When I was told I was going black water rafting in New Zealand, I was pretty excited.
I pictured waves rollicking and crashing down a forty-five degree slope, out in nature, and me in the middle of it all, in a yellow helmet and vest, grinning from ear to ear like a kid on a rollercoaster. Only with black water instead of white, I guess. Some kind of New Zealand volcanic thing that makes the water ominously dark.
When the tour leader, on day 1 of the North Island Explorer trip, described it as a “peaceful” activity – and not really like whitewater rafting at all, but inside a cave – I was ready for something very different. This suggested softly trickling water, stalactites lit up by head torches, drops of moisture echoing around us like a new age meditation soundtrack.
It turned out to be both of those things, but also much more. Only later did I learn of the glow worm factor. Which was but one of many memorable things about this action-packed hour in Waitomo.
It started out with a walk across a paddock in a wetsuit, in the last moments of daylight. Your typical Kiwi countryside scene. Rolling hills with a few cows scattered around. Scenes from Hunt for the Wilderpeople sprang to mind.
And it was cold. Which our tour guide, a gregarious ex-rugby player, acknowledged with cheeky understatement. “Cold are ya, Aussie? Yeah, it’s a little bit cold.” But we were in full body wetsuits, with helmets on, and I had that overconfident feeling you get when you’re snug and armoured up with protective gear.
Soon we were inside the cave complex, wading through knee-deep water. Our guide said it was always between 14 and 16 degrees down here, even in the summer. I was blowing warm air onto my fingers. The mention of summer made me wince a bit.
We were given old truck tyre tubes, our trusty ‘rafts’, which went over our heads and around our waists; now the whole thing felt like South East Asia, without the tropical vibes. I remember this! I thought. Tubing! Like in Laos. Through the caves, down the river, along the rope. Easy.
But the water grew colder, and deeper, as we went. The excited chatter within the group dropped off a bit. At the head of the single file, I wondered how my four travel pals, all of them seniors, were holding up. The water was crotch height for me; it must have been up to their armpits by now. All good, someone announced.
“Will it be fast?” someone asked. “No, it’s nice and slow,” mentioned Kiwi. Kiwi had become my guide’s name – my crude retaliation to his nickname for me, “Aussie”. Any more than two syllables may have been a mouthful anyway, my face was pretty chilly. When I get cold, verbal dexterity is usually the first thing to go.
It was slow, until the waterslide, which I hadn’t been expecting. Kiwi sent me down first. I climbed the ladder, did what he said, and not so much slid but crashed down it in a tangle of limbs, emerging stoked and discombobulated in the frothing pool below.
Next was the glow worm discussion, the interesting part. Kiwi showed us around a spacious section of the cave, explaining the lifespan of a glow worm. Twenty days as an egg, nine months as lava, 15 days in a cocoon. Then a three-day mating marathon, as an adult glow worm – a fly. Then death. “It’s an exciting three days,” said Kiwi.
He said it was only the glow worms’ tails that glow green. I was studying the limestone walls in the torchlight, looking for signs of the glow, but I could still only see the “fishing lines” – the little strings they throw out to catch bugs for food. Their version of a spider web. And a grasshoppery, cockroachy thing called a weta.
At one point I thought I passed the bone of a mammal, sitting on one of the little shelves of limestone. Surely not. I wrote it off as a projection created by the torch. But sure enough, at the next bend, there was a whole collection of them, and Kiwi stopped to explain. Cows, sheep and farm dogs sometimes fell into the cave complex through the holes in the roof – through the tomos, as the Maori call them. Eels pick their carcasses clean. Those very same eels no doubt slithering around our feet as we spoke.
It might have ended there, which would have been fine. A nice little schooling on strange insects, tales of cows tumbling to their deaths through ancient trapdoors in the fields (was it true?), and a crazy night-time slip-and-slide.
But the crescendo was yet to come. It was stunning but subtle, like Sue our trip leader said it would be. Kiwi told us to meet him up ahead, but to turn our head torches off first. The water would get quite deep. I was to stay in front, and everyone would follow. Then he got a bit stern. “I want you to stop before the waterfall.” We could hear the stream that lay somewhere down the track. “Aussie, if you go over that waterfall, I want you to scream as loud as you can. Guys, if you here this Aussie scream, stop.”
We started off. Kiwi disappeared, nowhere to be seen. When our head torches came off and our eyes adjusted, a great show of glow worms unveiled along the walls. It was like a million eyes watching from the sides of a pitch black country road. A cold, wet, pitch-black country road. My body was ready for a hot shower and a beer. But I was mesmerised. Earlier the worms had been invisible green dots; now they shone like stars. I swore crudely and quickly apologised to the elders.
As a reward for our efforts, or maybe an extension of them, Kiwi threw us all down that metre-high waterfall, backwards, in our tubes. And that was that.
Night time departures had an extra perk, Kiwi explained on the stairs on the way out. We were greeted by more glow worms, this time the outdoor ones lining the stairs, out in the starlight.
The moral of the story is: go rafting (tubing) in Waitomo in the evening if you can. And “black water” just means white water in a cave, and the cave may have a waterslide in it. And glow worms are well worth being a bit freezing for.
Adventures like these are par for the course in New Zealand. Check out Intrepid’s range of small-group Kiwi tours here.
All images by Caveworld, Waitomo, unless otherwise stated.