me as to where to go next. “Take the cave to the left, Norm.” As soon as I started crawling through this narrow low cave, I knew I had been set up. As I squeezed through the narrow cave, rounding a corner, Sarah’s smiling, “Gotcha!” face, peering in at me.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Angus and Lory were now ahead of me as we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. “A light and the end of the tunnel” – seriously! We came out of a cave opening on the side of a hill and walked up the hill to where we had left the van. We drove back to the Long Black Café, and dislodged all our cold, wet paraphernalia.
Feeling a great sense of relief, and satisfaction, I was ready for the steaming hot shower that took away all the chills of the river water. Angus and Sarah invited us to enjoy hot soup and bagels to end a very full and invigorating day.
On reflection it was the leadership and teaching skills of Angus and Sarah that made the day such great experience. The sequence and organization of the activities were really well thought-out. It was the kind of experience that you come away from thinking, “They couldn’t do it any better.” Good on ya, mates!
It has been many years since we visited Waitomo. We were there before we owned a digital camera, but I wanted to enhance the story with some visuals. I emailed Liz Lindsay at Waitomo Holdings Ltd. to ask permission to use photos from their website. I thank Liz and The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co for the use of their photos.