Wake up stupidly early and hear the sounds of heavy rain. This results in me getting out of my (very warm) bed and out into the (very cold) outdoors to see my worst fear realised. My swimsuit, which I left out to dry has gotten drenched again, and I need to wear it today. This results in cursing, and me ignoring the ‘do not cover’ warning on the heater while I try to get it dry before we leave.
Today we hit up the Waitomo Caves, and finish the day in Mourea. There are dozens of caves in the Waitomo region, and most if not all are on private farmland. Originally the farmers asked for help in keeping them closed off so they’d stop losing cows and sheep down the holes, but the government’s position was ‘if it’s on your land, it’s your problem.’ Fast forward several decades later, and the caves are now a huge tourist attraction and the farmers lease them to various tour companies for a decent amount of cash. Waitomo itself is a tiny little village – less than a 100 people actually live here, yet gets thousands of visitors every week, all coming to see glow worms and incredible natural structures.
The company Stray likes to use is Waitomo Adventures, which offers several different tours, although only two appear to be offered in winter – Tumu Tumu Toobing and Haggas Honking Holes. Toobing mostly involves floating on a doughnut in a cave staring at stalactites and glow worms, while Haggas is more adrenaline packed with abseiling and crawling through small holes. Normally, these tours cost about $190-$250 respectively, but with Stray, they cost $145 and $192. However, on the way (still in hideously heavy rain), Maverick gets a call, and gives us the news.
The rain has been so bad, that the cave they use for toobing is completely flooded. Due to this, anyone who wanted to do the toobing can get a free upgrade to the Haggas tour…and anyone already doing the Haggas tour can do it for the price of the toobing.
That means I’m getting this trip for nearly $100 discount! And means I have another wad of additional cash that I can put towards another activity at the next destination, bonus!
Due to the nature of the tour, after we’re all driven up to the top of the mountain that hosts the cave (and have to endure the struggle of getting on still-wet-from-the-day-before wetsuits), we get taken to a small training area where we’re taught how to properly use the abseiling equipment. This includes how to make a knot, and how to control how fast you go down. I’m a little nervous, as I do have issues with heights, although that feeling is nothing compared to when our guides (Craig and Fish) show us the entrance.
It’s a tiny hole in the middle of nowhere, where you have to clamber down rocks and try and find a ladder heading down with only the light from a torch on your helmet to guide you. Both guides have to head down to prepare the next section, so instructions on how to get down have to be passed on by each person. This falls apart as our group (consisting of 9 girls) struggles to remember the instructions, resulting in one girl who happens to be really short struggling to get to the ladder, and another girl panicking and deciding not to go down at the last minute. I was also behind a woman from Hong Kong, whose English is good, but not good enough to fully understand she was meant to be giving me instructions, and I had to wing it. It’s rather terrifying as you’re relying on a handful of rocks to swing yourself onto a metal ladder that you can only just see at an angle.
I manage to make my way down, and forward the message that one girl backed out. This is a problem as there is NO ONE up at the shed where we got ready, and the guides can’t move on unless everyone is accounted for. Craig ends up giving me the camera (we are forbidden from taking anything with us, so the guides take cameras and forward on photos a few days later) as I get ready for my first abseil…literally down a pitch black hole.
I admit it, when I first swing out I scream a little, but I was able to feel the rope supporting me and Fish was holding the rope underneath so I was more reassured than I expected. Took an abysmally long time to get to the bottom though, and hit the waterfall that’s caused by the water rushing down from where we walked in. When the rest of the girls make it down, we end up walking under the waterfall and start clambering through the rock tunnels.
We have to move at a pace which is kind of sad, because the tunnels are beautiful. Everywhere you look there are stalactites and rock features, in between very thin gaps that leave little wiggle room to clamber through. All the while we’re walking through about a foot of water, all rushing downwards.
Within a few minutes though, Craig is back with us, just as we get ready for our second (but not quite a high) abseil down a waterfall. One of the girls (who sort of becomes the third guide by taking on extra responsibility – think she’s abseiled before) goes down first to give directions, and we start heading down.
This one is not as high, but it’s actually scarier. For one thing it’s a narrow gap to get down, and I can’t reassure myself with the equipment holding my weight due to not having room. Just have to grit my teeth and trust it. Secondly, it’s impossible not to hit the waterfall on the way down, and it’s strong. Before we go down we’re warned not to even try to get out of it, just get down and detach ourselves. Since one guide is up at the top and the other has gone a little further on, we’re responsible for our own safety harnesses, and the next person can’t come down until we’ve done so.
Once I’m down (and the other girl helps me detach because my hands are freezing – please note this water is cold), I’m pointed in a general direction and told to go ‘feet first.’ I have no idea what she’s talking about as I can’t actually see anywhere to go…until my light hits on a small hole near the ground. When I sit down and crawl into the space, I see the hole turns into a tunnel…with the water almost coming up to my chest. I get a nod of approval from the girl, and thrown caution to the wind.
The current takes me most of the way, and about five seconds later (and believe me, that’s a lot long than you’d think when you’re in a crawl space half filled with water), I come out into even stronger rapids and a very narrow tunnel/waterfall area where one of the guides is waiting, getting soaked by the water at the bottom. I can barely hear him over the sound of the water, and I’m supposed to try and block the water with my hip against the wall, but I fail miserably, and he’s standing there getting pounded. He guides me down, showing me the rock steps, and I get down to yet another abseil – although this one is too dangerous for us to do in these conditions so they’re just lowering us down. As I get in position though, one of my gumboots breaks loose! Thankfully, it’s waiting for me at the bottom of the short-but-powerful waterfall number 3. I meet up with the girls who went before me, and wait for everyone else.
Eventually we can hear yelling from the guides about what’s taking so long, and eventually the rest of the girls start coming. Turns out that the next one down panicked at the small hole and didn’t want to go through until she saw someone else do it. This started a chain reaction, resulting in everyone not wanting to be the first through, until the guide started yelling and one finally braved it. They all felt a little guilty when they got to the guide and realised their hesitation resulted in him getting battered by icy waters for an additional 15 minutes. Don’t think he was all that happy for the rest of the trip – we ended up separating into 2 groups at this point, either to give him a break from the waters, or because of the next section.
We’re going through places we have to crawl through, and more tight squeezes, before getting to waterfall number 4. This one requires us to keep our legs straight, and have our arms protecting our heads, elbows by our chest so we can FIT through the hole. We’re also warned that once we get down, we’ll have to hug the wall because it’s a tight squeeze. I end up going down first, and immediately see his point – no way would we have gotten 11 people down here. The waterfall is crazy powerful, nearly pinning me to the ground when I get there, and I have to hug the wall to avoid people’s legs. The way out is a yet another narrow corridor behind the waterfall, and it’s a struggle to get through since I can’t see how far the people in front of me have gotten behind the water, and it’s hard to tell if you can move or not.
We hit our longest crawling section yet at this point, but the payoff is well worth it. When we finally drag ourselves back to our feet, we’re told to turn off our lights and take a seat. We’ve finally hit the glow worm section of the caves, nearly 85 metres underground.
If I thought they were awesome on the road, they’re incredible in here. With absolutely no natural (or unnatural) light to impede them, it’s kind of like looking at the night sky. They’re everywhere, practically making constellations and patterns on the rock face. While we gaze, the rest of the group catch up, and we reluctantly turn our lights back on and head along – although as we do, we get a chance to see the glow worm’s delicate strings as they litter the right hand wall of the tunnel we head down.
This is the deepest this tour goes, and its time to start heading upwards. Ironically, it’s going up the ladder that probably freaks me out the most – it’s a very long ladder and has its own safety harness. Takes me a ludicrously long time to get up, and a few minutes later, I’m face with a rock wall we have to climb.
This at least, I’m more familiar with. I’ve done a few artificial climbing walls before so I’m pretty confident in finding foot holds, even if I have to fight yet ANOTHER waterfall to do it. Manage to scurry up relatively well, before being told to ‘go over the ladder and under the arch’ in order to get a drink. Do just that…and then get stuck trying to clamber through a very tight gap with little footholds to help (nearly lose my boot again!) before making my way through and finding that the bag the guides have been carrying held a canteen of fruit juice and some chocolate Freddo’s for us to enjoy.
It’s a welcome sugar rush just in the nick of time. I haven’t eaten in hours and have been clambering around wet and cold, and we still have a ways to go before we see daylight again. After a 20-minute break or so, the guides usher us back to our feet, and we continue upwards.
We’ve got more crawling to do, only this time we’re heading upwards just to make it that much harder, but when we make it into walking space again, we realise we’ve come full circle as we hit the area we first abseiled into. Now we’re heading down the other tunnel – one I’d barely realised was there the first time around, and have our first experience walking against rushing water instead of going with it. It makes things ten times harder, especially when we hit more crawl space tunnels with water past our elbows. When the roof finally raised? We still had knee high rapid water, and had to climb upwards in it – and yet we all managed to make it to the final ladder, soaring into the sky.
I was the third-last to get out, and had to walk over a platform with the security rope attached until I made it to the more solid rock face and clambered up the ladder that took me to daylight. It wasn’t until I made it out to mud and not water and rock that I realised how tired I was. This is a really exhausting trip, and I’ve never been more grateful for a place having hot showers than I was when I stripped myself out of that wetsuit.
Unfortunately, when we were all showered and dressed, we discovered that between people being late to the start (not us), our delays underground and just general pace, we were actually running almost an HOUR late. One guide actually had to go somewhere immediately and thus had to skip lunch while dropping us off, while the other was immediately going back in to take the next tour group. As for us, we literally had to jump onto the Stray bus and speed out of Waitomo for our next stop. Originally we were to stop in a local town for lunch, but we no longer had the time, especially due to our next stop having issues with people arriving after dark – something that would be difficult to avoid now.
To be honest though, most of the cavers were fine to skip lunch. We ended up sleeping most of the 2 hours it took to get to our next destination.
The Haggas Honking Tours is a really great tour. The caves are incredible and I don’t think you could see anything quite like them anywhere else in the world. However, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you have severe issues with claustrophobia, water or heights, then there’s no way you can do this tour, especially if there’s been heavy rain. No clue how powerful the waterfalls or general streams are in the summer, but my arms were aching the next day from the workout I put them through!