Around the World 1997 Travel Diaries. Part 16, the best day ever! Black Water Rafting in Waitomo, New Zealand.


15 December 1997, Juno Backpackers, Waitomo, New Zealand:
What a day and what a birthday! We’ve been going full tilt from 9.45 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I really mean full tilt! We’ve done both blackwater rafting 1 and 2. Started with number 1, we were equipped with wetsuits, socks, boots and helmets with torches before a 10-minute drive to Waitomo Caves.

The crew!

Picked up an inflatable inner tube each and practiced on throwing ourselves into the water backs first with the tubes under our bums – great fun! Then we went for a short walk to the cave entrance. Got a bit sceptical upon seeing the tiny opening and how dark and narrow it was, and thought I’d feel claustrophobic, but luckily, I didn’t. We walked a bit, then floated on the tubes and jumped around in the caves. Nice formations of stalagmites and stalactites and beautiful glow worms with an almost bluish shine up close in the darkness, while they looked like white stars from afar. Everyone turned off their torches and we were floating in “eel”, i.e. everyone attached their legs to the tube in front of them, while holding the legs of the person behind, all the while we were floating down stream and all we could hear was the water dripple from the cave walls and the dump sounds from the tubes in the water, other than that it was completely silent, and we were just lying there watching the glow worms in the cave ceiling – magical. We we’re in the water for about an hour, not so long, but long enough to get really cold, especially on our hands which we used to paddle, so got all numb in the end, so the warm soup and bread which we got in the café afterwards hit the spot in more than one way!

Ørjan thought it was so fun that he wanted to go one more time. He told them he worked for Kilroy and got a good deal; two for the price of one at NZD 63 per person for the second tour, and 59 for the first one. And since it was my birthday Ørjan paid for both as a birthday present – that was so nice of him! So, at 2.30 p.m. we went for it again after about an hour’s rest, and this was a completely different tour. Got the same gear as before, but in addition we had climbing gear and safety equipment. The first thing we did was to abseil down about 35 metres into a very steep and narrow cave. We’d practiced outside on the field, but it felt quite different hanging in loose air trying to abseil down to the bottom. Started a bit too fast and my right hand almost got caught in the equipment but managed to stop by squeezing with my left hand – oops! Didn’t feel very comfortable on my way downwards, only glimpsed two torches far below. Had a burning sensation in my right hand where the rope got caught, so quite painful. Got to the bottom somehow and was happy to put my feet on the ground. Even happier when the guide Andrew told us there would be no more abseiling. Waited for the other eight and two guides to get down, then wandered into the caves. Got to a very steep drop where we had to tie ourselves to a line and fasten the safety gear, one of the guides was showing us how to move on, when he suddenly slipped and fell, or at least that’s what we thought, but it was all part of the tour of course, but we got really scared. Then we were pushed hanging onto the line in full speed over a 10-metre drop, all the torches were switched off to make it even more exciting. When we reached the end of the line, we were served hot tea and a big sandwich – tasty, because I was quite cold again even though we hadn’t been into the water yet. That’s where we were headed next though, the tubes were waiting for us in the water, so we had to jump from a cliff, went under when I hit the water, so got even colder. We were swimming, floating and wading before forming another “train” floating in the dark, watching glow worms. Left the tubes where we started and continued in the water by foot. Very slippery with lots of rocks in the water and on the walls so we had to be careful. Had to steady myself on the sharp cave walls a few times, so my hands are quite sore, not to talk about the way my nails look. Some places the water was ancle deep, in some places it reached our shoulders and some places we had to swim. Had another stop and were served hot chocolate and a hot orange lemonade, everyone started getting really cold now although the guides claimed the water was warm – around 12-14 degrees Celsius, compared to how cold it is during winter. After a while we got into the same area, we had been on the first tour, but didn’t take the same, easy way out of course. This time we climbed a waterfall, a few metres up a steep wall with sharp rocks, never thought I’d dare or manage doing that. But with the help of our eminent guides, it went really well, and after climbing a couple more waterfalls we were out in the daylight again. Suddenly it felt warm! Were served hot soup with bread again, so at least we’ve had enough to eat. We also got some ice cream on our way to the caves. Went back here and had a shower and am now lying in bed feeling exhausted. Will remember this birthday for a very long time – it’s been an exciting day.

Feeding the wildlife

Didn’t do much yesterday, or actually we did after conferring a bit with Ørjan. Left Taupo at 9.30 a.m. after a free breakfast at the hostel. Just reached a thermal park at 10.15 in time to see a hot spring erupt into a high, warm ray of water – exciting to see how it the hot water started to ripple, then bubble and eventually explode. Not too excited about the smell though. The sulphur in the hot springs smells like a thousand rotten eggs, and I don’t want to go swimming in any of the springs. Went on to a larger area where we paid a NZD 7.50 admission fee, and it really was worth the money. Walked around and saw all this activity in the crust, craters rippling with boiling water, boiling clay, boiling lake with beautiful colours of green, yellow, orange and red with an area looking like a big boiling beach – fascinating, but again – the smell! Went on to Rotorua where we had a half hour stop, glad we decided not to spend the night there. Got to Waitomo around 3 p.m. We’re staying at a really cosy place with a big kitchen and living room with TV, nice and quiet, a nice outdoor area surrounded by grazing horses, calves, boars and goats, rural, green and lush. We just rested in our room, watched telly and read some magazines last night.

Birthday girl in her birthday wetsuit!

Tanja’s birthday! It is a long time since I have been this excited about anything, and nervous! I have looked forward to this for a long time. We started our adventure by donning wetsuits with purple tights and white gumboots. We got helmets with lights attached to them. There were 12 people including us. We drove with a minibus to the cave entrance. Here we got to choose an inflated inner tire tube and we got to try and jump backward into a small creek. The entrance to the cave was tight and after a while of climbing and crawling we did a new backwards jump with the inflated tube held firmly to our bottoms into a large underground lake. Inside the cave it was pitch black darkness and we floated down a subterranean river. We all held on to each other and formed a long chain of rubberized humans. The most amazing thing happened when we all switched off our headlamps and we were plunged into total darkness. At first, I thought we say daylight but when we came closer it was millions of glow worms hanging from the roof of the cave! It was like floating in space and the glow worms above were the stars, it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. All was quiet, it was like all of us held our breaths just to savour the moment, it was otherworldly! At this point we were around 65 metres beneath the surface and the water was around 13 degrees, so my hands started to get a bit cold and also my feet. We walked a bit more and did another 5 metres backwards jump into a small pool. After climbing upwards, we ended up in daylight in the same creek where we had started a few hours earlier. Back at camp we got hot soup and bagels for lunch. We both thought that this experience was one of the best things we had ever done, so I decided to see if I could get a discount if we wanted to go with the advanced afternoon tour. Incredibly we got half price on that tour! Amazing! We had a 1-hour break before it was time to don the wetsuit and cave exploring attire. We also got harnesses for rappelling and an extra battery for our headlamp, this trip was a full 3 hours underground. We drove up to almost the same spot as earlier only a bit further up the hill. There was a brief introduction to rappelling.

Next step was to rappel down into a small hole in the ground, did not look that spectacular but when I exited the hole on the underside, I was suddenly 35 metres above the ground! It was a huge dome like cave, and I could see my fellow cavers like small ants below me. Holy crap Batman! We navigated small hallways before we got hooked onto zip lines, told to turn off our headlamps, and we were launched into darkness for a few glorious and angst-ridden seconds. We got some hot tea at the bottom of the cave system, and we got our own rubber ring again to jump into a pool from 4 metres. We floated into a large cave and switched off our headlamps again. And I was an instant interstellar traveller, just as awesome as the first time. We walked in cold water, and we swam in cold water. We went through a passage called the “rebirth” channel, and it was claustrophobically tight! At the end of the trek it got pretty hairy. A couple of passages were so narrow that when I laid on my back, my nose touched the ceiling of the passage. I had to crawl backwards with my nose in the rock, and I had to muster every one of my calm nerves not to freak out! I entered a small room where a waterfall came cascading into the middle of the room. We climbed that waterfall and 3 more to get to the surface. My hands and feet were numb, and I had sores under my arms from the wetsuit, but all that was worth one of the most epic days ever! It was challenging and I am proud we both made it. Back to camp for some well-earned soup and bagels again. This is something I will recommend to anyone going to New Zealand!

This video gives an impression of the thrills of our last adventure the Abyss Tour!

There is a reason that this day got such a big entry from the both of us, it is still one of the most exciting things we have ever done. Thinking back on it now, I am not sure we would have dared this adventure today, but we are so glad we did it then. The memories are still so vivid! Should you be in the area, please go to Waitomo and have the experience of a lifetime!

Ørjan and Tanja 2022
Categories:Around The World 1997, Travel

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