The Black Abyss

April 13, 2011 Comments Off on The Black Abyss

It is only 20km to Waitomo from Te Kuiti, and the Waitomo Caves might be the biggest must-do of the North Island. We went over in the morning to do a regular tour: we did the Glowworm Cave, with an overly dignified guide who delivered such exciting information as how stalactites form, and that one over there looks like an elephant. It was a very mediocre tour, but it ended with an underground boat ride. She had to take us in two groups, so the loud Christian Fellowship Program group went first and we were left in peace. We all sat on the dock admiring the glowworms we could see while we waited—they looked exactly like the Fox Glacier glowworms, and they made me happy. Eventually the boat came back and we loaded up. The guide moved us through the cavern using a system of ropes, so it was very quiet. Our whole group was reverently silent as she guided us through, back and forth under the swirling profusion of turquoise lights, and then out onto a surface river. It was excellent, very worth doing.

We ate in the area: there were wasps everywhere, even in the restaurant, the food was pretentious and mediocre, and there was art on the wall that was just bad, and they were out of chips. I was disappointed. We drove around near an ostrich farm (?) for a while before arriving at the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company headquarters. We went out the door marked “Black Abyss Tour” and found ourselves with two guides and four Israeli guys who had just finished their military service and had been traveling the world and, to all appearances, skydiving. I’d been nervous about this since we had decided to do it, and Simon kept trying to reassure me, but once I saw that I was the only girl—and among Israeli soldiers, to boot—I told him to step off. I had to be one of the guys now.

Abseiling.

It was good, though, because I got the changing room entirely to myself. They outfitted us with a two-piece wetsuit over a thermal top, neoprene booties and horrible plastic boots, a helmet with a headlamp, and abseiling equipment (harness, carabiner lifelines, and a really clever little clicky thing for the rope). Then they drove us out to the cave, during which time I got so nervous I was spacing out. They taught us to abseil using ropes tied to posts at the top of a hill: you attached your clicky guy, then leaned all your weight back on the rope and practiced controlling your pace as you lowered yourself down the hill. When everyone had had enough, it was time to go. I think the best position would have been #3: enough time to watch other people do it a couple times but not so long that you spent the whole time thinking you were going to throw up, as I did, because of course all four of the Israelis had to go together. Finally it was my turn. The cave began with a 20-foot-deep pit in the ground with a tiny opening at the bottom, which was difficult to negotiate not because the space was so tight, but because it was irregular and you had to swing yourself around a lot to figure out how your protruding legs were supposed to fit through. After that, the cave suddenly expanded behind you, and you couldn’t see the sides. All in all it was around a forty-meter drop, but the lighted part of the cave extended beyond the grate where you landed, so it looked like you were much higher up than you were. I couldn’t look down, I couldn’t look around; I stared at the wall in front of me, breathing fast and shallowly, and my hands hurt—they were shaking, so I was really clamping them on. When I finally landed I had trouble standing because my knees were weak. The good part was, I couldn’t really release the rope while I was going down; it didn’t work unless I fed it slowly through the clicky thing. It was probably a problem with the way I was holding it, but it meant I was in no danger of plummeting out of control (although they claimed the guy at the bottom can stop you from below if you have that issue).

The guides were good. Before we started, they’d had us fill out a little form about any medical issues and so on. One of the checkboxes was “phobias,” and, after a brief hesitation, I checked it and wrote, “mild fear of heights.” Now, I’ve never seen anyone handle these forms or look at them before—the receptionist takes them blandly and stashes them beneath the counter—but when I got down to the bottom of the abseil, the guide, Tom, said, “So how’s that mild fear of heights treating you?” And it was so reassuring! They didn’t make a big deal out of it at all, but it was great to know that they were thinking about it in case I’d frozen up or anything. He told me to lean against the wall and chatted with me while we waited for Simon to come down.

After this, we walked a little way on slender grates over crevices, and then they hooked us up to a flying fox (which is a zipline in NZ-ese) and sent us shooting off into the dark on purpose—they turned off your light right before they pushed you off. It was cool, because you went flying through turquoise-sprinkled darkness, but I didn’t know how it was going to stop, and that kind of killed the thrill for me. “Oh, it’ll stop, we’ve got it very well-trained,” said Tom when I asked him about it, which was utterly unhelpful but apparently all I was going to get. So I just tried to keep my scream to non-girly frequencies, because the Israelis had all howled manfully.

Once we were all down and the lights came on, we could see that we were on a broad, rough shelf over an underground river. The guides sat us on the edge and gave us hot chocolate and cookies. After that, we took inner tubes and got in the river, which was frigid. The Israeli guys jumped in, but Simon and I opted for sliding down a rope over the rock, which was actually more fun. We went upstream first (the current was not strong); there were ropes to pull yourself along on, which was a lot of fun, and then you had to paddle. The tunnel we were moving through was about the size of a wide hallway, and the ceiling was simply covered with glowworms. We went several hundred feet along this, came to a dead end, then turned around and came back, and this time the guides made us turn off our lights (although Simon and I had already had ours off). Now, this particular cave used to be a Maori burial ground, and the guidebook claims that people come out of it calling it spiritual, or haunted, or both. Maybe that had something to do with it, but I’ve never felt so at peace in the dark as I did drifting through that swirling galaxy of turquoise flecks. It was an Important experience, and my soul felt content and quiet. I could have gone back and forth for hours.

Then we ditched our tubes and tackled what the guides called the “Drunken Stumble” (because, as they put it, when you walk it “you look a bit pissed”) which was just walking downstream in the river. It was mostly pretty shallow, but the rock bed was all weird shapes and it was very hard to see under the rushing water. We kept slipping and tripping and falling down (hence “Drunken Stumble”). Every once in a while it would get deep enough to swim—I actually wish there had been more swimming. After you’d been drunkenly stumbling for twenty minutes, swimming was easy and pleasant. At the end of this stretch they stopped us and gave us piping-hot Kool-Aid (urgh) and chocolate bars. (I preferred the hot chocolate and cookies, but it was nice to swallow something hot.) When we continued, the tunnel got quite narrow; sometimes you had to turn sideways or duck, and it got tighter and tighter. We finally ended up in a small chamber, where the guides said, “So now we have a choice. If we go that way, it’s an easy walk to the surface near where we came in. Or we could go this way.”—and they pointed to a three-foot-high arch in the wall, and on the other side of it you could see the bottom of a significant waterfall—”Which way do you want to go?” You were obviously supposed to prefer the waterfall, but I wasn’t at all sure.

We had to edge through one at a time—it wasn’t really an arch but a small tunnel, and you got stuck if you didn’t have your body in quite the right position. The flow of the waterfall was about three feet across by the time it leaped free of the rock wall, and its source was maybe fifteen feet up. The guides positioned themselves to give you a hand, and then you had to climb the waterfall. As it turned out, the limestone had dissolved away perfect deep hand- and footholds, and it was not very difficult. The guides pointed to where your hands and feet were supposed to go, and once you’d reached the top you just planted your knee right in the center of the waterfall and crawled through a tight tunnel to another little alcove. Then we did it again. It was enormous fun, because it was easy but also dangerous, so you (I) got the thrill of it minus the usual terror. Because, yes, I’m a chicken. The last waterfall was pretty short, and when you reached the top you found yourself clambering out into natural light—although there wasn’t much of it, because the sun was just going down.

We had to hike to the van, which was weird after all that scrambling and climbing and swimming, but it was nice because you got to start taking your gear off. My wetsuit jacket, I suspect, was actually a children’s wetsuit, with no allowance for a bust of any kind, because it felt like an upside-down corset: my stomach was fine, but my ribcage felt squeezed to the creaking point all day. When I unzipped it on the way up to the van, deep breaths felt foreign and kind of scary, but my bones couldn’t believe their deliverance.

Back at headquarters, they had free tomato soup and bagels, which was the perfect post-caving snack. There were big screens where they showed the guides’ pictures from each of the tours (you weren’t allowed to bring your own camera), and you had the option of buying the pictures from your tour (which we did). I really, really wanted a Legendary Black Water Rafting sweatshirt, but they were $79, which looked like a lot but in retrospect that’s about usual in USD for a touristy sweatshirt. It’s something I’m proud I did, and their logo was cool, which is all the reason you need to get a sweatshirt, and I deeply regret not buying one. If anyone’s looking to get an awesome Christmas present for me…

[back-posted]

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