Long before I came to New Zealand, I’d read about the caves near Waitomo and how you can black water raft through them on inner tubing while marvelling at the thousands of gloworms that illuminate them from above.
Things didn’t quite work out that way…
My sister and I were signed up to do the Black Abyss tour with the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company.
Billed as the ‘ultimate adventure’ and including an abseil, some climbing and a flying fox, this trip seemed like the perfect mix of adrenaline and slightly more relaxed fun. I knew that once I was floating along in my tube watching twinkling lights overhead, I’d be ‘sweet as bro’ – as they say in New Zealand.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned. We arrived following a week of very heavy rain, which had caused the caves to flood, and the only trip the company could run safely that day was Black Odyssey caving. It was good that I hadn’t read the description on their website of how this trip would involve various caving techniques at dizzying heights and ‘seriously stretch your limits’.
Sometimes companies make their trips out to be more thrilling than they really are. In this case, there had been no exaggeration. My limits were seriously stretched. Imagine your biggest fears – extreme heights, dangerous precipices, pitch darkness, claustrophobia and massive cave-dwelling bugs – and you begin to get the picture. This is not for the squeamish. But if you think you can handle it, you will have the experience of a lifetime!
THE FIT TEST
When most people hear you have to do a ‘fit test’ to determine if you’re suitable for the Black Odyssey, they assume it’s a test of fitness. It’s actually a test of whether or not you will ‘fit’ through the cave passages.
While still at the main centre, they get you to crawl through a small obstacle course. If you make it out and haven’t had a breakdown from the enclosed space, there’s just one more test to pass – a breathalyzer! It seems extreme, but no one wants to be clinging to a rock face without full control of their balance and their senses.
GETTING KITTED OUT
Our guides for the day were Janna and Anne – two fearless ladies with nose rings to prove it! In fact I think a nose ring might have been a condition of working for the company…
They took us outside and got us kitted out in attractive red jumpsuits, harnesses, helmets with torches and…gumboots. Yes, you heard me. After all those years of my parents telling me to wear sensible shoes with a good grip just to go walking on rough terrain, I was about to scramble along cliffs in a pair of wellies!
After a short drive to the cave entrance and some photos of you looking way more confident than you feel, they lead you down a spiral pathway deep into the cave. On the way to the tunnel, you have the chance to view some impressive cave formations as well as gloworms.
Gloworms are pretty interesting little creatures. The first to hatch eats all its siblings. It then lives for the majority of its life as a long, maggot-like larvae clinging to the ceiling of the cave and dangling threads of mucus and silk in which to ensnare flying insects. When it matures into a ‘fungus gnat’ – a relative of the mosquito – it doesn’t have any mouth parts so it simply mates to its heart’s content, lays eggs if it’s a female and then dies.
You then have a very welcome chance to practice on a low stretch of wall, clipping and unclipping each safety harness as you pass the rigs in the cave wall that hold the ropes in place. Then the real fun starts.
If tight squeezes are your nemesis, you’ll be pleased to hear that the narrow section only lasts a few minutes and is right at the beginning of your journey through the caves. The bad news is that no sooner have you left them, you’re hanging off the side of a rock face a long way above the gushing black water and desperately trying to maintain a grip with your rubber boots and shaking hands.
Without ruining the surprise, there are a number of obstacles and additional treats in store, including a couple of zip lines and some original ideas for how to cross wide abysses. These photos are just a taster:
Keep your wits about you and remember you will always be attached by a harness so the worst case scenario is you slip, bash the side of the cave a bit and then dangle until one of the caving team can pull you back up.
About half way through, you can also take a breather and enjoy some juice and flapjack. If you really are struggling, it’s possible to leave at this point too.
Recent bungy jumps and base jumps haven’t made me any more confident when it comes to heights and, because this lasts roughly 3 hours, it’s not something you can build up to and then get out of the way in a few seconds of madness. In my opinion, this makes it more extreme and physically tiring. If you’re looking for adrenaline, the Black Odyssey should be top of your to-do list, and you’ll have an immense sense of accomplishment when you re-emerge into the real world.
Go on – I bet you’re intrigued to find out what those other surprise obstacles are!
GETTING TO WAITOMO
If you have a car, it’s a fairly easy drive to Waitomo from nearby Rotorua or Hamilton. Intercity Buses provide services to Waitomo from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Rotorua (2.5 hours); Auckland (3.5 hours). Further transfers are available from these locations. Search for journeys below or click through to their website for a full list of their activities, tours and bus pass options.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at Juno Hall, which is just a stone’s throw away from the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company. It has parking spaces, a large communal kitchen and even a swimming pool for the summer months.
I was a guest of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company. They did not request that I write a favourable review and all of the opinions expressed here are my own.