Black Water Rafting in Waitomo Caves, Waitomo

During my travels on the North Island of NZ I heard a lot about Waitomo and its caves. You can book tours that will take you into the caves to go Black Water Rafting. It sounded like a perfect extreme Kiwi adventure and I didn’t think it was for me.

Luke found a good deal for us to go caving on bookme.co.nz. It included a 27 metre abseil into a cave, a glow worm experience, Black Water Rafting, caving and a 20 metre climb back out of the cave.

Heights can make me feel uncomfortable (funny when you think I’d like to Sky dive), I didn’t really know what Black Water Rafting was and the whole adventure was going to last 5 hours! “What if I get scared and freeze?, What if I ruin everyone’s experience? What if I embarrass myself?” Needless to say, my face turned white.

Then I realised that my survival instinct had taken over and I was imagining the worst. I had to tell my brain to relax and take a closer look at the situation so I could make the right choice.

I had a look at some pictures of the tour and a couple of videos (enough to give me an idea of what to expect but not too much to spoil it). And it looked like fun! I even started to feel excited about the whole experience. I said “Ok, let’s do it!”.
I pushed the ‘Book it’ button and that was it, two days later I would be abseiling, rafting and climbing!

We arrived in Waitomo village the day before the adventure. It was raining heavily and it honestly didn’t look like much. There are a few tour operators, a restaurant, a cafe and a convenience store where you can buy the essentials but I recommend you fill up your car (or backpack) before getting there if you don’t want to spend too much money.

July 18th, 1.30PM. Ok it’s time to go!

We went to the office to register and meet our fellow adventurers and the six of us were soon sitting in a minibus, listening to our guide, Tom, asking us if we were excited. He got a quiet muffled reply and laughed at our nervousness.

After a 15 minute drive, we made our first stop to dress for the occasion.

Step1: Wetsuit, booties and a jacket. As I am not used to putting on a wetsuit, I found it hard work. The fabric was sticking to my legs but eventually I won the battle and celebrated my victory by bending and stretching myself to get used to the new sensation. I got out of the changing rooms and I could see everyone laughing at themselves, apparently I wasn’t the only one to struggle with this new outfit!

Step 2: Abseiling Harness. It looks like a spiderweb of straps and rope and clips. I tried to put it on the wrong way but thankfully Tom was there to guide us!

Step 3: Helmet and Wellington Boots. I’m always a bit worried when it comes to wearing hats as I have a small head (stop laughing) and a helmet needs to fit you well to protect you! But I managed to find one that I could just about tighten properly to stop it falling over my eyes.

The team is ready to roll!
The team is ready to roll!

We were all geared up and ready for the fun to start but before getting in the caves we had to practice abseiling. On flat land, Tom showed us how to guide the rope through the clips on our harness and how to control our speed while abseiling into the cave.

Me practising. Easy!
Me practising. Easy!

Ok, it looked easy but what’s going to happen when I’m hanging over a hole 27 metres from the ground suspended by a rope? I was soon going to find out!

The first to abseil was a young boy and he didn’t look very confident. I could see both the fear and excitement on his face and I was feeling the same way and I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to give it a go.

The hardest part is to trust the harness and the ropes and let yourself swing from the ledge over the hole. I bent my knees, closed my eyes, took a breath and… couldn’t let go. I had to tell myself, “It’s ok Charlie, they did it, you can do it, don’t be ridiculous”. So once again, I closed my eyes and this time, I let go. I swung back and forwards a couple of times before finding myself hanging over the abyss. I let out a sigh of relief.

I slowly started my descent, making sure I carefully controlled my speed and remembered my training.

I was going slowly and steadily and kept the same speed all the way down. I could see the side of the chasm and the plants growing through the rocks. The light changed as I was going down and I could see the sunlight reflecting against the walls that were wet from the rain. A feeling of beauty, peace and amazement filled my heart. This was an awesome new experience.

Sunlight entering the cave.
Sunlight entering the cave.

It was so great that I did what I’d told myself not to do, look down. Most of the team were already down there, waiting for me to join them. I couldn’t help but say, “Wow!” and share my enjoyment with them.

It only took me a minute to reach the ground and find myself in the cave. I unhooked myself from the rope, signalled to Tom that everything was ok and made my way to the team that was waiting the other side of a surprisingly strong stream. The water was ice cold and up to my thighs and made me gasp.

The entrance of the cave
The entrance of the cave

We took off our harnesses and swapped them for inflatable tubes before starting our walk up stream deeper into the cave. We had to switch on our helmet torches and tread carefully, doing our best not to slip over. We stayed in single file behind each other, holding on to the rocks. The water got deeper, up to my neck in some places before I could pull myself out and carefully walk from rock to rock.

We got to a point where we had to cross the river to get to a sand bank. The stream was really powerful and almost carried me away. Luckily Luke grabbed my hand and helped me to reach the bank.

It was time for a rest. We sat down on the sand and followed Tom’s advice to switch off our torches. It was then I realised that the walls and roof of the cave were covered in shining blue dots, it was like gazing at the stars. We were surrounded by glow worms.

The magic of the glow worms.
The magic of the glow worms.

We fell silent very quickly and all we could hear was the stream flowing down the cave. We stayed quiet and motionless for a few minutes.

Tom slapped his inflatable against the water creating a loud bang that echoed against the walls. Starring at the glow worms, I could slowly see their light brighten. I was in a magical place. Tom told us more about the glow worms, what they are and how they feed. Did you know that glow worms are actually maggots but they decided to call them ‘worms’ to make them more appealing to tourists? Would you pay to go in a cave full of maggots?

See that yellow thing? That's what a glow worm looks like!
See that yellow thing? That’s what a glow worm looks like!

It was time for some more action. We all got back into the water, sat on our tubes and let the current take us. We passed the place we abseiled down and entered the other side of the cave. Then Tom told us to switch off our lights! There we were, rafting in the dark, not able to see anything and trusting Tom that there wouldn’t be any waterfalls! I could feel the excitement and I finally understood what Black Water Rafting was. Everyone was shrieking and laughing. I was getting bounced against the walls and other people, and stuck in between rocks before being taken by the strength of the water again. It was so much fun!

18.07.16 Tom 3pm 033

We stopped further down stream before a small waterfall. Tom made us wait in a line and told us we were going to go one by one BACKWARDS! And I was the first one to go. Ok then! I turned around, placed the tube behind me and sat down. I was immediately caught by the stream and propelled to the waterfall. It wasn’t a big drop but steep enough for me to loose my balance and find myself doing a backwards somersault! The water was so cold! Tom grabbed my arm as I was carried away, I caught my breath but could’t stop laughing at myself and how ridiculous I must have looked! Thankfully Tom had time to take an action picture!

Flipping over going down the waterfall
My amazing backward somersault

We all got back on our tubes and floated further into the cave.

Tom stopped us at another point where we left the tubes. He got back in the water and told us, “Follow me if you feel like it” then disappeared under the water!! WHAT?! Where has he gone?! A couple of people followed him and it was soon my turn. I took a deep breath and dived under the water, making sure I was deep enough not to hurt myself on the rocks. I felt a hand grabbing me and dragging me. There I was, inside the wall!

We kept going squeezing through narrow passages. It was so tight I thought I was going to get stuck! We had to pull ourselves up and then I was going head first slithering down to the ground. There was another small opening in the rock to go through with my head completely under the water and then I was back in the cave, the right side of the walls! I’d made it!

Everyone followed and did very well. We all deserved a treat and enjoyed a hot drink and a bar of chocolate before having to walk back up stream to where the adventure started.

The sun was going down and there wasn’t much light left. The only way out of the cave was to climb up a steep and slippery 20 metre rock face! We put our harness back on and prayed to make it!

I was one of the last to climb up, by which time the sun had set and it was pitch black! All I had was my torch to light my way. I started climbing, the walls were muddy and it was hard to grasp onto them. I was singing to myself that soon I would get a hot shower and imagining myself sitting in front of a nice fire.

A daylight picture of the wall, to give you an idea.
A daylight picture of the wall, to give you an idea.

I managed to get 3 metres from the top and found myself stuck. I couldn’t see anywhere to grab on and I struggled for a few minutes before finding a way to use a wall behind me to lever myself up using my legs. That was it, I finally got there!

I did it!
I did it!

As you can see in the picture, it was pitch black but I managed to smile when I got to the top!

We were all freezing but very happy with ourselves as we walked back to the minibus. We were even happier when we got back to the changing rooms where we could have a nice hot shower!!

After our showers we went back to the office where Tom served us some hot soup. We also had the chance to have a look at the pictures from our adventure which gave everyone a good laugh.

I was happy it was the end of the trip. The whole experience had lasted for five hours and I loved every minute of it but it was time for me to warm up and have a good nights sleep!

An experience not to be missed!

The caves are waiting for you!
The caves are waiting for you!
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