Adventure in Waitomo Caves

Map of New Zealand - Outline by FreeVectorMaps.comI leave Rotorua at an absolutely indecent hour to take the bus that will drive me to Waitomo, a small rural village in the western part of the North Island. The place is known for its many and ancient caves dating from the Oligocene. In Maori, “wai” means “water” and “tomo” can mean “sinkhole”.

Waitomo is located at two hours from Rotorua. So relatively close. Except that the bus makes a number of endless detours and even goes back on the east coast to take people! Instead of 2 hours, it takes 7a hours to arrive in Waitomo! Damn. The bus drops me, finally, at the i-site of the village and it is under the rain that I arrive at my hotel. For two nights I will sleep in a single room at the Waitomo Caves Hotel! This is a historic building, existing since 1908, which is suppose to be haunted! The building is beautiful and this is the only example of Victorian architecture in New Zealand.

The very old Waitomo Hotel - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldI drop my lugagges and go for a tour of the village to find food. No supermarket, only three restaurants / cafes at indecent prices. Oh dear, I feel that these two days in Waitomo will cost me a lot of money.

I had planned to go walk the Waitomo Walkay, 3 hours walk through the bush, limestone landscapes and meadows but rain falls more and more and stronger. Alright. It’s winter, it’s New Zealand, no need to be upset. I decided then to go for the one hour walk, the Opapaka Pa Walk, to see the remains of a “pa” (old Maori fortified village of the Ngati Hia tribe dating from the late 18th century).

I climb through the bush, surrounded by a beautiful lush vegetation, mix of leafy trees, giant ferns and conifers. It is already almost night but it’s only 3pm ! 30min later here I am arriving to the summit, where the rain stops, giving way to beautiful sun rays through the clouds. The vision of the sun on the green of the rolling meadows and the mist in the distance is absolutely beautiful. I admire the rest of the “pa” (defense structures (trenches) and pits for storage of Kumara (sweet potato)) and the fantastic views of the area and I go back to the hotel. Having my own room and bathroom really makes me happy. But it is freezing cold in the room and the tiny heater is not enough to warm the room with its walls of 4m high.Rolling hills - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire Blumenfeld

Meeting with glowworms

The next day, waking up early to see the Glowworm Cave, 5min from the hotel. The fame of Waitomo comes from his tours and activities in some of the most beautiful caves in the region. The most famous are the Glowworm Caves, the Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave, all renowned for their population of glowworms and stunning stalactites and stalagmites. A guided tour takes us, me and a couple of Kiwis on a journey through the depths.

Higher level, Catacombs, passing through the Tomo (vertical shaft of 16m made of limestone), arriving in the Banquet Chamber where you can see traces of the first explorers (trace of smoke on the ceiling), we go round the Pipe Organ, a beautiful rock formation. Beautiful formations, stalagmites and stalagtiques, surrounding us from all sides.

The Glowworms cave - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldWe arrive in the last level, where the Cathedral is located. A very large space of approximately 18m high with very good acoustic. Our guide sings us a nice song. Concerts are held regularly in the cave! Then comes the highlight of the show : the glowworms. (The photos are prohibited, unfortunately I can not share the beauty of the phenomenon with you). The guide illuminates a portion of the floor of the cave above the underground river below us and we see appear “filaments” hanging from the ceiling. There are a lot and it is very impressive. The glowworms are bioluminescent to attract insects, which they catch by sticky filaments produced by the worms and hanging on the ceiling. The glowworms are able to hear the vibrations in the air and thus begin to emit more light when they perceive the vibrations of insects around.

But more interesting is yet to come as we go down to the river below where the guide takes us on a boat in complete darkness for a stroll on the river. We then see appear a ceiling filled with blue glows, it’s look like stars or like the galaxy! It’s absolutely fantastic. We spend a while in the dark and complete silence to observe the magnificent appearance. At one point the guide hits his foot very strongly on the boat and we see the blue glow triple intensity! Worms have felt the vibration of the sound and they naturally thought it was an insect nearby. Alas the visit is already coming to an end and we drop anchor in the outside. A little short for a tour (just 45mins) but intense.

The Glowworms cave - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire Blumenfeld

Underground adventure

I walk a little in the souvenir shop of the cave and then go to the i-site where I expect a shuttle bus supposed to pick me between 10.30 and 11am to take me to the “main dish of the day”: The Black Abyss adventure! In fact, I booked with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, a 5 hours adventure, of adrenaline and exploration in the Ruakuri Cave. I admit hat the idea of spending 5 hours in the dark, in a cold combination starts to make me really anxious.

The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire Blumenfeld

The shuttle bus finally arrived at 11.05! I was getting to be a little worried because the activity is supposed to start at 11am. But no, everything is fine. The woman from the shuttle dropped me 7min further to the local of The Legendary where I find the rest of my group putting on their combination. Meeting with Tim, one of the two guides, a young Kiwi the same age as me, who told me to not hesitate to tell him if I do not understand something in English. Putting on the suit and shoes is not the best part, these being wet and cold but once inside, it’s ok.

Karen, the other guide (also a Kiwi, in her 30’s) gives us the rest of our equipment: harness, carabiner and clips. Group photos with the whole team and we leave on a bus to join the cave where our adventure will unfold.

The team - Black Abyss Tour - Waitomo Caves - New ZealandIt’s again under the rain that we land fifteen minutes later. Small training session to become familiar with our equipment and to learn to abseiling and then go! All this reminds me of my climbing sessions about ten years ago.

We go down one by one into a shaft of 35m, abseiling vertically to reach the cave. I’m the penultimate and it ‘s really anxious and slightly shivering because of the cold that I join Tim on the platform above the hole. Oh man this is really deep !! Tim checked my equipment, cling the rope, takes my picture and here I am not reassured going for a vertical descent.

On my way for abseiling the 35 metre tomo - Black Abyss Tour - Waitomo Caves - New ZealandThe first four meters are relatively easy. Then the shaft turns into a hose of only 50 cm thick !!! I pressed myself in while squeezing the my rope with all my strength. I not want to release the string and finish crush 30m below! After this difficult passage, the hole widens again. It is totally dark and I no longer distinguish the borders of the hole. I continue to go down, squeezing my rope. Daddy, are we there yet ? Fortunately the voice of Karen a few meters below reached me and I finally put ashore. I squeezed so hard the rope that I hurt the skin from the inside of my thumb! I bleed a little. Looking back I told myself that I should have taken that in a more relaxing way to be able to enjoy the descent more! Especially because there was not much risk.

I talk a bit with Karen then I joined the rest of the group a few meters down to await the arrival of the last person. This done, Tim joined us in a downhill of 4sec chrono !! Impressive. Looks like a monkey. In complete darkness, he then tells us the story of the cave and its legends.

According to Maori legend, Ruakuri Cave (“rua” means “den” and “kuri”, “dog”) was discovered 400-500 years ago by a young Maori while hunting. During his expedition he came across a group of wild dogs that have made their lair in the cave entrance. Maori have also used the main entrance of the cave as a burial place, so it’s sacred and protected. The soul of the dead Maori are still here in the cave and watch over us. It is therefore necessary to be respectful of the place. You can visit Ruakuri Cave with a guided tour but our adventure takes place in a different portion of the cave.

Then we plunge into the abyss. A few meters down a zip line (or “flying fox” in Kiwi) sinking into the darkness is waiting for us. Oh my God ! Tim cling me to the rope and throw me into the unknown. Four seconds of terror and total excitement! In complete darkness, there is absolutely no benchmark and the end point is invisible. We can only hold on to the rope scrolling above. Enough to say that it’s very impressive. My heart protested a bit. Fortunately the journey and arrival are reached without troubles and Karen gets me down. Just landed, I want to start again. Snack break over the underground river with hot chocolate and large cereal and sugar bars that resemble lembas (elven bread of Lord of the Rings).

In the cave - Black Abyss Tour - Waitomo Caves - New ZealandWe remove our climbing gear to equip us with large black buoys. Next step: jump into the river below (3-4m down). I took a big breath and launches me. My God !!! It is cold !! Flickering I join the rest of the group and we go, floating and sitting on our buoys to explore the river. Advancing with the aid of a rope and in complete darkness, we can see an infinity of blue stars. The cave is filled with glowworms! Karen takes us see the filaments and give information (the same that I have already listen a few hours earlier). Then we go back the other way in line hung by our feet while we are pull by Karen. Still in the dark and complete silence, spinning on the water and lit by the glow of worms, the ride is quite unreal.

We reach Tim that recovers our buoys and then go on foot to discover the cave while walking in the underground river. The floor is filled with rocky protrusions making walking difficult and some areas are so deep we need to swim. All my anxiety disappeared and I feel very happy to be here. But I’m very cold and my a huge desire to pee. Small slide head first and then, Karen and Tim seems to have heard my thoughts suggest a “comfort” break. In complete darkness, water up to the top of my thighs, I undid with difficulty my combination for a quick pee. This natural need accomplished I feel much better and my feeling of cold disappears !! Indeed as explained by our guides, the presence of water and adrenaline generate the urge to pee. And the fact to retain leads the body to use of a large amount of energy, generating a feeling of cold.

We continue to walk through the caves, along the river, sneaking us into tiny holes. Second snack break with pleasure, with this time, warm juice !! (Curious but not bad) and half a bar of milk chocolate per person !! It’s nice. The walk continues regularly illuminated by the bluish light of glowworms.

However we arrive towards the end of our journey. Tim then offered us two choices: the quiet way out to watch the glowworms or the hard way climbing two waterfalls. Of course everyone chose the difficult path. The ascent of the first cascade is not easy! It’s a bit risky, since we no longer have our climbing equipment. If slippage, it’s free fall. Located in a narrow hole, the sound of the waterfall is deafening. Karen tells me the climbing jacks for the beginning and Tim provides the following to assure you if you fall or slip. I climbed, following directions, feet in the waterfall, hands clinging to slippery jacks. Big knee move to spend the last meter of the waterfall at the cry of “She goes away! ” of Tim. The passage of the second waterfall is much easier and along a small hose I finally arrive to the outside in the middle of a beautiful forest.

Seeing the light again - Black Abyss Tour - Waitomo Caves - New ZealandIt’s nice to see daylight after 4h shipping in the caves, but I would have continued the adventure a little longer! 15min walk through the forest to return to our starting point, where the fatigue caught me. The shuttle bus brings us to the local where a hot shower, bagels and tomato soup are waiting for us! Perfect. The photos taken by Tim and Karen throughout the adventure are projected on a screen. 30$ to buy a 2giga usb key containing eighty photos, it’s still expensive. Fortunately we share the price between the whole group and individually it comes much cheaper.

I talk a bit with Tim and Karen. In winter they make one adventure per day but in summer it goes up to two a day !! It must be pretty tiring! Thank you for their kindness, availability and guidance! They made the experience unforgettable.

The team at the end - Black Abyss Tour - Waitomo Caves - New ZealandI go back to my hotel in Waitomo, twenty minutes on foot. The sky is overcast but some rays of sun manage to cross. I feel perfectly well and soothed. I’m glad I did the Black Abyss Tour! To say that a few hours ago, I wondered if I had not made a mistake by booking this activity. And the only thought I have in mind now is to do that again as soon as possible !! Walking on the way back, I think I will probably come back here in Spring to do the other adventures offered by The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company!

Back in Waitomo, I do a little walk to see the view. It is already 5:30pm and the sun is going to bed. In dim light, I climb the small hill in front of the hotel where the lookout is. The view is beautiful. The rolling hills clad with meadows and lush forests, the few houses of Waitomo, the beautiful white building of the hotel, the fog in the valleys in the distance … In the daylight that goes out, I almost feel vibrate the soul and the beauty of the country before my eyes.

The village - Waitomo Caves - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldThese two days in Waitomo  were short, rainy but intense and successful! I am very happy for coming here and I have only one desire: to do another adventure in the caves!

Note: all pictures published in this article are my creations (at the exception of the photos of the Black Abyss Adventure). They are not royalty free. Thank you not to use them without permission.