One of the most memorable activities we did when visiting New Zealand, was exploring the Ruakuri glow worm cave in Waitomo. There are multiple companies going down these caves. We picked the Black Water Rafting Co. From the different tours they offer, we chose the 5 hour Black Abyss, which is promoted to be “the ultimate caving adventure” – we couldn’t agree more
Step 1: Preparation
Before starting, we needed to get our gear. This includes wet suit, boots, climbing tools and helmet with flashlight. After changing our clothes, we got some first instructions from our 2 guides on how to operate our tools and took a group photo. A mini bus drove us over to the caves, where the actual adventure started.
Step 2: Getting comfortable with the absent
The scariest step for most people I guess is getting down the cave. The good thing is that you can practice a bit upfront. When arriving at the cave, our guides helped us to figure out how to properly manage the tools and how to lower ourselves comfortably. After 2 or 3 attempts we got the hang of it and felt as prepared as we could be to descend in the seemingly bottomless black depths of the cave
Step 3: Going down
The hardest part is that you have to wait your turn to go down. You’re standing in the shadow and you feel the adrenaline flowing, so you start to shiver a bit – a mixture of getting cold and getting nervous. So – a tip: try to get in front of the group, in order to get it over with.
In hindsight, it’s not bad at all – on the contrary, it’s a lot of fun. Never panicked, none of us. Yes, the entrance (so the hole in the ground) is pretty tight. There’s a reason why there’s a maximum weight of 120 kilogram for people who want to participate. But it’s never terrifying. I won’t say that I’m claustrophobic, but whenever I’m in a situation where I feel I cannot or hardly move, I don’t feel comfortable. That wasn’t the case here – not for a second did I feel anxious or trapped.
Also, the guides are really helpful and know how to make you feel at ease. Before you go down, they ask you the question: “do you want to do this?” and you explicitly have to confirm, otherwise they won’t let you go. Then they take a picture, right before you start descending. And off you go
Step 4: First moments in the cave
When you made it down safely, the other guide is there to help you navigate to the “waiting room”, where the people who have already made the trip down wait for the others. You can relax a bit on the natural stone benches. Once you have turned out your flashlight on your helmet and you take a look up, you get a first amazing view of the glow worms. Wow.
After the last group member has made it, you start entering the cave a bit deeper. One behind the other. Watching where you put your feet, as the bottom is uneven and slippery. We’re all wondering what’s next.
Step 5: Action!
And then it’s time for action again. We’re going further down into the cave and in order to do that, we take a short zip line ride. As soon as I’m ready to go, all lights are put out again. We’re asked to shout something on our way down: “Zipliiiiiiiine!” (remember the South Park episode?). I’m flying by thousands of glow worms – wonderful.
When everyone’s down, we go sit on the edge, with our legs bungling above the water a few meters down and we keep enjoying the peace, the flickering glow worms and the serenity of the place. We’re offered hot chocolate, which warmed us all up. And that wasn’t a bad thing, knowing what would come next.
What was next? Well, we took a swimming ring, put that behind us, at the height of our lower back and jumped from the edge – our feet up – into the ice cold water, while bringing the swimming ring underneath us. Do you get the picture? The result was that I went under the water almost entirely – all that cold water running in my wet suit – and then came up again with the swimming ring under me. I literally needed to catch my breath, but it felt great. As there were others waiting to jump down, there was no time to be cold, I just needed to move over and get to the side, until the whole group was ready to go to the next part.
Step 6: Reflect
We floated in our swimming rings and moved along a rope to a corner of the cave, where we sat down on the natural seats of rock. Our guide was telling us that this part of the trip was his favourite. It was obvious that he lost his heart to the cave. With all lights out again and while we were again admiring the glow worms, he reminded us that in this day and age, it’s easy to forget about all the wonderful things that surround us. We take nature and all that comes along with it for granted. We are polluting, tearing things down, not showing respect for nature. And of course, he’s right. So we sat there, thinking about all that. Then he chanted some verses that he wrote himself in Maori language as a tribute to the cave. After that, he asked us to all shout together – as hard as we could – “Ruakuri” and we heard it echoing in all parts of the cave. Goosebumps.
Step 7: Climbing waterfalls
After this break, we made our way back. First floating on the swimming rings again in a chain – each person attached to the next – then through some narrow openings in the sides of the cave walls. Again, nothing to be claustrophobic about. It gets narrow (sometimes from the sides, sometimes from the top), but I never had the feeling that I couldn’t move or get out.
And then we climbed a few waterfalls – sounds more difficult than it actually is. The first ones are small. The last one is bigger, but again the guides are there to help you every step of the way. They show you where to place each of your feet, one after the other, and before you know it you see rays of sunshine again.
Step 8: Reminiscing
Once everyone’s out, we take a few pictures of the group, together with the guides and we head back to base. We remove our gear and get changed. We enjoy some soup and a bagel (complimentary), order our photos and talk about what we just experienced. All very satisfied with the whole experience and ready to tell everyone we know about it. And now you know as well
Note: no camera’s whatsoever
One of the clear instructions we got is not to bring any camera’s. Our first reaction was the same as most people, I guess: disappointment. When being in the cave however, we got the point and were really glad we didn’t have to worry about getting the best pictures. The point is to enjoy to a maximum extent and that’s what we were able to do. The guides are there to take pictures and of course, you have to pay for them, but if you split the cost between the different group members, it’s very cheap (you get the photos on a USB stick).