Lost World Epic Cave Tour with Waitomo Adventures Ltd – Waitomo, New Zealand
A two hour drive ahead of us, we ate our oatmeal breakfast and departed Rotorua around 7AM west to Waitomo, famous for the glowworm caves.
But we would not just be doing any old way to see the glowworms- walking tour, boat ride, even black tubing experience- oh no, never. We chose the seven hour Lost World Epic Cave Tour that starts with a 100 meter free hanging abseil into the cave followed by hiking, climbing, swimming, crawling through the cave to get out. Oh, and see the glowworms of course.
A 100 meter drop followed by total darkness in a cave with water for seven hours? I really don’’t know what I was thinking. Everything seems so distant when booking at home and then for the items we booked while in New Zealand- it happened so quickly we did not have too much time to dwell on it. I think I mostly forgot about the details given everything else that was going on during these two weeks. I was once again nervous.
We arrived at the Waitomo Adventure Center just after 9AM, making record time to get there. Kevin grabbed a flat white and a lamb and mushroom pie at the cafe inside, which was so good- love these pies!
After filling out medical inquiry paperwork, we were told that Kevin and I were the only ones on this tour- just us and two guides for the day. A private tour?! One set of expert eyes just on me to ensure my safety? This was great! At least it helped take the nerves away. Our time tolerating the large groups at Hobbiton and Te Puia must have paid off. The 10:30 AM departure got moved up to 10AM so we could get started. We met our guides Craig and Deni who drove us out to the camp ground of the cave.
These Waitomo caves are throughout the area, mostly among farm lands. Originally, the caves were owned by the government and it was not uncommon for farmers to lose their animals to holes in the ground. They demanded the government reimburse the farmers for their lost animals. The government, not wanting to take on this extra burden, instead granted the farmers ownership of the caves. Now, the farmers rent the caves to companies like Waitomo Adventures and make a profit.
We got our swimsuits on and were fitted for our wet suit, wet jacket, wet boots and helmet with light- all looking the part of cave explorers!
Getting to know our harnesses, we did a “bunny slope” equivalent learning the rules of connecting ourselves on and off of the guided rope track. It is amazing how much the karabiner clamps are used in all of these activities.
Then before we knew it, it was time for the abseil. I was horrified. The platform we waited on was just grates so you could see straight down. They explained that we would be attached to the rope and lean our butts against a pole in the distance that would leave our feet against the platform edge. We would then use the friction of the rope against our harness and the pulley system to push the rope up through the harness to go down or pull down to stop.
Sweating from being on this grate platform, Kevin swung easily into position as explained. Trying desperately not to look down, I leaned out to balance on the pole and swung around… mostly shouting the entire time. My legs barely reached the platform and I forced my toes forward to support my position against the pole, gripping the rope with all of my might.
“Take your feet off!” After a few exclamations, my feet lifted and I was suspended 100 meters in the air. Me and this rope. I had to get myself down. Without looking. The sweating was so bad from the nervousness and my hands were shaking. This was going to take awhile.
(I have learned through these photos that I appear deceivingly happy and excited, which does not accurately reflect my internal psyche!)
Slowly releasing my death grip from the rope, feeding one hand’s worth of rope upward through the harness, I moved what I only imagined to be an inch down. But it was downward progress. Kevin was to my right moving much quicker and Deni to my left stayed above us at all times to keep an eye- we were somehow all belted into her line so if there was an emergency, we were backed up to her.
Staring exactly straight ahead and not moving my gaze from the rock formations in front of me, my rhythm started to form as I moved down a little quicker. I could tell the chasm to my right was beautiful as we descended into the cave but I was not ready to look at it. I timed my deep breathes with the movement of my hands, recollecting how well it worked in the plane before jumping out.
And then I started to spin… well not really. My body started to turn towards the openness to the right. I was not ready! I closed my eyes and repeated “no, no, no, no” as Deni graciously turned be back forward facing to rock formations. I know I was keeping everyone entertained and while it was not my goal it was helping me alleviate the stress of the situation. I cannot be the only one freaking out while doing this right???
My abs were on fire- my body was so tense and the sweat on my palms gave me the sensation of slipping. We were able to use our right leg wrapping it around the bottom of the rope to give us a little more to work with.
“Are we half way yet?” Deni giggled in reply “Not quite” “ok let me know when we are halfway, then I will look.”
I continued at this ridiculous pace one hand moving myself down at a time, until finally Deni announced we reached half way. I let my right eye gaze just slightly to get a peripheral view of the cave opening.. Just a peek.
The light shining through was a magnet drawing my full attention- it was simply magnificent. The vegetation that lined the entire 100 meter opening only added to the aura of being in another world.
Distracted, I stopped moving which was definitely not my intent- I wanted to get down. As we moved through the second half, it got easier since the pull of the rope was looser by this point.
And then finally, the ground was beneath us. Craig was already down there setting up our picnic lunch while Deni disconnected us from the rope. Kevin and just stared at the surrounding area… absolutely stunning and brilliant.
I looked down at my hands and the knuckles of my right hand had knocked into the harness causing a few cuts. I felt no pain while descending… only fear! Luckily they had first aids kits and wrapped my fingers. It was not a big deal but I was more concerned about them getting wet the rest of the day and potentially infected.
Hoping the worst was over, we sat for sandwiches, nut bars, and muffins. An eel came by in the water next to us and Deni shared he always comes out at this time- smart eel! We learned about the plant life, history of the cave and its discovery, as well as the resident eels.
Completely stuffed, we traveled past the abseiling ropes up the hill and into the cave where we said goodbye to the light.
The cave portion was fun- scary at times but fun since it was such a small group. I cannot imagine doing this in a big group (allow up to 8 people). At first we started dry navigating the rocks then we entered the water about boot deep. The water was really cold and made the boots very heavy to lift up with each rock climb. Then we were going into water waist deep where Craig and Deni linked arms with us, unzipped our wetsuits a bit, and pulled us into the water. I know the principle of wetsuits is to keep a little water in the suit for your body to warm up but dear lord, was that first plunge jarring! We then commenced portions that were full on swimming alternating with rock climbing and everything in between.
There was a waterfall Kevin opted to climb up and then drop from several times that he enjoyed, we well as crawling through insanely tight crevices. I was grateful for some alternative methods of getting to the same place- my favorite being climbing then sliding down on my behind. We were really able to take our time and enjoy this unique playground.
With a chocolate snack and what is known as dead mouse tea, we sat back and turned our headlamps off to enjoy the network of glowworms. While we had ample opportunity beforehand, the place they ultimately took us to was covered in thousands of glowworms. Craig explained the life cycle of a glow worm and how they end up looking like this- it looks like the city lights from the high vantage of an airplane. They are concentrated in several areas and make this network in the sky (cave sky, of course). Well worth this incredible view.
We exited the cave past 4PM and walked through the farm lands until we made it back to the camp ground. They had showers so we rinsed off before returning to our normal clothes. We knew a dinner was included but we did not expect such a feast! They had a grill with veggies, potatoes, steak, sausage, as well as garlic bread and side salads for us to eat. What a way to end this day.
We are so thankful to Craig and Deni for such an amazing (and safe) experience exploring the Waitomo glowworm caves- thank you for being patient with me! We are so happy to have to opportunity to experience this incredible part of the world in this unique way.