I leave Rotorua at an absolutely indecent time to take the bus which take me to Waitomo, a small rural village located west side in the center of the North Island. The place is known for its many very old Oligocene caves. In Maori, “wai” means “water” and “tomo” can be translated as “sinkhole”. Waitomo is just two hours from Rotorua. So relatively close. But the bus makes an infinite number of detours and even goes up to the East Coast to pick up people! Instead of taking two hours, it takes me seven to reach Waitomo! Hell. The bus finally drops me off at the village i-site (tourist office) and it is in the rain that I reach my hotel, the Waitomo Caves Hotel where I booked for two nights. It is a historic building, existing since 1908, which is even said to be haunted! The building is superb, it is the only example of Victorian architecture in New Zealand.
I put down my things and then go for a walk in the hamlet to find food. No mini-market, only three restaurants / cafes at exorbitant prices. I fear that these two days at Waitomo will cost a lot. The rain is getting stronger and flatten my idea of hiking along the Waitomo Walkay, three hour ride through the bush, the limestone landscapes and the meadows. It is winter in New Zealand and it is raining. It’s like that. Instead I take the Opapaka Pa Walk, a short walk to see the remains of a “pa” (ancient fortified Maori village of the Ngati Hia tribe dating from the end of the 18th century). I climb through the bush surrounded by beautiful and lush vegetation, a mixture of leafy trees, giant ferns and conifers. It is already almost dark but it’s barely 3:00p.m. At the top, the rain stops to make way for magnificent rays of sun crossing the clouds. The vision of the rays on the green of the wavy meadows and the mist in the distance is absolutely magnificent. I admire the rest of the “pa” (defense structures (trenches) and pits for storing Kumara (sweet potato) and the fantastic view of the region then I go back to the hotel.
Having my own bedroom and bathroom makes me really happy. But it is a really cold and the tiny heater is not enough to heat the room with walls four meters high. The next day after surviving the cold, I wake up early to go see the Glowworm Cave next to the hotel. Waitomo’s fame comes from its tours and activities in some of the most beautiful caves in the region. The most famous are the Glowworm Caves, the Ruakuri Cave and the Aranui Cave, all renowned for their population of glow worms and the vision of superb stalactites and stalagmites. A guided tour takes me and a couple of Kiwis on a journey through the depths.
Upper level, Catacombs, passage in the Tomo (vertical well of sixteen meters made of limestone), arrival in the Banquet Room where it is possible to see the traces of the first explorers (trace of smoke on the ceiling) then we bypass the Pipe Organ , a superb rock formation. Impressive stalagtics and stalagmites surround us on all sides. We arrive in the last level, where the Cathedral is located. A very large space about eighteen meters high with very good acoustics is revealed. Our guide hums a nice song. Concerts are regularly held in the cave! Next comes the highlight of the show, the observation of glow worms. The guide lights up a portion of the cave ceiling above the underground river below and we see “wires” appear hanging from the ceiling. There are lots of them and it is very impressive. Glowworms are bioluminescent in order to attract insects, which they capture using sticky filaments which they hang from the ceiling of caves. They can hear vibrations in the air and therefore emit more light when they perceive the vibrations of an insect in the vicinity.
But the most interesting is yet to come since we descend on the river below where the guide takes us by boat in the most complete darkness for a small ride on the river. We then see the ceiling appear filled with blue shards. They look like stars or the galaxy! It is absolutely fantastic. We spend a moment in the dark and complete silence watching the grand apparition. At one point the guide stamps very hard on the boat and we see the blue flash triple in intensity! The worms sensed the vibration of the sound and naturally thought it to be an insect nearby. Alas, the visit is already coming to an end and we land in the open air. I find it hard to extricate myself from the depths fascinated by the vision of blue worms.
I wander a little in the souvenir shop of the cave looking for a postcard with the image of worms (photos are prohibited during the visit so as not to disturb glow worms). Then I go to the i-site where I wait for a shuttle supposed to pick me up between 10:30am and 11:00am to bring me to the “main dish of the day”: The Black Abyss adventure! I booked with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, five hours of adventure, adrenaline and exploration in the Ruakuri cave. As I wait, the idea of spending five hours in the dark and in the water is starting to cause me serious anxiety.
The shuttle is late and a young woman finally appears taking me at full speed to the premises of The Legendary Company just down the road. I could have easily walked… I find the rest of my group putting on their wetsuit. Meeting with Tim, one of the two guides, a young Kiwi of the same age as me who tells me not to hesitate to tell him if I don’t understand something in English. Putting on the wetsuit and shoes is not a pleasure, they are wet and cold but once in you get used to it. Karen, the other guide, (also Kiwi, in her thirties) gives us the rest of our equipment: harness, clips and hook. Group photos with the whole team and we leave by shuttle to join the cave where our adventure will take place.
It is again in the rain that we land fifteen minutes later. Small training session to familiarize ourself with our equipment and to learn how to descend and then off we go! It all reminds me of my climbing sessions a decade ago. We descend one by one into a well of 35m abseiling vertically to reach the cave. I pass the penultimate and it is greatly anxious and a little shivering because of the cold that I join Tim on the platform above the hole. Oh my, this is really deep! Tim checks my gear, hangs on the rope, takes my portrait and off I go for a vertical descent into the dark depths. The first four meters are relatively easy. Then the hole turns into a hose just fifty centimeters large! I compress myself in there while tightening with all my strength to the rope. I do not want to let go and end up crushing 30m below! Pass this difficult passage the hole widens again. It is all dark and I can no longer make out the walls. I continue to descend, tightening the rope with all I have. The voice of Karen who ensures the descent is heard a few meters below and I finally dismount. I tightened the rope so hard that I scratched the skin of my thumb. I am bleeding a little. I chat a little bit with Karen and join the rest of the group a few meters down, to wait for the last person to arrive. This one arrived, Tim joins us in a descent of four seconds exactly! Impressive. he looks like a monkey. In complete darkness, he then tells us the history of the cave and its legends.
According to a Maori legend, Ruakuri Cave (“rua” meaning “den”, and “kuri”, “dog”) was discovered 400-500 years ago by a young Maori then on the hunt. During his expedition he came across a group of wild dogs having made their den in the entrance of the cave. The Maori later used the main entrance to the cave as a burial place, therefore sacred and protected. The souls of the dead Maori are said to be always present in the cave and to watch over us. So be respectful of the place. It is possible to visit Ruakuri Cave as a guided tour but our adventure takes place in a different part of the cave. We then plunge into the abyss. A few meters below a zipline (or “flying fox” in Kiwi) sinking into the darkness awaits us. Tim clings to the rope and throws me into the unknown. Four seconds of terror and total excitement! In complete darkness, I can see absolutely nothing of the space I am crossing, nor of the stopping point. I can only hang on to the rope that scrolls above. Suffice to say that it is very impressive. My heart protested. Fortunately the crossing and the arrival are easy and Karen picks me up downstairs. I just dismounted that I want to start again. Snack break overlooking the underground river with hot chocolate and large cereal and sugar bars that look like lembas (the elven bread from the Lord of the Rings).
We remove our climbing gear to equip ourselves with big black buoys. Next step: jump into the river below (3-4m high jump). I take a deep breath and start. How cold! Trembling I join the rest of the group and we leave, floating on our buoys, to discover the river. We tow each other with a rope and in complete darkness, we see an infinity of blue stars appear. The cave is filled with glow worms! Karen takes us to see sticky threads of glow worms and provides us with explanations on the phenomenon (the same ones that I already had a few hours earlier). Then we set off in the other direction hooked by our feet, while being pulled by Karen. In complete darkness and silence, streaking across the water and lit up by the glares of the worms, the stroll seems somewhat unreal.
We meet with Tim who collects our buoys and set off to explore the rest of the cave by walking in the underground river. The ground is filled with rocky asperities making walking difficult and some areas are so deep that you have to swim. All my anxiety is gone and I feel very happy to be there. But I am very cold and I really want to pee. A small slide head first then Karen and Tim that seem to have heard my thoughts, offer a “comfort” break. In complete darkness, with water to the top of my thighs, I find it difficult to undo my jumpsuit for a quick pee. This natural need fulfilled I feel much better and my feeling of cold disappears! In fact, as our guides explain, contact with water and adrenaline creates the urge to pee. And holding back results in using a large amount of energy, generating a feeling of cold.
We continue to wander through the caves, skirting the river and weaving our way through tiny hoses. Second welcome snack break, this time with hot fruit juice (curious but not bad) and half a plate of milk chocolate per person! It is a pleasure. The ride continues without realizing the hours that pass, regularly lit by the bluish light of glow worms. But the end of our journey is approaching. Tim offers us two choices: the quiet path to the exit to watch the glow worms or the difficult path with two waterfalls climbing. Of course everyone chose the difficult path. Climbing the first waterfall is not an easy task! It is even a bit risky since we don’t have our climbing gear anymore. In the event of a mistake, it is a free fall. Located in a small hose, the sound of the waterfall is deafening. Karen shows me the catches at the start of the ascent, then Tim takes care of the rest and also ensure safety in the event of a fall or skid. I hoist myself up following the signs, my feet in the waterfall, my hands clinging to slippery grips. Big push of the knee to pass 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 by following a small hose I finally come out in the open air in the middle of a magnificent forest.
I am dazzled by the light of day after four hours of expedition to the caves. I would have liked to continued the adventure a little longer. We cross the forest to return to our starting point and I feel the tiredness falling on me. The shuttle takes us back to the premises where a good hot shower as well as bagels and tomato soup await us! Perfect. The photos taken by Tim and Karen throughout the adventure are projected on a screen. $30 to buy a 2giga usb stick containing the eighty photos, it is a little expensive. Fortunately a solution is found with the sharing of the price between the whole group. I chat a bit with Tim and Karen. In winter they make one expedition per day but in summer it goes up to two per day. It must be damn tiring! Thank you for their kindness, availability and support! They made the experience unforgettable.
I leave towards Waitomo and my hotel about twenty minutes on foot. The sky is overcast but some rays of sunshine come through. I feel perfectly fine and peaceful. I am happy I did the Black Abyss Tour! To say that a few hours ago, I was wondering if I had not made a mistake when booking this activity. And the only thought I have in mind right now is to do it again as soon as possible! While walking on the way back, I tell myself that if I have the possibility I will come back in spring to test the other adventures proposed by The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company!
Back at Waitomo, I take a short walk to see the viewpoint over the village. It is already 5.30p.m. and the sun is setting. With a fading light, I climb the small hill in front of the hotel where the point of view is located. The view is very beautiful. The undulating hills clad in meadows and lush forests, the few houses of Waitomo, the superb white building of the hotel, the mist in the valleys in the distance … In the daylight that goes out, I have the impression of feeling the soul and the beauty of the country vibrating before my eyes.