19 Jan

We left Auckland on Christmas Eve, heading south in a tiny rental car I named Stanley. Driving was a bit of an adventure, partly due to New Zealand’s intensely curvy roads, and partly because they drive on the lefthand side. Although I have plenty of experience driving my motorbike on the left, this was my first IMG_3706attempt with an actual automobile. Within four hundred yards of leaving the rental office, I had to get on the highway and function. The first fifteen minutes took a lot of concentration. Once I sorted myself out, the biggest challenge was remembering to flip on the turn signal rather than the windshield wipers – we had a really clean windshield that first day. A couple of hours and a flat white or two brought us to Waitomo.IMG_3640

Waitomo is best known for the many limestone caves that are scattered throughout the area. There are over three hundred mapped caves, many with underground streams, and many others that are still uncharted. Following recommendations from Sean and Shorna, we signed up for an underground adventure with the modestly named Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. The name is actually misleading; there are no rafts involved. Instead, we were outfitted with snazzy wetsuits, complete with giant rubber boots and headlamps. With our gear in place, we headed to the caves in a minivan driven by a lady named Sparkles. Our guides, Hannah and Demi, were in a festive mood, so we used the ten-minute ride to belt Christmas carols karaoke-style along with the radio. Upon arrival, we were instructed to each chose an inner tube. The choosing was rather entertaining – the ideally sized tube fits snugly around your bottom without falling off – you can imagine the shenanigans. Next, we were given a brief tutorial, and practiced jumping backwards into a nearby stream, in preparation for jumping backwards off of an underground waterfall. Let me tell you, that water was cold!! Our delicate, Thailand-acclimated systems received a bit of a shock. 😉 After a photo shoot, we were ready for the caves. Here’s our group posing pre-cave, ready for action!

The cave entry was unremarkable, just a hole in the ground. Without the trail and our guides, it would have been barely noticeable. A few steps in and a short slide down, we found ourselves in a small cavern. Despite the headlamps, it took my eyes a few moments to adjust. It was humid and chilly inside the cave, and the sound of water echoed throughout. With our inner tubes over our shoulders, and one hand on the cave wall for balance, we tromped into a tunnel. Soon after the cavern, a steam joined the tunnel. We plunged in, game but shivering. For the rest of the cave we were in water, sometimes shallow, sometimes waist deep (on me anyways). Giant boots plus uneven rocks plus dim lighting makes for less than graceful walking. Our voices echoed as we chatted and laughed at our clumsiness. We met Cecil the eel who lives in an underground pool; Hannah told us not to let our fingers trail in the water in case he bit. I’m not sure if she was joking (it’s hard to tell with those Brits).

At two different points, we had to jump backwards off of a waterfall into the pool below. Hannah and Demi had us inch to the edge, put the inner tube on our bottoms, and then launch backwards. Given my dislike of heights, I was super nervous for this part, but the waterfalls turned out to be delightfully petite (although on the second one I couldn’t see the bottom pool before I jumped). The cave excursion ended with us floating in our tubes through the darkness. We turned off our headlamps, and the zillions of glowworms inhabiting the cave ceiling provided enough light that we could almost see. We sang a few Christmas carols, and the refrains of Jingle Bells echoed off the dark walls. It was fabulously weird and wonderful, and completely unique as far as experiences go. I was almost sad to see the light of day at the end of the tunnel, although my numb, wrinkled fingers were more than happy to leave the cold water behind.

On the ride back to the office, we attempted an a cappella version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but no one could keep all of the poultry straight. The tour officially ended with hot showers, and delicious tomato soup and bagels. All of that cave trekking takes it out of you! Fortunately, New Zealand is the land of tasty caffeine, so with another flat white in hand, Orestes and I headed off to our next destination.


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