World Famous in New Zealand: Underworld Rafting, Charleston
WHERE/WHAT IS IT?
South of Westport, Charleston was big in the gold rush days but now there's another sort of gold inside those mountains.
After a ride on a dinky train called Dorothy through Kahikatea forest and the streaked limestone cliffs of the Nile River Canyon, Underworld Adventures takes you into a cave system that's still natural and real.
There you'll scramble through a darkness lit only by headlamps and glowworms past looming limestone formations.
Then you jump into the underground river and float on your inner tube out into the bush for a bit of a bump over some rapids before returning to the start some four hours later.
Because it's lots of fun, full of interesting information from the friendly and enthusiastic guide, and a world apart from the tamed and commercial experience at Waitomo.
There are lots of photo stops, the chance to see an actual glowworm up close, more stalagmites and stalactites than you could shake a stick at, and a real sense of adventure.
After wrestling your tube through the caves, it's a relief to cool off in the river, and float peacefully backwards with the current, admiring the constellations of glowworms overhead.
Then you're out in the open again, in dappled sunshine through the trees, bobbing for a kilometre down the river and, if the water level is low, getting a bit of a "river spanking" from the rocks at the rapids.
And if it's high? Whizz along to the end in four minutes flat, instead of twenty. They'll record the trip for you so you'll have plenty of photos to post on Instagram and Facebook to prove to your friends what a brave explorer you are.
There are steps and squeezes, lots of darkness, three levels of caves, and if it's been raining, that scoot over the rapids can be fast and furious — so you need a bit of a sense of adventure and a reasonable level of fitness.
But the guides are encouraging, alert and knowledgeable, so you're in good hands.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki are a must-do — if it's wet and windy, there's even better blowhole action. And for more spectacular rocky coastline, plus a lighthouse and seal colony, head north to the Cape Foulwind Walkway. Or for something entirely different, spend a day at Barrytown Knifemaking creating your very own blade: forge the steel, carve and fit the handle, polish the finished article. For a break from the buffing, you can work on your axe-throwing technique.
Rafting trip adults $185, children 10-16 $150 — or just do the railway for $25 and $20. They also offer a Glow Worm Cave Tour and, at the other extreme, Adventure Caving.
BEST TIME TO GO
It's a year-round experience, departing two or three times daily. Wet suits, helmets and lifejackets are provided, and since you're going to get wet anyway, the weather doesn't much matter. See caverafting.com