Have you ever made a mistake that turned out to be awesome?
Here’s my story of one of the best mistakes I’ve made while travelling…
There’s this thing in New Zealand called black water rafting, which is essentially tubing down an underground river inside a cave. Growing up in the North Island means I’ve been aware of black water rafting at the Waitomo Caves for a long time. It’s something I always thought I MIGHT do one day… if I could get over my fear of the not being able to see what was in the pitch black water with me!
While we were planning our New Zealand honeymoon we wanted to pack in as much as possible, including a trip to Waitomo Caves. And since we were going to be there, how could we pass up one of the best adventure activities you can possibly do in the North Island? New Zealand is, after all, a well-known adrenalin-inducing country!
So there we were, just a couple of days into our NZ trip, still getting used to the complete reversal in both temperature and timezone from the UK, when I realised that instead of signing us up for the slightly nerve-wracking but more chilled out black water rafting tour, I’d signed up us for the hardcore abseiling-into-a-cave, zip-lining-in-the-dark, climbing-up-waterfalls-adventure. Oops.
…It’s not that I wasn’t up for challenging myself, I was just a bit nervous about what all those add-ons to black water rafting would entail. It is in the dark in a cave afterall!
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company are the original black water rafting operator in the Waitomo Caves area (they just celebrated their 30th-anniversary last year!) so I trusted them to give us an awesome caving experience. However, things have moved on quite a bit from when they first started with a simple tubing tour, and they now have different options for every level of adventurer.
With regards to the tubing, there’s still the original black water rafting, the Black Labyrinth Tour, where your main adventure is floating in an inner tube down an underground river, but there’s also the Black Abyss Tour, a more comprehensive and challenging experience with several add-ons to the original.
And those add-ons were making me nervous! But *spoiler-alert* I needn’t have worried. The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company call their adventures “The most fun you can have in the dark”, and I can now categorically agree!
But let me start at the beginning…
What are the Waitomo Caves?
Waitomo is a small village in the west of the North Island of New Zealand, 2.5 hours south of Auckland and 2 hours northwest of Taupo. The surrounding area is full of limestone, formed 30 million years ago when Waitomo was under the ocean, and limestone formed like this means limestone caves! The Waitomo caves were first explored in the 1880s, by local Māori chief Tane Tinorau and a surveyor, who floated within them on a raft of flax and opened them to tourists shortly after. It’s kind of crazy to think that over 100 years later we’re floating through them too!
Why are they special?
Aside from the amazing stalagmites and stalactites, one of the most coolest features of the caves is the extensive amount of glowworms who live within them, covering many areas of the cave roof and walls. Yes, glowworms are actually real! But what are they?
Basically, they are a type of insect that will eventually have wings, but when they are glowing they’re in the larvae stage. From a distance in the cave you can mostly just see the pinprick blue bioluminescent glow, but if you look closely or with a torch you’ll see they look a bit like a long, very thin worm with many threads hanging around them. They use their light to entice other insects into the threads for food before they turn into flies. The glowworm stage is the longest though, at around 9 months.
Before I toured the Ruakuri Cave in Waitomo I had no idea that these particular glowworms are found exclusively in New Zealand. I guess I just took it for granted as I was growing up!
All you really need to know is glowworms are really cool, and they look awesome when you see them inside a pitch black cave!
So what is the Black Abyss Tour really like?
Right, that’s the essential info about the Waitomo Caves and Glowworms, so what is taking a Black Abyss tour actually like?
We met our guides, Rob and Alistair, who loaded us up with full wetsuits, special boots, and helmets with headlamps. The butterflies in my stomach were getting just a little flighty! After a short drive, we arrived at one of the entrances to the Ruakuri Cave. Unlike the beautiful spiral walkway into one end of the cave that we had taken earlier in the day on a walking tour, this one was out of site and just a tiny hole we would be expected to abseil (repel for you North American folk) solo 35 metres down to begin our tour. Gulp.
Luckily, they have a practice area next to the entrance to help you get the hang of what to do with the rope and special abseiling metal thing (I have no idea what it’s called!). Alistair made us feel confident and safe in our ability to use the equipment. We started to get to know our group, and they were pretty awesome. Two other couples were on honeymoons as well! Just when I was starting to relax a bit they declared we were all ready to go down into the cave and the nerves kicked in again! Our group of 8 waited on a wooden platform that jutted out over the hole called “the throat” so we could each descend one-by-one. Hmmm…
You start by abseiling freely, then squeezing through “the throat”, a space where the cave entrance gets a little close for comfort, and finally being able to kick off the wall and feel like a ninja for the last part. It was actually far easier than I thought and after our practices on the slope next to the entrance I felt like I knew what I was doing. Although I somehow ended up backwards with my face smushed against a cave wall and it took a bit for me to get myself sorted. Graceful as ever! Before I knew it I was standing at the bottom of the cave, peering up at my first lot of glowworms for the day. And there would be many, many more to come!
After everyone had descended we walked for a short while through the cave, curious about what was next. Well, we saw the beginning of the zipline, and then a whole lot of darkness beyond. Each person was attached one by one and sent flying off into the darkness, literally. Everyone turned their headlamps out and as I sped through the damp cave air all I could see around me was glowworms, like stars in a dark night sky. It was surreal and over way too soon!
We paused on a ledge with our legs dangling down into the darkness below for a break with hot chocolate and Anzac biscuits (oatmeal cookies, but the Kiwi version). The sound of water could be heard nearby, and anticipation was running high. After successfully completing our first two challenges, it was as though we were all itching to continue the adventure. Nerves had been replaced by excitement. It was time to jump in the water. In the dark. Who cares, let me at it!
It seemed like a long way down, but after our guide jumped in we all took the leap of faith off the ledge, inner tubes at the ready! We floated along for a while, paused to slide face first down a waterslide and then continued on to a cavern where the entire cave roof was COVERED in glowworms.
After a pause for photos, we came to one of the best parts of the trip. Our guide described it as “sort of resembling the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory boat ride down the dark river, in the original, ya know?” We all sat in our tubes, formed a train by putting the legs of the person behind us under our arms, leaned back so we were looking at the cave roof and held on tight. Well, I’m going to just go ahead and say this is one of the most epic things I’ve ever done, and I’d do the whole tour again just to feel how I did in that moment, speeding along the river with thousands and thousands of glowworms lit up above us.
I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the trip, and if I got a dollar for every time someone said “this is so cool!!” then I’d have, well, a lot of dollars! We ditched the inner tubes and made our way along more of the Ruakuri Cave river, sometimes swimming, sometimes walking along parts aptly named “the drunken stumble”, sometimes (many times) falling over.
All too soon our last challenge was approaching. To get out of the cave we had to climb TWO waterfalls. Now I don’t know about you but the idea of climbing a waterfall sounds just a little bit crazy to me. You can’t see the waterfalls before it’s your turn and the thundering of the water echoing in the tiny enclosure is too loud to hear anything, so our guides directed us by guiding our hands and feet and pointing.
This was the part I was seriously concerned about when I was reading about the tour the night before, but once again, it was an exciting adventure rather than something to be worried about. The hand and footholds were plentiful enough that I climbed that waterfall relatively easily, but still amazed at myself at the same time. As I climbed the second one and spotted a patch of light I tried to savour the moment, because would you believe it, I wasn’t ready to go leave the cave just yet!
We emerged into the bright sunlight, hours after having entered the cave on our Black Abyss Tour, and I can honestly say I felt like a different person than when it began. It’s not the scariest thing in the world, but it does go against my nature to wander around in a cave in the dark, not caring what was around me and throwing myself into all sorts of unreal situations without a second thought by the end of it. I felt like I could do anything. And that’s what I loved about this experience.
Why is black water rafting one of the best adventure activities to do in New Zealand?
Do I need to tell you any more than I have?!
Black water rafting is a completely different experience from anything else you’ll do in New Zealand. While there are several different places to go white water rafting, bungy jumping or skydiving, and they might involve a higher amount of adrenalin, there’s only one place you can do this. It’s a personal challenge, facing fears you might not even know you have, growing in confidence and feeling like an absolute ninja by the end of it.
Honestly, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, unless you come back again of course!
What if black water rafting’s not for you?
I realise that as much as I can say how amazing and awesome doing the Black Abyss Tour was, it won’t be for everyone. If you have mobility issues or you simply won’t be able to handle some of the activities then, of course, it’s not for you. But if you’re wavering because you’re just a bit nervous or unsure then I seriously urge you to consider it. You don’t need to be super-fit, just mobile and prepared to exert yourself a little, trust me, the rewards are worth it.
There is the option of the Black Labyrinth, the original black water rafting experience where you only have to jump off one or two waterfalls with your tube and mostly float along. You’ll still get to see the amazing glowworms and still have a great experience. These tours are a bit larger than the 8-person max for the Black Abyss and obviously a little less challenging.
Another Waitomo Cave tour is also through the Ruakuri Cave, but along a walkway instead. This is the only wheelchair accessible cave experience in the southern hemisphere and a great option for anyone who wants to see the stalagmites, stalactites, and glowworms, without the black water tubing part! The entrance to this tour is an amazing manmade spiral down before you wander through much of what is an original path from when tours began.
You can check out all the tour options here at The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company
At the end of the day, we collapsed into bed exhausted, happy, and thankful my past self somehow knew we would love the Black Abyss tour. Or at least that I’d made the mistake of booking it…
Disclaimer: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company hosted me for this tour, but as always, all opinions are honest and my own!
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