Tag Archives: caves

Legendary Black Water Rafting and the Glow Worm Caves

I’ve been waiting for this day for years. 

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Blackwater rafting is the reason I came to New Zealand and has been high on my Atlas for a long time. Now the day has finally arrived! We entered the Waitomo region, home to the world-renowned Waitomo Glow Worm Caves to begin a whole days worth of underground adventure courtesy of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.

We chose the Black Abyss, the ‘original ultimate adventure’, option packaged with a brief boat ride through the Ruakuri glow-worm caves. The Abyss included abseiling, trekking, black water rafting (tubing), and waterfall climbing–all taking place underneath the earth! The others were happily keen to partake in the day of events but first…I had to endure a detour through Hobbiton.

The Lord of the Hobbits

Ryan, and more specifically Chelsey and Mike are all about the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit fandom. I am not. I’ve never seen any of the movies but it’s a well-known fact that the movies are filmed right here in New Zealand. If I were on my own backpacking, I would have easily skipped the Hobbiton Movie Set tour that takes place in Matamata, a vicinity close to Waitomo. But since I was sharing this trip with the others, I was outnumbered and made the haul to Hobbiton so the others can indulge in their childhood fantasies while I found the time to kick back and catch up on blogging (which I have been doing a horrible job of keeping up. New Zealand is terrifically distracting). Although I wasn’t allowed access into the movie set gates, the scenery surrounding was stunning. Something straight out of a fairy tale. 

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Just a few hours later, the others returned to what they said was a super awesome tour. I was personally glad we got this part out of the way. Maybe if I saw the movies, I would be interested.

Let’s get to Waitomo!

Legendary Black Water Rafting in Waitomo

We spent a night in Hamilton and drove early to Waitomo the next morning, just in time for our tour at the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. Our tour guide’s name is Tyler aka Teabag (there’s a story to it) and he and his assistant got us suited in wet gear, boots, helmets equipped with torches, and our roping equipment for the day of exploration. In our group was myself, Mike, Chelsey, Ryan, and a sibling duo hailing from Spain. Tyler was glad to have such a small, exploration-eager group. As was I.

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We vanned it about ten minutes uphill to a makeshift training course to prepare us for the abseiling portion of the Black Abyss. Here we learned how to properly attach and detach our hooks and the proper positioning to descend into the cave.

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legendary black water rafting waitomo

The last time I went abseiling was down Table Mountain, so it felt familiar to what I remembered. 

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One by one, each of us lowered our way down the 110 meter descent into the deepest, darkest cave I’ve been in since Semuc Champey. And just like my painful experience in South Africa, this one was just as bothersome. I touch-downed after the Spanish siblings and was instructed to turn off my head torch and wait with the others in total darkness. One by one, my amigos came down at different speeds but upon successful landings–110 meters underneath the Earths surface. Teabag thought it would be funny to pretend everyone fell down into the pits and to nab a photo of it.

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The cave was cool, humid, and had a smell of dirt and black mold. Everywhere our head torch shined, a glimmer appeared along the walls. Everything was damp and silent, minus the few water droplets we could hear in offbeat melodies. We followed Teabag through a few tight nooks and crannies to the zip-lining portion of the Abyss. Ziplining is one of the most boring activities in existence of mankind unless it’s jazzed up someway. This one was interesting because we couldn’t see no more than a couple of meters in front of us, so we hadn’t a clue were the line would take us. Mike was up first and as he sped through the empty void, a huge thud shot through the cave indicating a disruptive break. What was that? Turns out it was just ol’ Teabag messing around with us. He slammed his air-filled bag against the wall just as Mike made his stop. He’s a jokester, that guy.

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After we all lined down to the next portion of the Abyss, we saw that we were on a cliff that stood meters above the blackest water I have ever seen. It felt unnatural, almost sinister. I knew we would eventually be in the water via tubes but first, a quick snack and juice drink sitting upon sinister’s ledge. I’m still not entirely sure what I just ate. It was like a block of Weet-Bix soaked and dried in honey. Not sure.

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Now we jump. Everyone grabbed a tube and prepared for the seven meter leap into the black. We expected Teabag to lead by example, but no. 

“How deep is it?” we asked. 

“You’ll see,” he responded with a grin.

Mike, who has proven to be quite the daredevil, jumped in first with his tube under him. I jumped in next. “Shit its f%*#ing cold!” The wet suit I had on protected me from a rapid shift in temperature, but my hands were naked and were now icicles. I sat in my tube paddling towards the others who have made the leap and they too were in shivers. Granted it was the winter here in New Zealand, Teabag assured us that no matter the season, the internal temperatures of the caves water were always the same. So regardless of when we would challenge the Abyss, the water would always be just as frigid.

Each of us in our tubes followed Teabag down the undisturbed watercourse into the caves voids. It would have been a pitch-black flow if it weren’t for the zillions upon zillions of tiny glow worms scattered among the ceilings. It was the closest thing to a perfect starry night I’ve seen in a while. We got to a point where we could stand and wade the water the rest of the way. Teabag began to slam his tube with a vicious grip onto the surface of the water creating a shockwave that echoed throughout the cave. He indicated that glowworms react to sound and the echos would illuminate the ceiling. I’m honestly not sure if it worked or not because those little worms were already as lit as can be. All I could concentrate on was how cold it was. 

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We got back into our tubes and interlocked our legs onto one another, creating a snake in the water, granted I couldn’t see who was in front or behind me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use my hands to paddle because Teabag tugged us along as he walked through the water and belted Ed Sheeran tunes to further illuminate the glowworms. He said since we were a small group and moving along in a swift pace, we had the option to take the usual easy, short way back out of the cave or the long, extreme way out. Every single one of us opted for the long, extreme way out, much to my happiness. 

legendary black water rafting waitomo

As we went further down the watercourse, the currents began to pick up, turning into a rushing stream filled with miniature rapids. Everything was still hidden under the gauze of the dark black but so we used our head torches to guide us through the torrents. We literally walked, ran, crawled, swam, and belly-flopped our way to a separate chamber where we began the drier part of the Abyss.

legendary black water rafting waitomo

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Teabag let us know that we would have to climb up a few tunnels of mud, and a couple of waterfalls to exit the caves. In between those two waterfalls are long tunnels that lead to separate chambers including a resident bitey eel that inhabits one of the chamber’s pools.

legendary black water rafting waitomo

Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

Along the way, stalagmites and stalactites dominated the first few chambers we came across before we crawled through the aforementioned tunnel of mud. It was kinda like that scene from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne crawled through that pipe full of shit. 

The first waterfall was straightforward. Just shimmy up through the crevice as the water beat the heck out of you. Just don’t lose grip of the rocks or your fall is gonna hurt big time. At the top of the first waterfall, we waded through more water that led us to extremely narrow crevices to navigate through. My claustrophobia kicked in when I tried to squeeze through a hole…and so I backed right out of it and took the wider passage.

legendary black water rafting waitomo

legendary black water rafting waitomo

Teabag led us through tunnels and chambers galore before we hit the next waterfall which was a but more immense than the last. A tight grip and steady concentration was all it took to reach the top before we followed a wet trail that led us back to the outside world.

Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

Everything about this cave was AMAZING!

This is the sole reason that led me to New Zealand and it did not disappoint. We got lucky with our guide Teabag because of his enthusiasm to show us as much as he could and then some. I highly, highly, highly, recommend the Black Abyss portion of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. And if you do make the greatest decision of your life, ask for Tyler. He really made the trip worth the value.

Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

ATLAS UPDATED!

We still had the Glowworm package that we added on to our trip that would take place about an hour later. All of us regretted that decision because the experience we had with the glowworms was already great. How could it possibly get any better? We met up with about twenty other tourists (yay) at the start of another entrance to the cave where a tour guide met us. We entered a decked out chamber before we got on a small boat that our guide controlled via rope attached along the cave walls. We had to remain quiet as we gazed up at the ceiling to see the glowworms. It wasn’t as fascinating as the first, more in your face, experience. I think this picture sums up how we felt.

We wanted to leave.

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All of us agreed, save for that boat, the Black Abyss was one of the most satisfying excursions we have gone on so far. It exhausted us but still we were ready to move forward. We headed south in the North Island. Where exactly? 

We didn’t quite know.

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Guata Goonies

Semuc Champey?

What the heck is that? A volunteer by the name of Hanni (Australia) invited me out to Semuc with a few of the volunteers from her house. I didn’t really ask her what or where Semuc Champey was, I just wanted to go somewhere for the weekend after spending the past few nights at home. The drive to Semuc would be a little more than nine hours! I got my motion pills ready. Thankfully the roads in this part of the country aren’t too shabby.

After inquiring, I found out that Semuc Champey is one of the most beautifully adventurous places in the country.

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It’s in an area called Lanquin. It’s there where you’ll find scenic mountains surrounding levels of aqua blue pools cascaded by waterfalls. Near these pools and waterfalls was an underground cave filled with black water deep enough to swim in. We were going there and I felt like this is exactly what I needed!

I was picked up in the morning from Maximo, along with Hanni and three other volunteers from her house. The ride to Lanquin was a long one but manageable. We were part of a tour group that made the journey in a minibus filled with close to twenty people from all parts of the globe. We arrived in Lanquin during the nightfall where my group transfered into the back of a Guata style pickup truck and transported to our hostel for the weekend, Hostel Oasis.

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It was more like a bunch of cabinas and bungalows than a typical hostel.

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That night, we enjoyed dinner at the hostels restaurant where I enjoyed a cheeseburger and fries. We woke up that morning where I also enjoyed a cheeseburger and fries for breakfast.

“Typical American,” my group would jokingly say.

Hey, I just went six weeks without any beef! I needed those burgers! And plenty more where that came from. I did the same thing in Thailand where Viola also playfully made fun of my unorthodox eating habits. It’s not an American thing to eat a cheeseburger for breakfast, it’s just me. 🙂

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The first item on our agenda was a short hike up one of the mountains overlooking the pools. It took about 25 minutes before we easily reached the top where we found a deck that poked out beyond the plateau.

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After a few shots, we hiked back down and got into our swimsuits. IMG_7021Into the pools! The pools were completely natural and there were about four of them, each on different levels. The water was cool and felt great with the sun casting down on us. In order to get to the lower level pools, you either had to jump down into them or mudslide down into them. We did both! The slide down was over smooth mossy rocks that have been flattened out from the never ending flow of water. It was great. It was all great!

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Underneath one of the lower pools was a small tiny underpass that we had to carefully poke our heads under and through. One abrupt movement meant hitting your head against the rock walls just inches away. My mild claustrophobia went out the window. I had to try it!

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Me and Hanni!
Me and Hanni!

After splashing around, we went back up the pools and walked back up to the lodge for lunch. I had tostadas y arroz con vegetables. After lunch, we were gathered to hike over to the caves. I’ve been wearing my trusty water shoes all day which are good for moderate hikes and anything related to water. I don’t use them much but when I do need them I’m glad I had them. It’s like being barefoot with grips without the bulkiness of a normal hiking shoe. I wore those and my Under Armour gear for these caves. We were each given a candle to hold. We were told that these caves were pitch-black, deep, and filled with water and even some waterfalls. There would be many parts where we would have to tread water with our candle because the water would be too deep inside. Some of the others were nervous about this, but thankfully none of them backed down and were game for it!

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Instantly, I was reminded of one my favorite movies, The Goonies. I felt like a Goonie, as corny as that sounds. Remember the parts when they were in the caves with the waterfalls? These caves were way beyond my expectations. We were surrounded in total darkness, with only our candlelights to lead the way.

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The water was a lot colder in here and whenever we swam, sometimes we would hit an unexpected rock underneath the eerily black water. We’d have to squeeze through tight crevices in some areas in order to progress and it seemed like the more we progressed, the more difficult the terrain became. Some of the people in our group lost their flame by accidentally sticking their IMG_7047candle underwater. It happened to me a few times actually. At one point, we had the option to go up the natural stairs into another cavern or climb a raging waterfall that bashed on your body into the cavern. I chose the raging waterfall, but it was so dark in there that I could barely get any good photos. I brought my iPhone with a waterproof case inside, which was extremely risky on my part, but I just had to document this. If I dropped the phone or if it fell from my neck, it would have been gone forever. Forever! My GoPro is no good in dark conditions so I left that in Antigua. Some of the others were glad there was someone dumb enough to bring their phone inside these caves to take photos of them as well. I was that guy!

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After about an hour and a half of pure fun in the caves, we made it to the deepest, darkest end of it, seemingly at least. Our guide let us climb a few meters up and cliff jump into the pool of black. Of course, I had to do that too. Hanni was also game! When I jumped in, I let my feet hit the ground. I’d say the pool was about 15 feet deep, more or less. I sat on the floor of it and opened my eyes and saw nothing but black. After a few seconds I floated back up to the top, where the others thought I hit my head on something. “Nope, I was just chilling down there!”

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We went back through the cave the same way we went in. But at this point, our candles only had a couple inches of wax left. If all of our candles were to burn out while we were in the cave, I wouldn’t have minded it actually. What an adventure it would have been to try and get out of the cave in total darkness! As a matter of fact, I tossed my candle a while ago because I was sick of it always losing its flame everytime I went underwater. Worst case scenario, I still had my iPhone flashlight if things got messy.

We exited the caves and marched down back to the lodge. That was one of the funnest things I have ever done! Expectations exceeded. But the day wasn’t over yet, we still had to go tubing down the river.

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We were each giving a tube…some of the smallest tubes I have ever been in. We walked down to the river. At this point, the sun wasn’t shining as bright so it was a bit more chilly than earlier. This fact was even more so evident when I went into the water! The guide had us interlock our legs to a person in front of us.

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We floated outward into the flows. A bird flying high above us may have mistaken us for a giant snake swimming down the river. I was in an awkward position in the tube which was very comfortable to sit in. Most of my tube was underwater the whole time. I don’t think this is right. But still I sat there, leglocked with the other tubers while little local kids tubed near us selling beer. The cold didn’t bother them one bit. Little troopers.

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After a very fun weekend, my group packed our bags and made way back to Antigua. Semuc Champey was just the place I needed to go to after lying in bed sick all  week. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about it.  We arrived back home during the evening. I saw the lights on in Katie’s room.

“Katie, I’m back!” I shouted as I knocked at her door. The door slowly swung open but it wasn’t Katie. It was a new volunteer who introduced herself as Uma (USA).

“Katie, stepped out for a moment,” she said. “But she told us we should wait for you before we go out for dinner.”

Uma informed me that while I was away for the weekend, that a few new volunteers arrived, which was music to my ears! After Adelah left, the place was starting to get lonely. How do you cap off a great weekend in an awesome place? I expected to just go to sleep when I got back home but instead, I was treated to wine, wine, and delicious food, with new volunteers from all around the world.

Things are off to a great start!