The first time I visited New Zealand, just over a year ago, my sister and I had intended to do the Black Abyss tour with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company in Waitomo. Beginning with a rappel into Ruakuri cave, but followed up with some leisurely tubing, it sounded like the perfect mix of excitement and relaxation.
HEAVY RAIN AFFECTS PLAY
Sadly, that time around, it wasn’t to be. There had been so much rain recently that the water level in the caves was too high to tube on it safely. Instead, we ended up doing the Black Odyssey – a hardcore caving option involving three hours of cliff clambering interspersed with some inventive methods of crossing over the abyss. Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredible adventure I’ll never forget, but I still hadn’t fulfilled my dream of floating effortlessly through a tunnel of glowworm lights.
Not one to give up easily, I returned to Waitomo this July, once again with my sister, and this time, the water levels were just right.
To top off our turn of good luck, we had the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company’s owner, Logan, as our guide. Not only does he know the caves like the back of his hand, his quick wit had us giggling the whole time – even when nerves should have got the better of us!
There were just four of us in our group and, after a brief introduction, we got kitted out in fleeces, wetsuits, wetsuit jackets, harnesses and plastic shoes that had been custom made to make it easier to walk in water.
After a short journey in the minibus, we arrived beside the cave’s ‘entrance’.
There was a practice area with ropes on a slight incline and Logan showed us how to attach our harness rack to the rope so that it would hold our weight.
There are two ways to control the speed of your descent/prevent yourself from shooting all the way down the rope to the cave floor. The first is to hold the rope in your right hand firmly behind your back. This is all very well, but at some point, you have to move that arm or you won’t go anywhere. The second is to release the pressure of your left thumb on the bottom of the rack so that the rope can slide through more easily.
Practice runs done (and silly photos taken), we walked a few more steps to a massive hole in the ground. There’s nothing like throwing us straight in at the deep end!
I have a pretty acute fear of heights and my descent was anything but smooth. To begin with, I hadn’t dared even glance at the 35 metre drop, so when the gap narrowed to not much wider than my body it came as quite a surprise. Then the cramp set in. I was so scared of falling that my ‘rack thumb’ seized up from pushing the rack too hard and, as a result, became completely useless. For the second half of my descent, it was down to our other guide Jah to pull on the end of the rope and effectively save my life whenever I lost control and screamed! Kudos to him for attempting to lighten the mood by whistling the theme tune from Indiana Jones.
After we’d regrouped, we had a few moments to collect our nerves before moving on to the next surprise… the flying fox.
For anyone who’s just found the rappel to be extremely scary, the idea of another obstacle that involves harnesses and heights isn’t too appealing, but the flying fox is relatively tame and much more enjoyable.
The main reason it’s less scary is that you have absolutely no responsibility. They hook you up and off you go.
The best thing about it is that you do it with your head torches turned off. This means you can see the glowworms all around you, shining like the Milky Way.
With the scary bits out of the way, we settled on a ledge to enjoy some flapjack and milo.
Then it was time for some ‘legendary’ black water rafting.
There are two ways to enter the water. The easy way is to climb down some steps. The fun way is to throw yourself off a ledge and hope you land in your tube. If you want to avoid the agony of ice cold water seeping slowly into your wetsuit, it’s easier to just jump and deal with it in one second of breathless shock.
For most of the journey, we formed a train by each holding onto the feet of the person behind, then Logan pulled us along in the dark so we could watch the glowworms overhead.
There were plenty of surprises awaiting us in the tunnels, including underground waterfalls, sculptures that look like Gandalf and Gollum from Lord of the Rings (you couldn’t make this stuff up!) and a bone that probably belonged to a whale but could possibly have been part of a giant penguin…!
Logan described the life cycle of a glowworm and showed us how we could make them all light up by making a sudden loud noise. They glow brighter when they sense the vibrations caused by potential prey such as insects, so the sound waves make them go wild.
After about 20 failed attempts at throwing our tubes back up to the platform we’d jumped from earlier, we admitted defeat and allowed Logan to do it for us.
A little further along the tunnel, we stopped for a second break and a very welcome cup of hot orange juice with chocolate. When we were finished, Logan told us to place the cups over our torch lights and to draw in the air for about 4 seconds while he put his camera on a timer with a slow shutter speed.
#NZ came out as a bunch of squiggles, but YOLO was a resounding success…!
It would be silly to expect a Legendary Black Water Rafting tour to end with an easy saunter out of the mouth of the cave.
True to form, there’s a slide, a couple of very tight tunnels, a dip under a very forceful waterfall.
Just before leaving, a final stop in an underground pool provides guests with the opportunity to search for the resident eel – Cecil!
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
It’s quite a tough final climb up a couple of steep waterfalls before you finally emerge into daylight five fun-filled hours later.
SHOWER, SOUP AND BAGELS
When you return to base, the hot showers are so incredible after spending so long in the cold water that you would never leave if it wasn’t for the soup and bagles and accompanying photo slide show awaiting you in the main hub.
OTHER TOUR OPTIONS
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company has three main adventure caving tours requiring various levels of skill and bravery.
Black Labyrinth ($125)
Takes three hours and is the easiest, with cave tubing as the main focus.
Black Abyss ($225)
The longest tour, with some high-adrenaline moments and a lot of time with the glowworms.
Black Odyssey ($175)
A full-on caving adventure involving cliffs, heights and obstacles that will really test your limits.
For $225, you can combine the Black Labyrinth and the Black Odyssey – a combo known as the Frontal LabOdyssey!
Although some of these tours are a little scary in parts, there’s step-by-step guidance and Logan and the other guides are very professional. They’ve come up with some ingenious ways of making each experience more entertaining and exciting while maintaining exceptional safety standards. I’m definitely convinced that there’s no better way to see the world-famous glowworm caves than with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.
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. For more information, and to check out a large selection of silly photos (and more impressive light painting), check out their Facebook Page.