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Leap into Darkness


We were a bit sad when we got up the next morning, as we had to say goodbye to Berta and the fantastic B&B. Adieu, adieu, and all that. We really were a bit bummed to move on. We’d rapidly come to think of the house by the mountain as home, sinking quickly into a comfortable rhythm that calmed and refreshed us.

Despite all of our foot-dragging, we finally got through breakfast and got all packed up and paid. We headed out and started the van (with no problems this time!) and got on the road. Our destination for the day was the Waitomo Caves, about 250 km north of us on the west side of the North Island. We we shooting to get there some time in the afternoon and find a place to stay. We made really good time, however, and arrived in town about one thirty. By now we knew just what to do, and stopped by the info center before doing anything else. A few minutes later, and we were booked for a blackwater rafting trip (more on that in a minute) and found out where to get a bite to eat.

Our raft trip didn’t leave until three forty-five, so we headed across the street to one of the few cafes in town. Dore got a burger and I got a seafood basket. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with that, but I surmised that it would be some type of fried seafood and fries. When the food came it was indeed deep fried seafood, but of a type I’ve not encountered before. On the overflowing plate were a number of deep golden brown nuggets of delight, containing a number of tasty surprises. As I bit into the various shapes, I found seafood cakes, shrimp, scallops, a green-lipped mussel, a fish fillet, and a few others that I’m forgetting at the moment. All together it was quite a feast, and a number of gourmet flavors.

I had to have Dore help me, there was so much, and we ate until we were both stuffed to the gills (if you’ll pardon the pun). In a bit of a fried-food daze, we set off back to the van and headed over to the Legendary Blackwater Raft Company headquarters, where we would be meeting our guides for the trip.

Now, what is blackwater rafting, you ask? I don’t blame you. I’ve never heard of it outside of New Zealand, and I think it may be unique to this adventure-seeking country. Simply put, it is inner-tubing through an underground river. Throw in a bunch of glow worms for company and the standard Kiwi “don’t be an idiot and we’ll pretty much let you do as you please” attitude, and you’ve got a recipe for awesome.

We actually showed up at the rafting company a bit too early, and were stuck waiting for about forty-five minutes or so, but it wasn’t too bad. They have a nice cafe and inside seating, so we put our heads town and dozed until it was time for the trip. At three forty-five on the dot our guides came out and led us down to the gear area, where we were issued cold, clammy wetsuits, neoprene booties, boots, and helmets. When I say the wetsuits were cold I mean they were cold. As the guides put it, though, “you paid good money to be cold and wet for the next three hours, so enjoy it!”

All suited up, we took a short bus ride down to the cave area, where we were issued our “rafts.” Dore and I had, somewhat naïvely assumed that we’d be going down on a raft similar to the ones used on whitewater rafting trips. So imagine our surprise when we were presented a number of inner-tubes of various dimensions and asked to “find one that you can squeeze your butt into nice and snug.” We shrugged and grabbed a couple of tubes. When in Rome, right?

Our caving tools in hand, we got our first taste of the water at the outdoor “waterfall simulator” (that’s right, there are waterfalls inside the cave) which was basically just a little dock about four feet off the water of a little stream. Here we were instructed in the proper technique for going over a cave waterfall. Namely, jump backwards onto your inner-tube. Preferably making as large a splash as possible and, if you’re like me, falling over backward. We emerged, dripping and shivering, fully qualified to go into the cave. Some training, right?

We hopped back onto the bus with our tubes for a very quick drive up to the cave entrance. A short walk past some blackberry bushes brought us to a dirt-and-wood stairway that led down to… nothing. It’s an eerie sort of feeling walking up to a cave entrance. The path got steeper and steeper, and the walls of green plants rose higher around us. The path also became tighter and more rocky, and then suddenly dead-ended by a hole in the ground with a small rivulet of water flowing into it, about six feet high and a few feet wide. Inside was black. We talked for a few minutes about protocol inside, and then headed into the darkness.

In contrast to the narrow entrance, the cave opened up into a relatively large room after just a few feet. Our entire group of twelve or so people fit in quite easily. We waited for a few minutes for our eyes to adjust and talked a little more about the cave. Then we headed in. The little stream we saw outside was joined by other underground springs and streams flowing from hidden inlets, and soon we were walking in a shallow stream bed. The cave twisted and turned its way into the mountain for several turns, and the stream got wider and deeper. Then we came to the first waterfall.

There’s a different feeling to jumping off of a platform into a stream in the daylight than there is to doing the same action in a cave. Maybe it’s the fact that the rock ceiling is only few feet above you, and slopes at odd angles so you can never be sure quite how far you can jump. Maybe it’s the blackness of the water below. How deep is it? What lies beneath the surface? Or maybe it’s the fact that you’re jumping backwards through the air into a pool of water somewhere deep underground, with nothing but your guide telling you that it’s okay to give you any idea of whether or not this is at all a safe or reasonable thing to do.

Breath in, breath out.



I felt the rocks on the bottom of the pool, but came bobbing up with no problems, sputtering and exhilarated. I looked around for the headlamp lights of the rest of the party. The guide grinned from above. “Good one, mate!” I grinned back. Man, this is fun. A few minutes later everyone was down the waterfall, and we headed deeper into the cave, paddling our odd little rafts awkwardly with our hands. The water was cold and black, and I could feel the cold seeping slowly into my extremities.

As I paddled, I noticed some queer blue-green lights in the roof of the cave. Glow worms! They looked like tiny LEDs set into the stone. I looked for the source of the light, but couldn’t seem to see it. I did see faint silky lines dangling below the lights like hairs.

We stopped a short while later and turned off our lights to see the glow worms in full effect. As the guides talked about the worms (or maggots, more precisely), I stared up in awe at the eerie constellations above us. As our eyes slowly adjusted to the nearly complete darkness, I found that I could just make out Dore’s face across the tunnel from me. Looking back down the tunnel the way we came, I could see the reflection of the worms in the water, like stars over a moonless lake.

A few minutes more, and we were back on the move. We went over a few more waterfalls and walked along wide sections of the stream with nothing to tell what the next step would bring but the feel of the rock. At one point we linked up into a long “chain” formation — each person holding on to the feet of the person behind them — turned off our lights, and the guides pulled us along a section of the stream in the complete darkness, glow worms silently sliding by overhead. At the end of the section we turned on our lights and walked along the stream some more.

When we reached the final section of the cave the guides again had us turn off our lights, and told us that we were going to play a game: “find your way to the exit in the dark.” I thought that they were joking, but it turned out that they weren’t. I imagine that the cave was pretty much a straight shot from that point, but it was still pretty awesome to paddle along in the dark, bumping into the walls and random other people, and generally not knowing what was ahead or behind.

After a few minutes, we started to see a faint light up ahead. As we drew closer, we saw that it was the lower mouth of the cave. I’m not sure that I can adequately describe the way that the end of the cave looked as we paddled towards it. The mouth was jagged and curved around slightly to the left, hiding what was just around the bend. We could see a little grotto with a shallow pool, the water lapping at limestone boulders. Whether it was my darkness-accustomed eyes or some trick of the light filtering through the trees above, the lighting in the grotto seemed a wan bluish-green. The light reflected off of the black water, adding to the eerie effect. I couldn’t help but think, as I drew slowly closer, of Gollum sitting on a rock, bathed in pale light and purring quietly to himself over some bit of pale, eyeless fish.

We emerged into the fading light of late afternoon in a forest. We must have looked a very peculiar sight: twelve wet, cold, and blinking people in wetsuits carrying inner-tubes through a forest. We didn’t care, though. We were all grinning ear to ear. We’d made it.

The walk back was much shorter than I’d imagined it would be. Although we’d been in the cave for at least and hour and a half, the total length of the cave was probably less than two or three hundred meters, as the crow flies. We emerged from the forest, walked across a parking lot, and were back at the inner-tube collection area where we started.

We dropped off our tubes, hopped in the bus, and rode the quick way back to the raft company headquarters where we stripped out of our cold wetsuits and ran in to the changing rooms for a hot shower. Although the wetsuit kept my core temperature pretty comfortable throughout the trip, my hands were cold all the way through, and the hot water felt cold and tingly.

Back in street clothes, we headed up and had some bagels and hot tomato soup (compliments of the raft company). I thought the soup was a really nice touch, and made for a nice end to the trip. We looked at the trip photos on the monitor, but there weren’t really any that we were willing to pay for, so we headed out to the van and in to town. We hadn’t gotten a place to stay yet, but had scoped out a holiday park on our way in to town. We dropped by and got one of the last couple spots. I’m not sure what we would have done had they been all full up. We probably would have just hunted around until we found somewhere else, I suppose. Traveling in the shoulder season is really nice, and Dore and I have found ourselves getting less and less worried about reserving things as we’ve gone along. There’s just been no need; everything has had spots available.

Spot secured, we settled in for the night and hung out in the van. I managed to get a good connection to the holiday park’s wireless Internet, so I uploaded a few photos and blog entries, and wrote some more. We hadn’t eaten dinner, but we’d had a large lunch and some soup, and weren’t all that hungry. We were mostly just tired. After a while we did get a bit peckish, so we split a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and had a couple glasses of wine (fancy, I know) then turned in for the night.

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