Absolutely awesome! There is no other way to describe today's adventure with the "Blackwater Rafting Company" here in Waitomo. At the time of booking it, I don't think I really understood what I was embarking on.
At 1pm, our group of 9 was gathered and instructed through a process of donning a full-body wet suit, wet socks and boots, helmet with head-lamp, and ... abseilling harness?! I felt not a little apprehensive at the thought of leaving terra-firma and putting my life entirely at the mercy of a rope and a buckle. Okay, so it is a special buckle and special rope, but you don't think about that.
There are few things worse that having time to complemplate such thoughts as I was allowed to do while we were bundled into a van and driven for about 10 minutes to bushland (no sign of cliffs yet) and then given a brief instruction on how to lower oneself into ... an abyss! Oh, we're not going over a cliff, we're going down into a big, black, dark, ABYSS!
So there we are, all queued up on a walkway that goes nowhere into the scrub. One by one, we hook up and practice what we have learned only minutes before and ... down I go into a black void.
Actually, at the start, it is little more than a small hole in the ground a few metres below me. Now, those who know me know I am no runt and I have even lost some weight but getting through that little hole in the ground was, well, almost clostrophobic. But you get through, and after your eyes adjust to the darkness, what you see is so spellbinding that you forget where you are ... almost.
From that point on, the thoughts left me. I got down without incident, as did everyone (under the watchful eyes of our expert guides I must point out here), and very quickly found confidence in lowering myself that I almost felt like an SAS member storming a subterranean stronghold! Oops, sorry, getting a little carried away ...
Once we were all at the bottom of the cavern, we made our way through a few small tunnels to another dark void. Again, we hooked onto a rope, only this time we were flying through the air rather than straight down ... a "flying fox". What our "expert" guides didn't tell us, is that they like a bit of fun too! Flying down a rope into a void is one thing. Doing that with NO light whatsoever is, well, downright terrifying - particularly when the stop at the other end is a sudden one! No, not against a cave wall, just a BIG spring.
Anyway, we break there for coffee and bikkies (sorry, biscuits - the Aussie in me) after which we each grab a tyre tube and, one-by-one, jump what seemed a loooong way down into an underground river. (It was really only about 15 feet or so, I would say.) So then, we grab a hold of a rope which has been permanently fixed to the river bank and pull ourselves along what must have been 200 metres to stop at a point where we all turn off our lamps.
It takes a few seconds, but then you behold ... the "green" everywhere. Glow worms! The cavern and, well, all the "ceiling" areas are covered in green! In places, it is so concentrated you can almost find your way by their light. So our guides impart to us of their knowledge of these "worms". Actually, worms is a bit incorrect as they are really maggots. But they are fascinating creatures. The light they emit is them "burning up" their waste. So they have no excrement to speak of and their food is from flying insects as much as each other. Yes, they are cannibalistic! Weird, but fascinating.
Back on with the lamps and paddling now, we continue to the end of the tunnel. It goes nowhere save for a hole somewhere we could not see which allows a restricted flow of water thereby preventing flash-floods and the like. Now, we have to go back. Bugger! Sort of takes the edge off the excitement ... we've been here.
But no, not the way we came. Out go the lamps again and we form a "train" by linking feet to armpits (too difficult to explain that one, so trust me on it) and our guide "tows" us all the way back to the point where we jumped in. This is amazing again. This time we see just how much of the cave system is occupied by the glow worms. It reminded me of the interior of the "mother ship" in the movie "Independence Day".
Now we leave our tyre tubes, and continue back up the other direction on foot; well swimming some of the way too. In thick rubber suits with water-filled boots, it ain't so easy. We trek what must have been several hundred metres getting ever closer to sounds of a waterfall - or is it rapids? Oh yeah, rapids! Not category five rapids, though. No, these were fun.
We leave the main cave and turn into a smaller tunnel which wends its way left and right again nearing the sounds of rushing water. This time it is a waterfall and we have to climb it! Want to get out of here? Hell yeah! Well, this you gotta climb. Oh, goodie.
Once more under the watchful eyes and direction of our expert guides, we scale a rock wall some 3 or 4 metres high. Now, you might say that scaling a 3-metre wall doesn't sound so hard and you'd probably be right. But not when you are climbing against a rushing torrent! Phew, now I know what a Salmon feels like.
Okay, not so bad. We're at the top. We trek through some more tunnels to another waterfall! Again, we climb, although this one is not nearly as difficult. Again, at the top, and again through the tunnels. Hey! Has anyone noticed these tunnels are getting smaller? Hullo! Oh, great. Where'd they go? Okay, crawl on. Yes, I'm on hands and knees now and still bumping my head. Thank goodness for these helmets. Still onward I crawl. Hello, what's this? Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel! One little bit more of effort and, wahooooooo, I'm back in the daylight.
Another walk up the hill, into the van and back we go to the cafe. This seems almost an anti-climax. Where's the rush of photographers and journalists to celebrate our escape from the depths of the earth?
Oh well, it was an adventure for us. Perhaps Indiana Jones wasn't there in person, but he was there in spirit.