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Black Water Rafting in the Glowworm Caves of New Zealand

by Ro Ruffalo

photo by Corin Bain

I can’t believe I’m doing this.
The words reverberate through my mind as I stumble through an underground passageway that is completely dark except for the pale circle of light from my headlamp. Icy water swirls past my knees as I maneuver over slippery rocks and duck beneath stalactites. As the sound of flowing water continues to build until it is almost a roar, I know that something spectacular and terrifying lies just ahead.
I am, of course, on vacation.
My husband and I decided to tour New Zealand for a number of reasons: its reputation for hospitality, the favorable exchange rate on the American dollar, and most of all for its spectacular beauty. If you have seen Lord of the Rings you have some idea of the amazing scenery New Zealand has to offer, from lush forests to golden beaches to snow-capped volcanoes.
So why would we choose to spend our first full vacation day submerged in the vast labyrinth that lies deep below the surface of the earth, otherwise known as the Waitomo Caves?
Because New Zealand is also a land of adventure! Bungee jumping, zipline flying, jet boat racing—all of these possibilities and more await you and you will try them because, when you go on vacation, you want to experience 
something more than the boring rut that you were stuck in when you left home. And just as food consumed on vacation has no calories, and money spent on vacation does not affect your bottom line, so too lifelong phobias—a fear of heights, say, or claustrophobia—will not interfere with your enjoyment of various death-defying activities.
It is a lovely day—perhaps a touch on the cool side—with a cerulean sky. As we drive through mile after mile of panoramic countryside I find the view almost surreal, though possibly this is due to the effects of jet lag after our 13-hour (nonstop) plane flight. Also because, since we have flown over the International Date Line, it is still technically yesterday.
And we are driving on the wrong side of the road. I am not used to having my husband seated on my right when we are in a car, but since that’s where the steering wheel is, we both have to make the adjustment. Our New Zealand adventure has begun.
We arrive at the Long Black Café, where our tour is scheduled to depart. A hardy band of adventurers is already there, including a lively group of Aussie guys and two young couples who are backpacking their way across the country. Our guides, Corin and Ryan, lead us to a staging area behind the café where we are to be fitted with wetsuits.
Corin knows at a glance the size each person needs. With a grin he tosses me a “Farmer John” and matching jacket. The Farmer John is like a pair of wet, rubbery overalls, heavily reinforced at the knees. No sexy Body Glove this, and I stagger a bit under the unexpected weight of it. Next I am instructed to select a pair of outsized neoprene booties or “goofy boots” from a soggy pile nearby.
The two young women and I make our way to the rustic ladies room so that we can squirm into these things in relative privacy, even though we are wearing bathing suits underneath. A bathroom break is also a necessity, as we have all been firmly instructed “not to pee in our wetsuits!”
Did I mention that it is not particularly warm out? Or that these wetsuits have already been worn at least once today and are therefore clammy and cold?
I can’t believe I’m doing this.
At least, that is what I tell myself as we leave Auckland and head south. A two-hour drive along the North Island’s scenic highway will bring us to the Black Water Rafting Company, which will be taking us on our tour of the unknown.

photo by Corin Bain

At last we go sloshing out to meet the rest of our group. My husband, who has his own wetsuit at home, is an accomplished diver and seems perfectly at ease here. I, on the other hand, am worried about the massive blister I got from wearing my dressy sandals our first night in Auckland and am hoping the band-aid does not come off inside my goofy boot.
“Once you get your helmets on, you’ll look like real cavers,” Ryan says in his friendly Kiwi accent as he issues each person a hardhat with a miner’s lamp attached. “Now let’s get your rafts.” Rahfts.
The rahfts are actually large black inner tubes, the kind you use to go drifting downriver on a lazy summer’s day. I did that back in college, more years ago than I would care to admit. As I recall, there was a significant amount of beer involved. Having a beer now does not seem like a good idea, especially with that edict against peeing in our wetsuits.
We make our way down an overgrown path that eventually leads to the Waitomo Stream. The tea-colored water flows past a crudely built dock that juts out from the hillside, about 10 feet above the surface of the water.
At this point Ryan instructs us on the finer points of caving, including the leap of faith that will be involved. I had seen that bit about a “leap of faith” in their brochure but chose to ignore it because I hoped it was just a figure of speech. As it turns out, there are waterfalls in these caves. And the only way to traverse an underground waterfall, according to Ryan, is backwards.
“You need to practice aboveground first,” he says cheerfully, then proceeds to demonstrate but does not actually jump. Each person is expected to walk to the end of the dock, turn around, clutch the inner tube to his or her butt, and then leap into the river below.
Far, far below.
I can’t believe I’m doing this.
“All right! Who’s first?” Oo’s fuhst?
The Aussie guys look at each other and laugh nervously. Then my husband steps forward. Yep, I married a Type-A personality. This makes me Mrs. Type-A by default, even when all my instincts are pointing solidly in the other direction. So it is with vast relief I discover that Ryan has misdirected us about the big scary jump. We will have to jump, but from another platform that is only half as high. I am still marveling at this brilliant piece of psychological maneuvering when my husband takes his backwards leap into the river.
Then it is my turn.
Ryan greets me with cheery confidence, not doubting for a moment that I am going to jump when he tells me to. “On the count of three,” he yells in the same sort of voice that gets people to fling themselves out of airplanes. “One…Two…Three!
I have a sensation not of falling, but of suspended animation. Then I hit the surface with a tremendous Splat!! and water splashes over me, chilling my unprotected face and hands.
Corin has told us that the water in the cave is about 12 degrees, which sounds alarming until I realize he is not talking Fahrenheit but Centigrade. This is a foreign country, requiring many similar conversions: feet into meters, gallons to liters, and my favorite, calories into kilojoules. In this case, 12 degrees means about 54, which is still plenty cold. But the ugly wetsuit does its job of keeping me warm as I float serenely downriver, not a little proud of myself.

photo by Corin Bain

Now we are ready to tackle the cave for real. Our guides fish us out of the river. A quick drive in their battered van takes us to a bush-covered hillside in the middle of nowhere. We must look an odd bunch out here, miles from the ocean, dressed in wetsuits and shouldering inner tubes. A short hike brings us to the entrance, which seems to be nothing more than a narrow gap in the rocky terrain.
We have arrived at Ruakuri Cave.
Loosely translated from Maori, Ruakuri means “den of dogs.” Ryan gleefully recounts the legend of the cave, a bloodthirsty narrative involving a pack of wild dogs and the equally ferocious Maori who hunted them, 400-500 years ago. This area still has spiritual significance for the Maori and certain locations are off-limits to tourism. The Black Water Rafting Company, in operation since 1987, is vigilant about preserving the integrity of the caves and surrounding environment. And although wild dogs are no longer a problem in Ruakuri Cave (we hope), Ryan cautions us to be careful because the rocks are slippery.
He is not kidding. I struggle to maintain my balance while toting the bulky inner tube as we proceed single file through the narrow opening. Dark water flows over my feet, my ankles, and quickly reaches the level of my knees. It is shadowy in here but the afternoon sun has a long reach, illuminating the rocky passageway. The walls and ceiling have been carved into amazing shapes by the water and seem to glitter with embedded minerals.
Soon enough the cave bends to the right and now the darkness is absolute. I plod blindly along, one hand against the cold rock for guidance. The sound of running water grows louder, so too the excited gasps and laughter from our group. This is like wandering in limbo—no sense of direction, no frame of reference at all but for the sculpted limestone formations like alien signposts glimpsed in the light of my headlamp. Through it all, I hear the confident voices of Corin and Ryan as they guide us step by step on this Stygian journey. We pause to regroup, and suddenly I notice a small pinpoint of greenish light on the rock above my head.
A glowworm.
Bright and unwavering, the tiny glowworm looks curiously artificial, like an LED affixed by our guides to point the way deeper into the cave. I had expected something more out of Disney, a cartoonish, friendly creature with a dreamy purple aura and the tendency to break into song at unexpected moments.
Shine little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer…
Okay, I’ve seen a glowworm. Cool. But the water is flowing faster, louder, and I sense a waterfall somewhere ahead.
“Right! Gather round, everybody.”
The combined illumination from our headlamps reveals what appears to be a narrow precipice. To the left is the rock wall. On the right is an enormous sculpted boulder. The river flows through the gap between them, and there is just enough light to glimpse the water as it cascades out of sight into the unimaginable depths below.
“Do just like we showed you.” Ryan’s voice echoes above the rushing water. “Stand backwards on the edge, grasp your inner tube, wait for my count and then jump!”
Before I know it, my husband has made the leap and disappeared. I can no longer see him or hear him but assume he’s okay.
I make my way to the edge, then turn around so that just the toes of my goofy boots are poised on the rock. Looking down, I can see water rushing past my feet and falling away into darkness. Can’t tell how high up I am, maybe somewhere between the scary dock outside and the smaller platform.
And hey, I’d rather not do this but Ryan is right there cheering me on, plus there is a whole line of people behind me waiting their turn.
I am so keyed up that I don’t even wait for Three! before hurling myself backwards into the void.
There is another of those timeless, kaleidoscopic moments—I pray there are no jagged rocks below me, or eyeless creatures waiting to devour me—and then I hit the water with a tremendous splash and a triumphant yell!
Everyone makes the jump without incident and we float like lily pads upon the water. Next we maneuver into daisy-chain formation—also rehearsed with our guides beforehand—and are instructed to turn off our headlamps. Propelled by Corin and Ryan, we drift down a watery passageway, more than 50 meters underground. Looking up, I gasp with wonder as far above my head I see…a starry night.
Glowworms, millions of them!
Their mellow light illuminates the cave as we pass beneath them in utter silence. This subterranean galaxy of tiny creatures is a magical sight, all the more wondrous for the daring journey it took to reach them. Best of all, the ride lasts a long while, until finally it is time to enter the world of daylight once again.
Back at the café, we are offered hot showers and soup. I had expected to be chilled to the bone, but find myself warm and invigorated, more alive than I have ever felt.
We are in New Zealand for two weeks, and despite our many subsequent adventures—kayaking in Marlboro Sound, hiking in the Southern Alps, photographing rare penguins from a hide on a windswept beach—the memory of our black water rafting trip keeps those same words running through my mind:
I can’t believe I did that!
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