Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Waitomo Caves

Of the small group of us travelling from New Zealand to Texas mid-August (tickets now booked) an even smaller section decided to travel half way down the North Island for a bit of an adventure jaunt. We were to stop partway down on Monday to go "Blackwater Rafting" through some caves then stay in Taupo and go skiing on Tuesday. Three of us would travel back to Auckland on the Wednesday and the rest took annual leave and remained for the week.

I clambered out of my bed around 0515 Monday morning and stumbled out of my room towards the bathroom. Plumpy was already waiting outside my bedroom door as he always does (evidently he does this for at least an hour as I don't usually get up until 0610) so I gave him his measure of diet food for breakfast and proceeded to cleanse myself of a less-than-decent night's sleep. Plumpy is wonderfully obedient. His biscuits live in an open bag on top of the dryer which he could jump onto very easily but he prefers to wait for me. I can leave meat on the bench and go to work and he won't eat it either (our love is built on trust).

Showered, dressed and packed I headed out the door with my cup of tea in a thermal mug and drove on to the Air Force base where I work. I left the car in a park and jumped in a worn-out Nissan Nivara (ute) with the others to head off south. Fortunately the motorways weren't too jammed. With a hiss and a roar we were off to Waitomo!

Waitomo is an area in the North Island which is filled (or emptied...) with a vast system of caves. Many of these beautiful caves are the home of glow worms and there are many different types of tours exploring them. We had booked ourselves in for "Haggis Honking Holes." Although I discovered I would not be rafting as I had thought I was assured we would still be getting wet - this was a proper Caving trip! Our guides introduced themselves at the headquarters as Luke - a tall skinny Australian - and Paerau, a charming Maori fella who was all charm and grins. For some reason Paerau also answered to "Eddy." At the end of the trip I had a group photo taken with Luke and Eddy, but it was on someone elses camera, someone who is still in Taupo 'till the end of the week so I will not be able to insert the picture until next week sometime.

Luke drove us all in a van onto a farm owned by a woman by the name of Haggis, hence the first part of the tour's name. Eddy explained 'Honking Holes' comes from a Dr Seuss poem. We were squeezed into wetsuits, gumboots and helmets and shown how to use our harness attachments to abseil down a little slope before we entered the caves. Luke was impressed with our amazing ability to follow instructions, do as we were told, and understand his explanations. No confused foreigners were we!

Finally after an equipment safety check by our guides we descended into the darkness. The water flowing through the cave was just above our ankles and rushing quite ferociously. As there were eight of us there was a bit of waiting in the cavern for each person to make the first 23 metre abseil one by one. I was third-to-last.
I locked off the rope as instructed, turned around, sat in my harness and pushed off the edge. I was swinging in the dark, only able to see my hands on the rope in front of me and the light from Luke's helmet.
"Take off the lock now Sarah, and away you go."
I carefully placed my hands on the rope as instructed and pulled it away from the 'rack' which locked it in place. I knew as soon as I unwound it from the top of the rack it would be imperative I kept the rope tight. If not - I might drop. I had little faith in my own ability to hold my weight. I eased the rope around. I didn't drop. Waves of relief swept through me as I placed my hands and let the rope start to feed through the rack. I was abseiling!!! I bounced down the side of the cave go - stop - go - go - go - stop! go.... hee hee, this is fun!
The water and I crossed paths! Here I was looking about me (and my light not really reaching anything much) and the bloody waterfall decides to spray me with freezing cold winter water! There was nothing I could do but continue down. A the bottom Eddy had been my safety man and he turned on his much more powerful helmet-lamp
to help me unclip from the rope and back out of the way. I bumped into the others and was ordered to turn my light off. aha! This was to stop the next person from guessing how far they had to go! I looked up to see where I had come from and could not spot the top of the decent. We really were in the caves. Once everyone was down we squeezed between the walls to the next abseil. It wasn't as far down as the first (no others were) but it was a bit of a tighter chimney and we were told to stop partway down to smile for the camera.

Luke made me do a thumbs-up which is not my usual style so I felt a bit cheesy. And yup - I descended straight into the roaring rage of a waterfall. Not only was it cold, but it was pretty powerful too! We continued in a similar vein (pun intended ho ho ho) round corners and down waterfalls till we came to a longish sort of cavern and stopped to turn off our lights. There were the glow worms! Little green lights dotted about the ceiling of the cave. While Luke went ahead to see how close we were getting to the group in front (apparently we were catching up) Eddy taught us somethings about glow worms.

Glow worms do not have the usual method of excretement as the rest of us. Instead the mix their waste product with an enzyme and burn it off as light. This light in turn attracts the moths and mosquitoes which are found around water. The glow worms drop lots of little silk threads - up to a dozen or more each and these capture the insects.

When they change into their winged form there is no more eating - they live purely to mate. Then they are captured in the silk threads of other worms and eaten.

Their Latin name is Arachnocampa luminosa - arachno because of the silk threads used to capture prey, (campa is possibly to do with the caves? I can't remember) and luminosa because they're scared of the sun. There's a good site which tells you plenty about them here.

After the interesting intro to the 'worms we followed the water along the cave until it opened out. Luke was sitting at the other end with camera in hand and told us all we had to come through a tiny little space on our stomachs. The water was pretty high and not warm at all, but I enjoyed the sensation of seeing if I could squeeze through. Because I'm only little it really wasn't an issue - I wonder how I would have coped if I'd had to breath out and wiggle? I was more worried about getting water up my nose!!

The rest of the caving experience was more waterfalls and caverns, not really worth typing about and I can't remember them all in order anyway - but it was all definitely worth experiencing! I frequently wandered along behind the rest, searching the formations and shapes on the walls or turning my light off and looking at the green glow of the worms. I liked to imagine I was an explorer trying to make my way under the mountain. It was fun!
I wish my Dad had been there with me. He's the one who really got me interested in geology, who taught me about how limestone caves are formed and how water can shape the world around us. I wanted to experience with him they way the stalagmites and stalactites were growing, to share with him the fact it can take 800 years for them to grow a centimetre (and some of them were metres and metres long). Some of the formations were tiny little cylindrical 'straws' and they were hollow too. Some of them were coated on the outside and looked like coral growing down from the ceiling. Other's even looked like pristine curtains of white crystal shimmering out from the walls. It was just so amazing. And the other's weren't so interested in that side of it - not the way I was. I needed my geeks with me, my Ju's Little Sister's Best Friend, or my Ju, or Ju's Dad.

We finished going down waterfalls and started climbing up walls. Even though we were in gumboots (and if it wasn't for them, where would we be?) it was easier than it looked. The walls were easy to grip on and not slippery at all, and there were lots of little footholds. The hardest part was bending my knee with a rubbery wetsuit on! Halfway up we stopped for a cuppa and some biccies (cordial and chocolate fish) and there Luke took a group photo at my request.

He told us all to turn our lamps off. It was very dark. There were no glow worms. Just darkness. We all waved our hands in front of our faces and couldn't see them. I was disappointed when I caught sight of JC's watch glowing. Eddy told us to wait for our eyes to adjust, then admitted they already were - it would get no easier to see. We were told it was about 95-99% dark.
Eddy then went on the describe a group he'd taken through a year before. Upon hearing the percentage darkness a Texan proudly boasted "the caves at home are twice as dark as this!" Ha! Well I guess I'll find out how likely the story is while I'm living in Texas for three months starting this August.

Here's the real group photo by the way:

From this cave we were told to find our own way out (I was the only one who seemed interested in wandering off, so I'm the one who found the passage he he) and along the next tunnel we came across some lovely fossilised seashells. Then we clambered up a long and powerful but stepped waterfall to the last cavern in which there was a ladder to the surface. I waited till last and as the second-to-last guy climbed the ladder I turned my lamp off one last time and stood in the beautiful darkness with Eddy. He suggested I come back one day and go on the Ultimate Lost World Tour which takes seven hours and they feed you lunch and dinner. I will definitely be keen!

After all that excitement we trundled off to Taupo and drank the night away, then didn't go skiing at all because the weather closed in. But the caving was worth it.