Waitomo Caves, NZ

Day 3

Our original plan for today was to do an unloaded out-and-back ride to a big waterfall, with stops at a natural bridge and a free-access cave along the way. But our rescheduled Blackwater Rafting trip, though late in the day, is probably not late enough for us to comfortably do the ride, and plus, the natural bridge hike (the most-awesome feature of the three) was closed (as so many things seem to be in New Zealand), so we decided to just bag that ride.

We had figured that the ride would cover the check-out/check-in gap (as we were transferring over from our “chalet” to the campground in town today), so instead we decided to re-do most of last night’s walk along the Waitomo Walkway; it was such a cool thing to do in the dark, we figured it would also be nice to properly see what we had been walking through. It probably wasn’t quite as magical in the light of day as it was in the twilight/dark, but it was still a really good walk. On the way back we finally saw two other couples heading out, the first other humans we had seen in 3+ hours on the trail.

Rett climbing a limestone fortress, with open green pastures just out of view on either side.
The limestone outcrops elevate this farmland above “standard” (but already awesome) New Zealand farmland.
The cows are still there! The trail crosses their pasture, so last night we walked right through the herd.
They’re a lot more comfortable with us now (our 3rd, soon to be 4th time through) than when they went dashing off last night on our first time through. Is it because they now recognize us?
Crossing hill and dale.
Here the limestone layers look a little less like bricks, and a little more like giant cow pies. Or do I just think that because of minefield of fresh cow pies we just navigated through?
Rett dancing down the hills (or, using the holes created by cow hooves as steps to work her way down).

When we had checked out of our motel, we just walked our bikes a block down the road to the General Store at the bottom of the hill and parked them there while we did the walk. Upon return, we walked them across the street to check in at the holiday park, and then walked them over to our unusually-plush grassy campsite. That means it was the first time in my memory where we “moved” from one place to another, but didn’t actually pedal our bikes!

But then, the Blackwater Rafting office is a mile and a half outside of town (and on the opposite side from where they would drive us for the actual tour!) so we ended up doing some pedaling anyway. Given our mistakenly-missed tour from yesterday, we made sure to get there well before the required check-in time!

Our group of 12 got suited up, with three-piece wetsuits (overalls, jacket, and booties), classic Kiwi “gumboots”, and helmets. And in my case a couple of extra layers underneath, and my full-fingered cycling gloves, in an effort to keep my relatively-uninsulated body (and Reynaud’s-sensitive fingers) from the chill that I’ve found particularly effects me in cold water.

The first shuttle stop was familiar, an especially wet and muddy section where the Waitomo Walkway meets the Ruakuri walk that we had stepped carefully around multiple times in the previous two days. This is where we got our tubes (relatively-small inner tubes, about three feet in diameter across the whole ring, with a tube diameter of 10 inches or so, leaving plenty of room for your butt to drop through the hole in the middle), and practiced jumping backwards off a ladder and into the river. I had read that some people get really freaked out at this point, but no one in our group (including my poor-water-skills self) broke down into tears, and most seemed to even enjoy it. We climbed back out, with water streaming from the holes in our boots, explaining why the track is so wet at this point!

Then we got back into the shuttle and drove to the actual cave entrance. It was pretty awesome to be in an unmarked area that looked much like any other spot on the Ruakuri walk (jungly and rocky), but in this spot we could clamber down the rocks, sneak through a cleft at the bottom of the pit, and instantly be “inside” the rocks! The initial part of the route was relatively-enclosed, requiring ducking under the stalagmites while stepping through the narrow passageways, or even dog-paddling on top of our tubes where the water was deep enough and the ceiling low enough. Glowworms were immediately visible in many places.

We all took our first backwards-leap off of a ~3-foot-high waterfall (training for such a thing outside, in the daylight, when a waterfall isn’t involved certainly made sense vs. trying it for the first time while standing in a swift-flowing stream in a goddamn cave lit only by our headlamps!), and at that point caverns truly opened up. Floating on our tubes, we could lay back and barely see the cathedral ceiling some 100 feet above us. Here in New Zealand, it took very little imagination to recognize the work of the dwarves who had created these great halls of Moria, and…are those drums we can hear echoing up from the deep? Best to move on!

Our guides directed us “ashore” to take a break and learn some about our environment, and then told us to look up. There was an incongruous tiny circular light far overhead? After a moment I could just barely make out branches reaching out into the light-circle. This was daylight, shining through the vegetation surrounding a not-tiny hole (a “tomo”), it just looked tiny because it was more than 200 feet above us! (indicating that we’re more than 200 feet underground!) The vertical shaft again indicated the work of the dwarves, because the idea that such large-scale formations could occur naturally seems even more unlikely!

After another even-bigger waterfall jump, we all linked together into a tube-train, turned off our headlamps, reclined, and floated through the glowworm main-event. Even though no one directed us, we all naturally fell into an awe-filled silence for 10 or 15 minutes as the cave-ceiling studded in blue-green fairy-lights streamed slowly overhead. In sections they were so numerous and bright that you could see the glow reflected in the water. It instantly brought to mind Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and the seemingly-endless sequence where the Enterprise is softly pulled through the enormous cloud of glowing lights that surround V’Ger. Or at least it felt like an endless sequence to teenage-me. Here in this cave as black as space, thirty years later, I wanted the silent flow to be endless, and could much-more relate to the languorous atmosphere that the filmmakers had been aiming for (had they recently visited these caves?!) In terms of a heart-rate-slowing, in-the-moment experience, the only thing that exceeded it for me over the last few years is when I put my hand on the side of a gray whale (hmm, apparently I’m a bigger fan of the original-cast Star Trek movies than I realized?) So yes, I would say it was worth paying twice for this singular experience.

Eventually the glowworms dwindled and our reverie was broken. We split our train apart and individually paddled/pushed-off-the-rock-walls to continue down the barely-moving black stream. At one point we had another sci-fi moment, where we could see a glowing alien spaceship docked in a cavern far above us, or maybe it was a man-made energy station of some sort. Or, maybe it was the walkway constructed to help “normal” people visit this cave. Either way the merging of the artificial with the natural wonder was somehow the opposite of off-putting, and another enhancement to the experience.

Finally the light at the end of the tunnel appeared (although now close to sunset, it was far from blinding). After we clambered up over some rocks and onto a pathway, I turned around and involuntarily laughed in surprise. While it took a moment to overcome the disorientation, we had just emerged from a water-filled hole in a cliffside that was very familiar to us: we had climbed down to it as a part of an extremely-short offshoot from the Ruakuri walk that we did two days ago (and then returned to in the dark last night)! We’d had vague and unserious thoughts about exploring the cave when we had crouched looking in to it a couple days ago, but never would have guessed the vast wonders that lurked behind the entrance. And there’s just something about “rules” that was messing with my mind; there’s no way that anyone would allow this heavily-visited, well-defined nature walk to have an extensive navigable cave system just sitting right next to it! Which I suppose is ironic, me assuming that the world is less-explorable than it actually is.

My extra layers and gloves seemed to help, because while I wasn’t exactly warm, I wasn’t shivering, and in fact seemed to have stayed warmer than normally-warm-in-water Rett (also, the gloves had made it easier for me to use the sometimes-sharp cave walls for support/push-off). And my wet suit “worked”; it wasn’t completely filled with water (we never got fully submerged), so as I walked, some of the enclosed water would slosh to unfilled places, and it was freakishly warm!

We loaded all wet back into the van, returned to their office, stripped out of our tight layers as quickly as we could, and warmed up under their hot showers followed by mugs of hot tomato soup back in the office. They were playing slideshows of the photos that the guides took of us on monitors, and of course we could purchase them if we wanted to. I had known that tucking my own camera into my wetsuit while jumping off waterfalls would not be a thing, and also knew that the guide-photos would just be of us (“here we are in goofy suits holding up our inner tubes!”) rather than doing anything to communicate the beauty of the experience (that’s a big reason why I wanted to see the above-ground, at-our-own-pace glowworms last night).

But that has created a very unusual situation for me, where #1) I can’t visually communicate to others what the experience was like (so hopefully my 1000+ words are worth at least one picture), and (more-importantly) #2) the visual experience lives only in our memories, and we won’t be able to be reminded of it the way we are so many of our other days when we flip back to look at old photos. So will it swiftly fade from our minds, or be held more-precious due to its lack-of-backup? Time will tell!


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