The Dark Side of Rafting in New Zealand

Friday: Drove out of Rotorua and headed to Huku Falls on the outskirts of Taupo. These falls are insane; the amount of water that channels through, the color of the water and the strength of the rapids will surprise anyone. Continued on to Taupo / Lake Taupo and spent the day with friends of Blaise. Shopping in town, drinks at an Irish pub, BBQ at their home and the night drinking and talking. Basically, a day off from vacationing and driving.

Saturday: Left Taupo and headed to Waitomo for the legendary “glow worm caves”. This expansive network of caves is known for the ‘glow worms’ that light up the cave ceiling and give it a unique visual splendor. First, they are not ‘glow worms’, they are technically a type of maggot. Second, the glow is from their feces, to attract the prey they eat (other bugs). However, the people of Waitomo realized that advertising “glowing maggot shit caverns” wasn’t a big tourist draw and went with “glow worm caves“.

I opted to experience the caves via the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company and their ‘Black Labyrinth’ package. This involved a 1.25 hour trip through one of the caves, floating through water on an intertube. As the name implies, ‘black water’ rafting is due to being in a pitch black cave, except the glow worms and occasionally using small LED lights on our helmets. We were told that today was a great day to do this because of significant rainfall the previous week along with another 20ml or more the night before. This caused the water level to be about as high as it could be and still allow us to do it, making the cave that much more exciting.

The cave entrance was confusing at first. Looking down the natural stairs, it looked as if a tiny stream disappeared into the ground. There was no visible opening. Crawling down further, it became apparent the opening was small, but under where we were standing. Entering the cave set the tone; it was not big. The first 20 yards to get to a chamber for our first meeting point required going through one point more narrow than my shoulder width, another that required ducking to the point of walking on all fours and walking through increasingly stronger currents. We entered the cave at one of seven points that water flowed into the main underground river.

After the first meeting chamber, we saw the result of the high water level as we had to lay perfectly flat on the tube to go under a small opening, and still scrape our helmet on the cave roof. From this point on, the cave remained considerably more passable. We went over two small waterfalls, the first maybe a foot and a half, the second about 3 – 4 feet. To do these safely, you are required to stand on the edge, backwards, intertube around your butt and jump backwards into the water, landing flat. The combination of that, mostly in the dark, in extremely cold water that would splash into your face and up your nose was crazy.

For the next hour, 12 of us were guided through the cave by Cam, Matty and Monkey, who were a riot. After more than an hour floating through the cave, we rounded a small turn and it instantly went from pitch black to well lit, as we came to the mouth of the cave and a lush green forest. Floating through the cave without lights, looking up at the ‘glow worms’ was definitely the best way to experience it. Blaise did a walking tour of two other caves. She said the first was neat and a good experience. The second however, was too crowded and partially closed due to high water levels, making their stay in the main room about two minutes.

Next time I visit, I will do the ‘Black Abyss’ tour. This is a five hour adventure that involves ‘abseiling’ (rappelling) down a long chute, taking a ‘fox tail’ (zip line) across a chasm and then black water rafting for a longer period.

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