A caving odyssey, extreme traversing and mind-blowing heights. Sounds like fun, right?
Cavers are daredevils. Equipped with a bit of rope and some shiny clickerty-click thingies – carabiners – they squeeze into the tightest spaces deep underneath the earth and crawl about where no man has crawled before.
It’s dark, it’s cramped and there is the chance to grab onto all kind of crawly creatures, or, if a cave suddenly widens into a crevice, onto 30 metres of nothingness.
To be honest, caving, or potholing as the English call it, had so far not been all that high on my to-do-list. But that was about to change.
Waitomo’s Black Water Rafting Company has been guiding adventurous types through Ruakuri Cave, or ’den of dogs’ as it translates into the English, since 1987.
Their tours through the limestone underworld, that has been 30 million years in the making, have been attended, sometimes feared, but predominantly enjoyed and most important survived by more than half a million Kiwis and visitors from overseas.
Self described cave-man and chief instructor Angus Stubbs and his up to 40 guides have so far taken travellers into the Black Labyrinth a three hour tour that sees adventurers climbing, leaping and tubing through the black waters of the glow-worm clad Ruakuri Cave or the full- on Black Abyss, a five hour tour that adds the thrill of abseiling through a 30 metre tomo, climbing up waterfalls and whizzing down a flying fox to the experience.
Less adventurous visitors can take a stroll down the magnificent spiral entrance to the Ruakuri Cave – the only wheelchair accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere – to marvel at the limestone formations.
Now the Black Water Rafting Company has come up with a new adventure that shifts the action from the wild and wet bottom of the cave to dry and high ceilings.
Two years in the planning, the Black Odyssey promises extreme traversing and mind-blowing heights, spider-walking through ancient rift passages and challenges of technical high rope work.
I am one of the first members of the public who is about to take on that challenge.
Before our group of six descends deep into the mountain, we meet our guides Drew and Neil, both hugely experienced cavers, who make all the scary things that are to come sound like the funnest thing you could do on a Saturday morning.
Our first challenge is called the fit test. And while I expect to be in for some sprints, squats and pull-ups, we’re directed to something that looks like a small, oddly shaped wardrobe.
One by one we have to squeeze in and crawl on our forearms through the tight wooden box, in parts not unlike a rabbit cage (for those miniature breeds that is), wriggle around corners and awkwardly drag our bodies out at the end, welcomed by our excitedly beaming guides and a camera in our reddened faces.
If you’re claustrophobic this wardrobe-crawl will tell you that this Odyssey ahead might not be the epic adventure you want to have a part in.
With a bit of a queasy feeling all of us pass the fit test and we’re off to be decked in bright red jump suits, whitegumboots, harnesses and helmets.
During the short drive to the cave entrance the group is rather quiet; we’re pondering what’s to come; but our up-beat guides keep the conversation rolling and before we know it, we’re about to enter.
The first bit leads us down the spiral ramp entrance of the Ruakuri cave. Easy-peasy, we recon. It may be dark, it may be a bit stuffy, but we’re thrilled by the adventure that lies ahead.
Just as we’re getting comfortable with the lack of light and fresh air at the bottom of the cave, we see the ropes and it becomes clear the three carabiner clad cords, dubbed cow’s tails by the experts, dangling from our harnesses are not just there to make us seem tough.
A quick introduction into the ins and outs of rope work, and the assurance that those hooks in the walls are capable of holding more than two tonnes – and off we go.
Well, go is rather the wrong word. The first 20 minutes of the tour we’re edged between a rock and a hard place. Literally. In parts the cave is so tight that I wish I hadn’t had pudding the night before. Or ever in my whole life, really.
But after a lot of bending, pulling, squeezing and trying (rather unsuccessfully and painfully) to push my knees through rocks, we arrive at a lofty platform of sorts.
But no time to rest. The ledge is only a few feet wide, a wild stream is nosily roaring about 30 metres underneath and now is the time to get my cow’s tails working.
Stubbs and his team have worked two years to figure out the right passage through the cave system and created a tour that is exciting and challenging but also safe for novice cavers like us.
They have spent 3000 hours underground, building and designing the trail, have put in 300 bolts, tested for at least 1.5 tonnes, 100 rungs and used two kilometres of rope.
Speaking of rungs, from now on we have to stretch our limbs as far as we can, to find grip on them while traversing the steep wall. Pretty much like Spider-Man – if he was wearing an unbecoming red jumpsuit, dairy-worker gumboots and would move really slowly and pretty clumsy.
For the time being we just concentrate on moving our clickerty-click things along the ropes, try to remember to breath and most of all – hold on tight.
And just as we get used to traversing along the walls of a mighty black cave our guides come up with something new: It’s time to abseil down a pitch-black tome. How deep? Who knows. It’s dark and I can’t see the ground.
Never in my life have I abseiled, and certainly not into dark unknowingness, but our guides radiate such professionalism and coolness, that soon everybody is clicked in and made their way down to the bottom of the cave.
Chocolate and a sweet drink from a steaming thermos jug called ‘‘Dead Mouse Tea’’ are handed around and our guides share their knowledge of the formation of the caves and Maori legend and then it’s time to click our carabiners back into the ropes.
Stumbling along the rocks in the wavering light of our head-torches we see a big gorge opening up in front of us. The clumsy Spider-Men procession is making its way along the walls and suddenly it’s time to be strapped in again and off we shoot into the dark on a flying fox.
We cross alarmingly swaying ladders high above the ground, master more flying foxes through the massive cathedral-like caves, circumvent stalagmites and avoid bumping our heads into majestic stalactites.
In a last effort we balance a rope, about 15 metres above a black stream (said to be inhabited by eels, as big as Richie McCaw’s arms and ready to bite you the moment you touch the water). But feeling now like pros in the clickerty-click-business of technical rope work all of us master this last challenge and we see daylight creeping into the end of the cave.
A few squeezes and the opportunity of knocking on my knee for the last time and we emerge into bright light and green lushness.
Our group is exhausted, but at the same time exhilarated and oh-so-proud. We’re real cavers now, we mastered the underworld, we flew through the pitch-black air and while taking off my helmet and looking at my muddy hands, I do understand the fascination of caving.
The immersion into a different world, the adrenalin-kicks and even the stuffy air make the Black Odyssey a truly special adventure.
The Black Odyssey:
Allow 4 hours
Fitness needed on this trip – participants will need to pass a ‘fit test’ before starting the tour
You must be 16 years and older
Need underlayer (ie shorts, T-shirts and a pair of socks) and a towel
All other equipment provided
Dry caving trip
Around 6-8 people per tour
The tour departs twice a day (9am and 2pm) and costs $175.
More: The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, waitomo.com
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