28 Apr An Epic Adventure in Waitomo Glowworm Caves
(Or that time we went on a Hobbit-like adventure and ended up with glowing maggot shit on our heads)
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”
Even after seeing it with our own eyes, we still cannot believe a place like the Glow worm Caves really exists, or that an adventure such as the Waitomo Caves Black Abyss is possible. This was another one of those New Zealand attractions that has an amazing reputation, but after being a wee bit disappointed of Wellington , we feared that it wouldn’t be as epic as we thought.
I can tell you now, it’s the coolest thing we’ve ever done. Before our adventure, we knew the following:
- Waitomo Caves are an underground cave system
- Their ceilings are lit by thousands of tiny glowing worms which make them look like star-lit skies
- You can’t take cameras with you underground (Tragedy. Care to bawl with us?)
- You can visit them either by a non-adventure, guided, walking tour or by, as Lonely Planet describes it, a “gut-wrenching, soaking-wet, pitch-black” adventure down the caves.
Ever since we got to New Zealand, I’d been thinking about The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings constantly. It wasn’t because tourism sites everywhere make sure you don’t forget you’re in ‘Real Middle Earth’, but because many of the values that are embedded in Tolkien’s words are in the core of every adventure. Magical or not.
The day before our trip, we visited Hobbiton and I couldn’t stop thinking about little hobbits. I still felt like one of them, in a New Zealand adventure of my own. So I gathered the lessons these amazing creatures have taught millions of us, and I took them with me to the caves.
Say Yes to Adventure
“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
Bilbo clearly wasn’t looking for adventure when it came knocking on his door, but he embraced it, and went on one anyways, thus carving the path for other Hobbits to follow. If the Hobbits hadn’t said yes to adventure, Middle Earth would never have been saved.
The fate of no continent laid in our hands when we arrived at Waitomo, but we still wanted to do something that we’d remember forever, so what do you think we chose?
The epic route, of course.
We chose to do the Black Abyss trip with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company basically because it’s the longest (5 hours) and it clearly says that it’s for “natural born adrenaline junkies everywhere.”
We arrived at the meeting point and met our two guides, Pirate and Lofty- two of the funniest, and laid-back people we met on our trip. Then it was time for the first challenge: putting on our wetsuits. They were soaking wet and freaking cold. Torture, if you ask me. I mean, aren’t these things supposed to protect you from the cold? Jeez.
But, did something like this ever stop Frodo? No. So, it wasn’t going to let it stop me.
I was filling my medical conditions form when I read the question:
Are you claustrophobic?
Well, if by claustrophobic you mean having near panics-attacks, being unable to breathe, and go full on freak-out mode every time you’re in enclosed spaces?… then, hmmm, I suppose I have to say I am.
Lofty told me the tightest space I’d have to go through lasted only about 5 seconds. Once more, I channeled my inner Hobbit and I told him that I was there because I wanted the whole experience. I wanted to live it all. Do it all. Remember it all.
I wanted to say yes to adventure.
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”
At the entrance of the cave, we learned the rappelling technique we would use to go down 35m to reach the cave.
I wanted to go before Isaac, so they strapped me on and I sat suspended at the mouth of the cave. The opening was huge, so I was fine. I turned on the light on my helmet and began to go down. You see, they taught me how to stop, but I had no idea what to do in case I didn’t move at all. Apparently, I didn’t weigh enough, so I would have to lower myself manually.
The lower I got, the narrower the opening became. And then I reached the throat of the cave. Our guides had assured us that everyone would fit, that we would just had to wiggle our way out of the hole. This is when my breathing became erratic. I wasn’t moving fast enough, it was very dark, I was alone, hanging from a rope in a cave’s opening and I couldn’t see the bottom nor the people at the top. And believe me, I was fine with this. I love me some adventure. The problem was that it was narrow. So tight that I could barely move my arm to lower myself, and I had my doubts that I would actually fit. Rocks surrounded me, and I felt trapped.
Then I remembered that Bilbo decided to face the dragon on his own, facing his darkest fears, knowing that he was capable of doing it.
“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.”
In a way, this was my dragon and it was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to let anything stop me, that I was stronger than my fears, even than my claustrophobia. So I closed my eyes, imagined that I was still at the cave’s opening, and continued to wiggle and lower myself. As soon as I cleared the throat, I breathed normally again and the rest of the descent was fun and exhilarating.
I joined the group, who were sitting on the rocks, looking at the ceiling. They asked me to turn off my light and look up.
I can’t imagine a better reward than what I saw in that moment.
I’d seen pictures of the glow worms but they make the actual thing, no justice whatsoever.
Believe me. NO JUSTICE.
It was as if we were looking at the Milky Way, right there in the middle of the pitch-black cave. I thought, “ok ok. You’ve impressed me, Waitomo,” and the mesmerized silence from the rest of the group suggested that they felt the same way.
Isaac joined me on the rocks and the moment was magical, and mystical, and humbling, and pretty Middle Earth-y. It was starting to be an adventure worth of Hobbits.
Trust to Find Light in Darkness
“…it will shine still brighter when night is all about you. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
We walked through the cave, locking ourselves to safety railings when necessary, until we reached the zip line, (or how they call it in NZ, flying fox. And let’s admit it’s a way cooler name).
Lofty asked us to turn all off our lights. And, once again, we were completely surrounded by darkness. Lofty strapped me to the overhead cable. He explained that he would pull me back and, on three, he’d let go. We had no idea what would happen or what would be waiting for us at the other side. But he asked us to trust him, so we did. Because, well, we should always trust strangers with our lives, right?
An amazing feeling of nervous excitement took hold of me. The kind that reminds you that you’re alive, and that life is meant to be measured in moments like this.
Lofty pushed me and, suddenly, I was flying. My stomach dropped and I’m not ashamed to admit that I screamed- in a gleeful, this is AMAZING! kind of way. And then, I saw them. I was flying close to the ceiling, which was lit by thousands of tiny luminescent worms. I sped by them, laughing, marveling at the craziness of the moment.
It was amazing to realize that after spending weeks in one of the most stunning countries on the planet, my sense of astonishment was still intact.
“…the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
All reunited again, Lofty and Pirate gave us hot chocolate and a cookie, and I’ve gotta say, sipping hot cocoa underground in a cave is pretty high up on our list of bizarre stuff we’ve done. But we would soon find out that the hot chocolate came with a prize: facing the water.
We had to choose a tube, according to our butt sizes. The size Isaac and I needed has not yet been invented, so we had to make do with the smallest one they had.
Then we had to snuggly fit our butt in the tube and leap from the platform, into the water. The jump was fun! The landing was a harsh reality. Everyone around me gasped, and screamed, and shuddered. I was too busy trying to catch my breath. Holy shit, that’s some freezing water.
We tubed down the river to see more of the blue lights across the cave. As it turns out, in reality, what glows is not actually the worm, which our guides described more as a maggot, but its waste. You know,? Its shit. And it glows so it can attract other insects. As we were watching them mesmerized (and a little disturbed,) something wet landed on my head. I never knew what it was. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
You won’t believe this, but Isaac was shaking. The cold was almost unbearable, but the magical feeling of the place kept us going.
Hobbits taught us that no matter how uncomfortable, you just have to keep going.
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
Sam and Frodo never gave up, did they? You just have to remember that in the end, it may all be worth it.
It was. It so was. The rest of the cave was just as incredible. We swam, went down a slide and, after some encouraging from Isaac, I even crawled through a tunnel so narrow it’s called the Rebirth Tunnel. I was reborn as J.K. Rowling, and Isaac as Michael Jordan. (Yes, I, too, sometimes wonder how we ended up together.)
“Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark… made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his on the grass and put it back into its sheath.”
At the end of the journey, to get out of the cave, we needed to climb out of two waterfalls. I love rock climbing, I do. But having a waterfall fall on you as you’re trying to hold on to wet rocks, and find your footing seemed a bit more dramatic.
It was awesome! We love a good challenge and this was hard, and fun, and invigorating, and the scenery was straight out from a novel. Care to guess which one I’m thinking of?
I cannot imagine a more perfect way to end the trip, and to give our inner Hobbits some well-deserved high fives.
Appreciate the little things.
Back at the office we had a hot shower. The best shower of my life. Then, we were given hot (vegetarian!!!) tomato soup and bagels. Every bite was like glory.
I don’t even know if it was that good. But to me, nothing had ever tasted so right. We were tired, and happy, together, and so proud. The moment was perfect. I came to understand that it’s true:
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Channeling these amazing creatures down in our cave adventure, I got to learn a lot about myself, about my inner strength and capabilities. I even got to be my own unlikely hero, and that’s something I’ll remember forever.
P.S. Our tour came with a pass to the walking/boat ride tour to the Caves. We’d heard it was boring, but it’s also magical in its own way. Don’t miss it if you can.
What has been the most traveling challenge you’ve ever encountered? What did you learn about yourself? Have you been to Waitomo Caves? What was your experience like?
We’d love to hear from you and learn your stories! Leave us a comment below.
Thank you to Waitomo Caves for the photos.