I’ve been waiting for this day for years.
Blackwater rafting is the reason I came to New Zealand and has been high on my Atlas for a long time. Now the day has finally arrived! We entered the Waitomo region, home to the world-renowned Waitomo Glow Worm Caves to begin a whole days worth of underground adventure courtesy of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.
We chose the Black Abyss, the ‘original ultimate adventure’, option packaged with a brief boat ride through the Ruakuri glow-worm caves. The Abyss included abseiling, trekking, black water rafting (tubing), and waterfall climbing–all taking place underneath the earth! The others were happily keen to partake in the day of events but first…I had to endure a detour through Hobbiton.
The Lord of the Hobbits
Ryan, and more specifically Chelsey and Mike are all about the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit fandom. I am not. I’ve never seen any of the movies but it’s a well-known fact that the movies are filmed right here in New Zealand. If I were on my own backpacking, I would have easily skipped the Hobbiton Movie Set tour that takes place in Matamata, a vicinity close to Waitomo. But since I was sharing this trip with the others, I was outnumbered and made the haul to Hobbiton so the others can indulge in their childhood fantasies while I found the time to kick back and catch up on blogging (which I have been doing a horrible job of keeping up. New Zealand is terrifically distracting). Although I wasn’t allowed access into the movie set gates, the scenery surrounding was stunning. Something straight out of a fairy tale.
Just a few hours later, the others returned to what they said was a super awesome tour. I was personally glad we got this part out of the way. Maybe if I saw the movies, I would be interested.
Let’s get to Waitomo!
Legendary Black Water Rafting in Waitomo
We spent a night in Hamilton and drove early to Waitomo the next morning, just in time for our tour at the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. Our tour guide’s name is Tyler aka Teabag (there’s a story to it) and he and his assistant got us suited in wet gear, boots, helmets equipped with torches, and our roping equipment for the day of exploration. In our group was myself, Mike, Chelsey, Ryan, and a sibling duo hailing from Spain. Tyler was glad to have such a small, exploration-eager group. As was I.
We vanned it about ten minutes uphill to a makeshift training course to prepare us for the abseiling portion of the Black Abyss. Here we learned how to properly attach and detach our hooks and the proper positioning to descend into the cave.
The last time I went abseiling was down Table Mountain, so it felt familiar to what I remembered.
One by one, each of us lowered our way down the 110 meter descent into the deepest, darkest cave I’ve been in since Semuc Champey. And just like my painful experience in South Africa, this one was just as bothersome. I touch-downed after the Spanish siblings and was instructed to turn off my head torch and wait with the others in total darkness. One by one, my amigos came down at different speeds but upon successful landings–110 meters underneath the Earths surface. Teabag thought it would be funny to pretend everyone fell down into the pits and to nab a photo of it.
The cave was cool, humid, and had a smell of dirt and black mold. Everywhere our head torch shined, a glimmer appeared along the walls. Everything was damp and silent, minus the few water droplets we could hear in offbeat melodies. We followed Teabag through a few tight nooks and crannies to the zip-lining portion of the Abyss. Ziplining is one of the most boring activities in existence of mankind unless it’s jazzed up someway. This one was interesting because we couldn’t see no more than a couple of meters in front of us, so we hadn’t a clue were the line would take us. Mike was up first and as he sped through the empty void, a huge thud shot through the cave indicating a disruptive break. What was that? Turns out it was just ol’ Teabag messing around with us. He slammed his air-filled bag against the wall just as Mike made his stop. He’s a jokester, that guy.
After we all lined down to the next portion of the Abyss, we saw that we were on a cliff that stood meters above the blackest water I have ever seen. It felt unnatural, almost sinister. I knew we would eventually be in the water via tubes but first, a quick snack and juice drink sitting upon sinister’s ledge. I’m still not entirely sure what I just ate. It was like a block of Weet-Bix soaked and dried in honey. Not sure.
Now we jump. Everyone grabbed a tube and prepared for the seven meter leap into the black. We expected Teabag to lead by example, but no.
“How deep is it?” we asked.
“You’ll see,” he responded with a grin.
Mike, who has proven to be quite the daredevil, jumped in first with his tube under him. I jumped in next. “Shit its f%*#ing cold!” The wet suit I had on protected me from a rapid shift in temperature, but my hands were naked and were now icicles. I sat in my tube paddling towards the others who have made the leap and they too were in shivers. Granted it was the winter here in New Zealand, Teabag assured us that no matter the season, the internal temperatures of the caves water were always the same. So regardless of when we would challenge the Abyss, the water would always be just as frigid.
Each of us in our tubes followed Teabag down the undisturbed watercourse into the caves voids. It would have been a pitch-black flow if it weren’t for the zillions upon zillions of tiny glow worms scattered among the ceilings. It was the closest thing to a perfect starry night I’ve seen in a while. We got to a point where we could stand and wade the water the rest of the way. Teabag began to slam his tube with a vicious grip onto the surface of the water creating a shockwave that echoed throughout the cave. He indicated that glowworms react to sound and the echos would illuminate the ceiling. I’m honestly not sure if it worked or not because those little worms were already as lit as can be. All I could concentrate on was how cold it was.
We got back into our tubes and interlocked our legs onto one another, creating a snake in the water, granted I couldn’t see who was in front or behind me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use my hands to paddle because Teabag tugged us along as he walked through the water and belted Ed Sheeran tunes to further illuminate the glowworms. He said since we were a small group and moving along in a swift pace, we had the option to take the usual easy, short way back out of the cave or the long, extreme way out. Every single one of us opted for the long, extreme way out, much to my happiness.
As we went further down the watercourse, the currents began to pick up, turning into a rushing stream filled with miniature rapids. Everything was still hidden under the gauze of the dark black but so we used our head torches to guide us through the torrents. We literally walked, ran, crawled, swam, and belly-flopped our way to a separate chamber where we began the drier part of the Abyss.
Teabag let us know that we would have to climb up a few tunnels of mud, and a couple of waterfalls to exit the caves. In between those two waterfalls are long tunnels that lead to separate chambers including a resident bitey eel that inhabits one of the chamber’s pools.
Along the way, stalagmites and stalactites dominated the first few chambers we came across before we crawled through the aforementioned tunnel of mud. It was kinda like that scene from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne crawled through that pipe full of shit.
The first waterfall was straightforward. Just shimmy up through the crevice as the water beat the heck out of you. Just don’t lose grip of the rocks or your fall is gonna hurt big time. At the top of the first waterfall, we waded through more water that led us to extremely narrow crevices to navigate through. My claustrophobia kicked in when I tried to squeeze through a hole…and so I backed right out of it and took the wider passage.
Teabag led us through tunnels and chambers galore before we hit the next waterfall which was a but more immense than the last. A tight grip and steady concentration was all it took to reach the top before we followed a wet trail that led us back to the outside world.
Everything about this cave was AMAZING!
This is the sole reason that led me to New Zealand and it did not disappoint. We got lucky with our guide Teabag because of his enthusiasm to show us as much as he could and then some. I highly, highly, highly, recommend the Black Abyss portion of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. And if you do make the greatest decision of your life, ask for Tyler. He really made the trip worth the value.
We still had the Glowworm package that we added on to our trip that would take place about an hour later. All of us regretted that decision because the experience we had with the glowworms was already great. How could it possibly get any better? We met up with about twenty other tourists (yay) at the start of another entrance to the cave where a tour guide met us. We entered a decked out chamber before we got on a small boat that our guide controlled via rope attached along the cave walls. We had to remain quiet as we gazed up at the ceiling to see the glowworms. It wasn’t as fascinating as the first, more in your face, experience. I think this picture sums up how we felt.
We wanted to leave.
All of us agreed, save for that boat, the Black Abyss was one of the most satisfying excursions we have gone on so far. It exhausted us but still we were ready to move forward. We headed south in the North Island. Where exactly?
We didn’t quite know.