Black Odyssey: Caving in the Waitomo Underworld

Sometimes you just don’t want to get soaking wet. Simple. Yeah, yeah, “water” is the key word in Black Water Rafting but we have been dripping enough lately, with the underground tubing adventure on the Black Labyrinth and the extreme waterfall viewing we had yesterday. Luckily enough, there are some fun-derground experiences in Waitomo where you don’t have to squeeze yourself into a cold wetsuit. So we’re going to check out the Black Odyssey, The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company’s only dry tour!

Juno Hall’s stalker kitten

Judging by the relentless rainfall pelting down on our Jucy campervan’s roof, we would be surprised if today’s dry caving tour didn’t turn into a wet tour. The water level in the caves must be sky high at the moment! The rain is even disturbing the Juno Hall hostel’s resident kitten, who is waiting at the door for us to let him back into the hostel as we wake up. Although this kitten may be cute, it’s kind of creepy too. As Laura goes to have her morning pee, the kitten is clawing under the cubicle door. Next, as she tries to work in the hostel’s communal area, the kitten sits on the other side of the laptop staring at her for about an hour, until Robin goes to take a shower. Robin is washing his stinky self when he realises he has an audience peering over the top of the cubicle just watching him shower…

Crawling into the hamster tunnel

We don’t know if we are so keen to get back in the caves because this climbing caving adventure sounds pretty awesome or because we just want a break from this stalker cat.

A quick skip across the road from Juno Hall is The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company’s base. We meet our guides, Matt and Pip, and four of our fellow tour group cavers. Before the inevitable suiting up session, Matt gets us to do a litter crawl space test. In the side of the Black Water Rafting ticket office is a small wooden tunnel that looks only big enough to fit a dog in it.

“I want you to crawl in there, wave from the top of the tube, then crawl out the other end,” says Matt as if this is a completely normal thing to do.

Robin, who is notably scared of heights, says, “Laura, you go first,” just to practice this speech before we delve into the caves, which inevitable has some high climbing sections!

It’s easy enough if you are not claustrophobic and are not afraid of rubbing your stomach all over the floor. But getting lanky Robin into this homemade tunnel is amusing to witness. Every time he bangs his back on the roof of the tunnel, the whole structure comes away from the ground. Nice one, Robin, you’re destroying their hamster tunnels.

Getting pumped with our guide, Matt Getting pumped with our guide, Matt
Robin descending into the unknown Robin descending into the unknown
Crawling along the cave walls like a bunch of wetas Crawling along the cave walls like a bunch of wetas
People are usually standing up on this ladder... People are usually standing up on this ladder...

Sexy red jumpsuits

It’s sort of comforting to come down to the Black Water Rafting changing area, seeing all the wetsuits and the people returning from their tours dripping wet, and knowing that all we need is a sexy red (AND DRY) jumpsuit. We are also advised to just wear a T-shirt and pants under the jumpsuit because the exercise will make us warm. Alright! Warmth!

Harnesses, helmets, gumboots and sexy red jumpsuits on, Matt takes a “before” group photo, then we head off to the caves! We arrive at the Ruakuri Cave, the stunning limestone cave we visited the other day. Matt tells us the Maori legend of the cave before we make our way down the spiral walkway into the depths of Ruakuri. To anyone who hasn’t seen the Ruakuri Cave, you get a very quick idea of what this pearly white stalactite and stalagmite cave looks like as we march our way through to the training area in a secret passage off the cave path.

Training is simple enough to understand, which is essential otherwise we would plummet to our doom. We just need to make sure we are always clipped onto a rope attached to the cave walls. The design of the clips, with the amazing marvel of magnets, makes it impossible to not be always clipped onto the rope. The only way to get off completely is with the guides.

From climbing to abseiling

From the training area, we need to work our way up. The only way to do that is to climb through a narrow gap. The adventure begins! Robin is like a deer caught in the headlights when Matt tells him to go first, but he’s a good sport so goes up with no complaint (a rare sight of a Frenchman). We slowly make our way up, assessing which leg should go where. It’s really about assessing the situation and planning the safest route through the cave. Already, this is so much different from the water tours. Different in a perhaps more challenging way, as you need to think about what you are doing as you climb. It doesn’t matter what your strength or size is. There is an easy route to follow, you just have to figure out which one it is.

We use rocks and staples in the rock to navigate our way through the cave. The cracks in the floor show how much we are ascending. This first scramble through the caves allows us to get used to the equipment before we move onto our first obstacle: the abseil! Just when we had taken the time to climb up into the caves, we speed our way down on a rope.

A tale about glowworms

Our second obstacle is a snack break, before making our way to some more fun stuff to play with. We pass though the darkness of the Ruakuri Cave to get a glimpse at those all famous glowworms. Matt shows us what the glowworms look like close up while giving us his own special rendition of the glowworm’s life cycle story. We won’t write it down here, but we’re sure the novel will be out soon.

All the while, Robin can’t help but notice that the next lot of ropes on the cave wall are super high above the water below! The fear sets in.

Swings, ladders, flying foxes, tight ropes: welcome to the cave circus

Now we are masters of our gear, we literally swing around corners, balance on precarious ladders across the river metres and metres below, take flying foxes surrounded by awesome limestone formations and even balance on tight rope. Laura’s enjoying the challenge and thrill of all the obstacles, while Robin is… facing his fears somewhere in the background. Especially on the ladders, Laura has never seen fear on someone’s face quite like that, as Robin is almost crawling across, feeling his way around like a blind man despite having a head torch. (Laura also uses the opportunity to shake a few ropes Robin is holding onto in revenge of The Great Ruakuri Cave Scare of 2016).

When we entered the cave, it was day. When we leave, we’re surprised to see its night. (As they say, time flies…).

Matt has been taking some photos throughout our tour, but now we end with the “after” photo next to the cave entrance! We made it! Even if Robin was scared sh*tless, he feels so epic right now knowing that he faced his fear. (A fear he’ll have to keep facing because, isn’t there bungy jumps in New Zealand?)

Like all good caving adventure tours, ours end with hot soup and bagels back at the base, along with the photos Matt was taking throughout the trip. It’s a good cosy end to an epic day, but it’s a feeling we better not get used to because tomorrow, if the water level is not too high, we are going on the longest and most adventurous Black Water Rafting tour, the Black Abyss. See you then!

Laura and Robin

training is in session for some Waitomo caving!
training is in session for some Waitomo caving! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow, travellers!

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