We thought it would be difficult to find somewhere that could top the experiences that we had in the Bay of Plenty, but Waitomo had something special in store for us.
This place is famous for its caves – vast and ancient subterranean networks that are perfect for exciting underground exploration and stunning glow worm displays. After looking through the array of options available, such as black water tubing (floating along in a dark watery cave), a trip into special glow worm grottos and canyoning (rock climbing down waterfalls), we settled on the ‘Lost World Tour’ – a 100 metre abseil into the darkness of a massive cavern and a four-hour journey back to the surface.
On reaching Waitomo and meeting Ben and Chris – the guides that would be taking us underground – we were surprised to find that we were the only ones who had booked for the trip that day, so we would be getting our own private tour of the Lost World.
The guys did a great job of explaining about the cave systems underneath us as we geared up with all our equipment. They were formed over millions of years by water and rivers that have eroded away at soft limestone rock. Now there are more than 300 known caves in the area with hundreds more yet to be discovered. The Lost World cave we would be exploring is twice the height of any other known cave in Waitomo!
Before we knew it, we were peering down over the edge of a huge split in the ground where prehistoric-looking ferns clung to the rock and mist swirled around into the darkness below – obscuring the faint silvery outline of a river running hundreds of feet below on the cavern floor.
“The first part will be the hardest” said Chris while doing a final check of our ropes. “You’ll need to sit on the bar running across in front of you and then gently ease yourself off. When you’ve done that, there will be nothing between you and the floor 100 metres down. You’ll be completely suspended in the air by your harness”
Does anyone ever refuse to do it when they’ve gotten this far? “Not really” said Ben “But we do get to see some blistering arguments between couples. Lots of ‘I hate you!’ and ‘I can’t believe you made me do this!’”. Dale shot me a look at that point.
As we tentatively lowered ourselves onto the bar, I looked down through the mist at the glimmering river below us and grinned – this was going to be fun!
Dale set off first, easing himself off the bar and testing his weight on the harness, then it was my turn to slide off and rely totally on the strength of the ropes. It was a little nerve racking to know there was nothing beneath us for hundreds of feet as we dangled there for a few minutes – twirling around.
To start off with, descending was surprisingly hard. Grasping the rope with white knuckles, we were lifting and feeding it through the harness with one hand in order to move down – and 100 metres of rope is pretty hefty. As we gradually sank lower and lower the rope became lighter and easier to lift, which meant that sometimes you would lurch down a little too quickly and end up bouncing around with your heart in your mouth and the harness digging into your thighs.
Every now and then we’d stop and dangle for a while to give our arms a rest and get a good look at this strange landscape. Mist hung all around the dewy ferns that blanketed the rock walls and shining drips of water fell away from us into the darkness below. Apart from our conversation with Chris and Ben, the only sound was the distant roar of the river below.
By the time we reached the bottom we were amazed by where we were. We were now in the bottom of a cave that was first explored in the 1950s by railway builders who’d found their way in using nothing but a few ladders. It was easy to see why this was called the Lost World. It felt exactly like a journey to the centre of the Earth or something out of Jurassic Park, with shafts of light piercing the darkness and illuminating giant lichen-covered boulders and rainforest-like ferns and mosses that glistened with dew drops.
There was even larger-than-life critters hidden away in the darkness. I practically screamed out when Dale pointed out several spindly spider legs sticking out from behind a rock, it turned out to be a cricket the size of my thumb. “It’s just a cave weta” laughed Chris “completely harmless”.
As we climbed away from the cave entrance, the light faded away to blackness and pretty soon we were relying totally on our headlamps.
After what felt like a long climb up a series of giant boulders, Ben and Chris broke out a surprise stash of orange juice and Whittaker’s chocolate – a New Zealand favourite – that we enjoyed while admiring the amazing view of the light in the distance piercing through the black.
Our guides took the opportunity to show us fossils in the rocks around us too – evidence of the pre-historic history of the caves. There were even glow worms twinkling up in the cave ceiling high above us, but they were so far away they were far fainter than the ones we’d seen in the relatively cramped Waipu Caves.
The hardest part for me was the last bit – climbing up a 40 metre metal ladder into the darkness above. We were only able to tackle this one at a time and the guides had to go first to secure the ropes that would save us in case we slipped or fell. Desperate not to be the one left at the bottom of the ladder on my own (the film The Descent sprang to mind), I practically leapt for the rungs as soon as I heard the shout of “all clear” from high up above and scurried as fast as I could up the thing. After about 20 seconds my arms and legs were already tired out! I could never be a fireman!
I’d been climbing constantly for what felt like 10 minutes and I had no idea how far up I was. It felt like I was on a never-ending ladder to nowhere with my legs and arms burning. Even my fingers were starting to cramp up while trying to grip the slippery and cold steel. I was starting to wonder how long I could hold on for and when I would ever reach the end when I spotted headlights moving about above me and I knew I was nearly there – giving me the last push I needed to reach the top.
As we climbed the rest of the way to the surface and stepped out into sunlight and lush rainforest, we felt like we’d accomplished something incredible. At times it was nerve-wracking and at times it was challenging, but we’d journeyed into an amazing lost world and climbed back out with smiles on our faces. Another world class experience, done!