WAITOMO, NEW ZEALAND – my life in their hands

Guide Jimmy promised me I wouldn't die.

It seemed so ridiculously life-threatening, I wasn’t even scared. There I was, a man who gets vertigo if his bike saddle is too high, dangling from a single rope a hundred metres above the rocky bottom of a limestone cave.

The publicity for the Lost World Adventure told me Tom Cruise had done this three times. Well, we’ve seen him do all kinds of weird stuff, and we know he has special effects people to make it look death-defying.

I was doing all my own stunts here, with only guide Anna above me giving instructions and guide Jimmy attached to me by a bit of blue ribbon which he promised would break my fall if necessary.

Going down, down, down...slowly, please!

It was soon after 7am. I couldn’t check my watch because that would mean letting go of the rope. I hadn’t had breakfast yet. I bet someone made sure Tom got at least a muffin and an industrial strength latte before he attempted this.

Waitomo (in Maori ‘wai’ is water and ‘tomo’ is hole) is about 200km south of Auckland. Soon after the caves were discovered in 1887, visitors began coming here to marvel at the limestone structures and get up close and romantic with glow-worms.

There are about 350 caves in the area, most still unexplored and unmapped. I’ve enjoyed visiting other limestone caves, but I’d found them all a bit the same, till now.

The difference at Waitomo is that caving here is a full-on adventure activity. In the Lost World, I completed the aforementioned abseil, scrambled over rocks for an hour or so, and then scaled a series of ladders, the biggest a 30m vertical affair. That’s a lot harder to climb than it sounds, as big as a ten storey building and it is best not to look down.

That afternoon I joined a Blackwater Rafting adventure, during which I jumped backwards off a waterfall into the void, squeezed through crevices and, in pitch darkness, waded over rocks and floated down a river on a car tyre tube.

What possessed me to do all this, and how did an ageing claustrophobe with a morbid fear of heights manage to get through it all?

I could do it because I trusted the guides and I trusted the gear. Dressing for the part helped. For the Lost World I donned coveralls and white gumboots, and a helmet with a headlamp. Safety harness straps and an array of clips and carabiners made me feel like Indiana Jones, ready for anything. Dress code for black water rafters was also helmet and boots, together with a padded wetsuit ensemble I was led to believe would bounce me off hidden rocks and repel eels at the same time.

The guides talked like cheerful, competent airline pilots, assuring us that despite a little turbulence this was all quite routine and safe if we followed a few simple rules. We paid very good attention to the safety demonstration.

Guide Anna looks like she knows what she's doing.

‘I’ll fasten your abseiling rack for you,’ said guide Anna, ‘Stay still.’ I didn’t even breathe till it was fastened.

‘By flicking on your headlamp, you promise not to pee in your wetsuit,’ said guide Vee. I solemnly flicked, and sent a silent message to my bladder that it would just have to behave despite the dangerous combination of fear and cold water.

Guide Matty issued us with inner tyre tubes and lined us up on a jetty above a muddy creek. ‘Turn and jump backwards into the water,’ he said, ‘1-2-3-go!’ And jump we all did.

The rewards for this trust and obedience were adventures unlike any I’ve ever experienced. Once I found I was not plummeting but sliding serenely down that hundred metre abseiling rope, I relaxed enough to look around at the Lost World, a deep cleft in the rocks, cliffs covered with ferns, mist rising and light filtering through foliage from holes far above. From the bottom of the rope we clambered into the dark corners of the cave, where glow-worms clung to the ceiling and eels wriggled in rockpools.

Then in the Black Labyrinth, guides Vee and Matty led us through the black water of a subterranean river. When we’d splashed and stumbled and overcome some fear, we were able to lie back on our inner tubes, switch off our lights, and float gently below the myriads of glow-worms lining the cave.

According to Matty, who I now trust with my life, glow-worms are maggots really, and the stuff that glows is their excrement, and we all love the Maori name for them – ‘titiwai’, light reflected on water. By any name, they’re magical.

‘Does it get boring, doing the same trip over and over?’ I asked the guides.

‘It’s not a bad office to come to work in each day,’ said Vee.

Anna concurred. ‘It’s the clients that make it. It’s wonderful to see people stretch themselves and get a buzz out of doing something they didn’t think they could do.’ Yes, that was me all right. ‘The clients we don’t like are the ones who are blasé about it all.’

There are even more extreme adventures available at Waitomo than the ones I did. Maybe I’ll do them some time, but not too often.

I’d hate to become blasé about hundred metre drops.


Getting there
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Auckland priced from AUD299. 13 24 76, www.airnewzealand.com.au. Buses run to Waitomo from Auckland and Rotorua. See waitomocaves.com and search “transport”.

Caving there
Waitomo Adventures runs four-hour tours of the Lost World, from $NZ240, waitomo.co.nz. The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company runs three-hour tours, from $NZ103.50. waitomo.com.

Staying there
Top Ten Holiday Park has en suite cabins from $NZ115. www.top10.co.nz.


Glow-worm Caves

No courage is needed here as visitors explore one of the most beautiful caves in the area on well-made paths, then float on a boat under a dazzling display of glow-worms. Entry from $NZ46. waitomo.com.

Woodlyn Farm

Billy Black’s Kiwi Culture show features yarns, jokes and sheep-shearing. Visitors can stay in his converted patrol boat, train, plane or underground hobbit hole. www.woodlynpark.co.nz.


Waitomo has numerous short, easy walks, notably to the Natural Bridge and waterfalls on Te Anga Road.

The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand and flew courtesy of Air New Zealand.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney 27/3/11


Filed under New Zealand

3 responses to “WAITOMO, NEW ZEALAND – my life in their hands

  1. I’m glad you did this and have pictures – now I don’t have to do it. I like the sound of those glow worm caves. I quite like glow worms.

  2. Tim

    Fantastic stuff. We only did the glow worm caves when we visited Waitomo, but I really wish we’d had time to do the descent too.

  3. Thanks, BdL and Tim. I think I should have done the glow worms first, then worked up to the scary stuff. They were pretty but a little tame by the time I met them.

    And I’ve heard the spiel about stalactities and stalagmites rather often now. The tites cling tight to the top, I’ve been told.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s