YOLO: Black water rafting NZ’s Waitomo Caves
On a recent excursion to the Land of the Long White Cloud (aka New Zealand), I was given the choice between a guided tour of Waitomo’s ancient limestone caves where I would learn the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, or black water rafting where I would learn a new definition of “cold”. I would like to point out I am not the adventurous sort; the Ferris wheel is about my comfort level when the annual show rolls around. So I chose black water rafting, obviously. You only live once, right?
A dozen lucky ladies secured their place for the rafting expedition through Ruakuri Cave. We were layered up against the wind and rain when we were told by our guides, Nikki and Matt, to grab a pair of wet neoprene socks, a hessian sack-like thermal shirt, a full-body wetsuit, gumboots and a helmet – preferably one without a crack in it. Putting on the ensemble was what I imagine making sausages is like, squishing ourselves into the sopping suits. Our first pre-cave task was to walk the plank the jetty, turn around and take a leap of faith backwards into the icy river below. Our collective courage was shaky already.
It was still raining as we clambered into a dark hillside crevasse to begin the Black Labyrinth tour. Slowly, we made our way through the claustrophobic rocky entrance, eventually finding some surefootedness. About a quarter of the way in, a guide made a signal you never want to see when bracing yourself in underground rapids: “cut it, let’s bail”. We stretched, groaned and pulled our way to the surface where we were told the water was closing in on a “55” level (I think it was a volumetric measurement?), which was the cancellation point. In the dry of summer, the water level in the caves sat around 14.
Freezing, tired, sore and snacking on chocolate fish (a New Zealand delicacy), we expected to head back to base for a toasted bagel and a leisurely glow-worm tour with the others. Instead, a guide gave us the thumbs up but if we wanted to go, we had to go now. Nine of the original 12 went back in and I’m pleased and surprised to say I was one of them. We pushed through the part we had previously conquered and made our way to the first waterfall for our first backwards jump. Turns out the water level was so high we were able to tube down instead, although a few ended up outside their tubes. Many times. Lesson 2: keep your legs up when whooshing down wild, twisting, cavernous rapids.
The most terrifying part was at an opening we were supposed to simply pass beneath, where fresh water was now lapping the cave ceiling. “YOU PROMISED I WOULDN’T BE SUBMERGED!” I wanted to yell, but I think my lips were frozen shut. We lay horizontal on our tubes, holding our nose and our fears as one guide shoved us through the water-filled archway and another guide yanked our legs through the other end.
Two extra guides we put on to support the nifty nine who took on the Ruakuri Cave. Later they told us it was the highest water some of them had ever worked in. Usually, they said, the tour was fairly self guided - they’d even taken a girl in a wheelchair and a group of grannies down there! After mustering intense core strength (thank you, Pilates!) against the burly rapids, we were finally able to sit back, link arms and legs and form the “eel” we had practised back on the surface. Gliding through the vault, our guides serenaded us with Celine Dion and other classics as we caught sight of hundreds of tiny, blue glow worms in action.
The first ray of sunlight streaming in was a beautiful sight. High-fives all round! Like I said, I’m not a thrill-seeker, but our guides were fantastic - I felt completely safe and even a little adventurous with their support. Admittedly, we saw Waitomo at its harshest. But then if we hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to humble-brag about taking on the Black Labyrinth like a boss. Big ups to The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co for the single scariest, coldest, most thrilling experience of my life.
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