New Zealand Travel Guide: Black Water Rafting the Waitomo Caves

March 1, 2009

Day Three, Part Two

Whip it. Whip it good.

Whip it. Whip it good.

I’m bouncing along in a van that seems to be held together by rust and spiderwebs, smooshed in with six other people who are also dressed in wet suits and red helmets fitted with lights. Either we’re going to hike through a cave and jump into icy water, while surrounded by glowworms, or we’re making a Devo parody video, aquatic style.

My wetsuit doesn’t fit quite right. It’s much too long and the legs are all bunched up and the crotch is hanging down around my knees. It’s heavy and even sitting I feel about 20 pounds heavier, not counting the drag of the big, white mud boots that are protecting my feet. I’m really excited though, which is hopefully helping my inner beauty to shine through the layers of latex and rubber.

The Japanese girl across from me, on the other hand, still appears to be a size 0 and could walk her wetsuit and red helmet down the runway at Fashion Week and fit right in. She’s the exception though, as the rest of our group looks just as bunchy and Pilsbury Doughboy-esque as I do.

The van drives us down a dirt road, past some cows and someone’s house, as if we’re taking a shortcut through his backyard. It’s hard to believe this is the place I’ve seen ads for all over New Zealand. It feels almost like no one has ever been here before, as though we stopped some local and asked if he knew any good caves around Waitomo and he offered to give us a lift.

I think I’m so used to the Disneyfication of attractions that I expected this to be as simple as riding Pirates of the Caribbean. An air conditioned bus would drop us off at a dock, we would walk into the water just like it was a swimming pool, down a few smooth steps, and at the end of the ride we would step out again, back to civilization.

Over the river and through the woods...

Over the river and through the woods...

Nope. Not even close. You have to work for this one. Just to get to the mouth of the cave we had to climb a big hill, clamber over rocks, scoot down steep, slippery stairs, slide into the goopy, rocky cave entrance, and sweat quite a bit. One woman took a look into the cave, changed her mind and went back.

I kept going though, determined to do something adventurous and athletic – two acts that are usually out of my comfort zone, but then I didn’t come to New Zealand to stay dry and clean and comfortable. Within seconds I had mud and gunk all over me, and my inner 5-year-old came out to play and have fun.

You don’t get to the water right away, so your boots had better fit well because you’re going to get a lot of use out of them. You don’t have to go far though before you all turn off your head lamps, look up, and see the night sky. At least, that’s what glowworm poo looks like. Yes, poo. It’s not the glowworm’s head or tummy that lights up like it did in that childhood toy you loved so well, it’s the excrement that attracts insects and catches them in the whispy threads the glowworm trails to snare its food.

Poo or not, it’s beautiful, and laying back in the mud and gunk to stare at a ceiling covered in poo in a smelly cave, I felt suprisingly serene, like I could sit there for hours.

Like a chain gang, but cooler.

Like a chain gang, but cooler.

But, there was adventure to be had. We continued on, finally getting to the part of the journey where the inner tubes we’d been carrying around became necessary. Our guide had us lay back in the water and linked us together, each person taking the feet of the person behind them. Floating that way he pulled us through the caves so that we could continue to stare up at the lights above.

As we moved on though, the sound of a waterfall got louder and louder. As we came upon it, we unlinked ourselves and took turns falling off of it. Not floating over it, but standing up and falling backwards, 2.5 meters down, onto our inner tubes.

I do not like heights. I do not like falling. And while this waterfall probably was’t a whole lot higher up than some diving boards, this wasn’t the community pool. It was dark and cold and very far away from medical help. I’d made it this far though, and I figured this was about the closest to skydiving I was ever going to get, so over I went. I wound up with water in my nose and ears, but I would have done it over again and again if there hadn’t been more to see.

This photo taken for insurance purposes. (Not really.)

This photo taken for insurance purposes. (Not really.)

We linked up and floated some more, and I never got bored with watching the lights and trying not to think about how much glowworm poo it takes to make something so pretty.

Then it was another waterfall. This one was taller, but with a huge slide to go down – one of the few signs of human interference in the cave. That was a breeze, and way better than any waterslide park back home.

When it was all over, I came out of the cave exhausted and aching, carrying an extra 10 pounds in water, but with a huge grin on my face. Then it was back in the van to return to the changing rooms and some hot cups of soup.

The Waitomo caves are beautiful and slimy, magical and smelly. I think black water rafting is one of those things you appreciate as it’s happening, but appreciate even more when it’s over and you’re clean again.

Afterwards, my legs hated me. Luckily, all that was going on in the evening was a Maori cultural show where I would be fed and entertained, all while (hopefully) sitting still.

Next up: A night of Maori culture and dining.


  1. […] Next: Tell me about the glow worms! […]

  2. Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  3. Nice post I’ve been to the Waitomo caves they are indeed magical and smelly!!!

    Kate x

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