Splash Mountain Meets The Mines of Moria

Several years ago, I was reading a travel story on New Zealand (pre-Lord of the Rings) focusing on the country’s penchant for inventing creatively sporty ways to die. Bungy-jumping, skyjumping, zorbing (throwing yourself off a hilltop in a large inflatable ball) and dam-dumping (kayaking over a dam) are just a few of the notions Kiwis have come up with.

The article mentioned the then-recent innovation of inner-tubing through the utter darkness of an underground river.

At the time I read about it, my first thought was: those people are crazy.

Second thought: I have got to do that.

So, while I refrained from jumping off the SkyTower in Auckland or plunging headfirst off the bungy platform in Taupo, I blew my entire extreme sports budget for this trip at Waitomo Caves.

Worth every penny.

Plus, I had a coupon.

I had several coupons, to be exact, for the different companies operating at Waitomo. After weighing my many options, I used one coupon for a non-extreme walking combo tour with the largest company of the two most famous caves, the Gloworm and Ruakuri. Both tours were decent and interesting, but I’ll post about them when I get around to uploading some photos I took.

Right now I want to talk about the other tour I took, with CaveWorld, one of the smaller, family-run companies. It was amazing. There were just three of us on the tour, me and a cool Australian couple, Dave and Rainy (hope I’m spelling that right… she did say her name was “Rainy like the weather.”). Rob, our guide, had a calm, laid-back confidence that reminded me a lot of the Special Forces guys I trained with many years ago… just the personality you want to lead you into the abyss.

After being issued our wetsuits, booties, “gum boots” (aka Wellies, rubbers or galoshes), helmets and inner tubes, we hiked a bit up and over a few fields and then down into a steep ravine. I wound up in the lead and when Rob said “just head for the opening on the left” I took one look at the teeny tiny hole in the rock and though “no, really… where’s the entrance?”

That was it.

We ducked and slinked and sat just inside the cave for a while letting our eyes adjust. Rob would tell us when to turn the headlamps on or off, but quite frankly the lights weren’t particularly bright, so making our way deeper into the cave was as much tactile as it was visual.

Full disclosure: I totally expected to freak out at the combination of darkness, tight spaces and black water. I spent most of yesterday evening fretting about how embarassing my panic attack was going to be. But when I checked into the campground and walked into the lounge, the gaggle of twentysomethings also staying there were watching (no lie) “The Fellowship of the Ring” on tv. That calmed me down, and this morning, to my surprise, I didn’t have a moment of cold sweat/galloping heart/queasy lack of intestinal fortitude.

I had a blast.

I think it was Rob’s demeanor, and the fact that I was in a small group (it’s usually as many as 18 people but I went on a weekday morning in winter) and that Dave and Rainy and I got along and spent a lot of time laughing.

After working our way fairly well into the cave, Rob made us turn off our headlamps and feel our way forward in knee-deep water that was chest-deep after about 100 meters. Even though I was deep underground in darkness and murky water (did I mention there are very large eels in the cave? Really… and the giant cave weta, like crickets on steroids) I wasn’t afraid. I was too mesmerized by the thousands of faint blue lights on the ceiling above (gloworms), by the feel of the rough rock of the wall as I moved forward, by the giant chasm that I felt had opened between the cave and the world of daylight and traffic and cell phones and email.

I had assumed the experience would scare the crap out of me, but instead I found it beautiful and serene.

Then we came to the waterfall.

Rob had us stand on its edge one by one, turn our backs to it clutching our inner tube behind us, and jump off it.

Guess who got to go first?

Yeah.

It wasn’t crazyhigh or anything, and the falling wasn’t the bad part, it was landing and sinking down into the murky dark water even with the inner tube under me, my nose and eyes and ears filling with cave water.

All I could think of was amoebic dysentery and that other parasite you find in hot springs that enters through your nose when you stick your head under water and burrows into your brain.

I was glad to pop back up and breathe in a nice big lungful of air.

We floated and half-swam through the river, sometimes in a row holding onto the feet of the person behind us, sometimes each on our own, bumping up against the walls and feeling for a toehold though the water was usually too deep. Sometimes we had our headlamps on, sometimes not, instead letting Rob guide us through a long passage full of gloworms (the same color as the ones in “Pitch Black,” if you’ve seen it, but much much smaller so that looking up at them was like looking up at the night sky).

There was another waterfall, this one with a slide they’d built, which was great fun (especially since I closed my eyes and held my nose this time, reducing the risk of waterborne subterranean nasties burrowing into my brain, or so I told myself).

Eventually, after more than an hour, the river dropped to ankle-deep and then just wet mud and we had to begin the long climb up stairs and back to daylight, emerging through another crack in the rock.

Amazing. One of those experiences where you want to keep saying “amazing” and “incredible” even though you realize the words don’t do it justice.

I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even without a coupon.

Photos were taken by Rob, who toted his waterproof digital camera along, often surprising us with a sudden flash in the darkness. Oh yeah, you can tell I am digging it. Loving being more than 65 meters underground in darkness and murky, cold water in a highly unflattering wetsuit… who knew?

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