Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NZ - Waitomo Caves

Today I had a goal: get up early and go to the caves.  It wasn’t long before that goal was refined & shortened only to “go to the caves”.  I booked the longest of cave tours – a 5-hour expedition.  This expedition ended up being the best part of the trip thus far, despite not enjoying the day’s cloudless sunshine for several hours.

At the office for the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company I was introduced to our 11am tour group.  There were two American guys from Texas, both computer engineers; and an English girl who taught science to middle/high school-aged students.  We got into ever-fashionable wetsuits & helmets with lights, got a bit of practice on abseiling/rappelling (thankfully something I’ve done in the past & was pretty comfortable with), and minutes later were getting ready to plunge into a black hole.

I was second to go.  I watched as one of the Americans disappeared first, and then I just happened to be standing nearest to the platform when it came time for the next one up.  Things went smoothly right up until I took my second foot off the platform.  That was when it occurred to me that I had one of my fingers stuck between the rappel rack & the rope… fortunately there were some rocks right at the start which I could bounce about on; except to get closer to them – just a few inches – made the pinch just that much tighter.  A good lesson for belaying is not to use your own appendages for friction.

The pinch wasn’t horrendous yet since I caught it before it became so, so I let out a bit of rope & gave in to a tighter pinch.  In exchange I managed to tap my toes on a nearby rock.  Just a light tap was all I needed to release some of the pressure & let me free my finger.  Then zoom away I went – after clearing those first couple rocks, it was a large empty cavern.  A flat rock face began to near, but as it was soaked one couldn’t “walk” down it like in the movies; you just had to tap off it periodically.  My landing was apparently one of the smoothest they’d ever seen… not bad considering I hadn’t rappelled since my sophomore year of college.

A flying fox, or zipline, was the next stop.  For this I was first to go, mostly because I absolutely love ziplines.  We used to have one in the woods behind my grandparents’ house in New England & I’d always loved it.  Even the little stubby ones at some playgrounds entertain me.  My only concern, here, was that there clearly appeared to be a rock protruding into my path.  And then I was told to turn off my headlamp.

I hit the first rock just as I left the ledge, which meant if was a slow hit & didn’t hurt at all – I think it might be an intentional nudge just to get your fear going, since from then on you think you’re hurtling through the dark at a whole barrage of ever angrier boulders.  What you don’t realize is that you’re in a huge cavern after that – sort of like the abseiling journey.  You come to a swinging end as one of the two guides helps you down… and then I got to watch the next three come shrieking through the dark.

After a quick stop for hot chocolate and a cookie, we donned rubber inner tubes and leapt into the water.  For this I was last to go.  The first up was one of our guides, who did it flawlessly.  You’re supposed to jump off whilst holding your tube behind you, with the intent of splashing down back/butt-first and coming back to the surface in-tube.  The American who followed did not succeed, separating man from tube in spectacular fashion.

The other two did it flawlessly, and apparently so did I.  However, I wouldn’t know it since for the first 30 seconds all I could think of was how I just leapt into black water, submerged myself completely from the ensuing impact, and was now absolutely frozen and floating in a tube.

In our tubes we did a mix of pulling ourselves along a rope, paddling with our hands, and walking alongside our tubes.  I excelled at the rope, catching up to folks in the process but also managing to soak every part of my body since I really really got into it.  The hand paddling I was also pretty speedy with, but one of the Texans couldn’t quite seem to get a good motion down & I’d often pause to wait for him.  The walking parts weren’t shabby, except it’d give you opportunity for your hands to warm & dry – becoming every so comfy again just before it’s time to hop back in and get soaked again.

With a group of only four of us tourists, we made our first checkpoint extremely early.  A typical group size is apparently about eight at least.  So we kept on going down the stream all the way to where it came in via a hole far smaller than any of us could’ve ever managed.  Then it was relaxation time: we hopped into our tubes, linked arms around each other’s feet, and our guide pulled our tube-train along as if a lazy man’s river ride.

This whole time we’d periodically stop to observe the glowworms, but this tube-train provided plenty of opportunity to really absorb their presence.  What I saw back at the glaciers didn’t even compare to this: it was like Lumine Hall from the game Earthbound.  The glaciers were like staring at a night sky from within a city, but these caves were like staring at the night sky from the dark side of the Moon.

Once we returned to where we’d jumped in, our guide took another gander at the time and noted that we were still way ahead of schedule.  So we kept on going.  From here we started doing quite a bit more spelunking and less-so touristing.  My hands were quickly cut-up from grabbing onto rockfaces, and that’s a good thing: the sign of a good adventure.  We squirmed through numerous small passages, including one where I took the lead.  I’m always one to dismiss claustrophobia, but partway through I can’t deny that the thought “what if I get myself into a spot that I can’t get out of?” did cross my mind… fortunately it was only a split-second later where I breathed in, squeezed my arm around myself, and was soon pulling myself out.  One of the Americans & the English girl both lost a boot inside it, though both were able to reach back in & grab it.  We dubbed it the boot-eater.

One segment had us all turn off our lights and navigate through the caves.  Normally groups only do it for about 30 seconds, but we went on for several minutes… possibly as retribution for the ease with which we navigated one of the earlier passageways which is supposed to be riddled with uneven flooring – hence its comparison to a drunk walk.  Going several minutes without lights is actually pretty easy when you keep talking, since you can then just follow the sound of the voice of whomever is in front of you.  …So it’s easy so long as you’re not in the lead.  …Lemmings; all of us lemmings.

Toward the end of our journey, I waited at an intersection for the rest of the group to catch up.  One of the Texans was first to join me, and I joked that we’ll have to go through the tiny hole that the stream was coming through.  Would you know it, once our tour guide caught up he pointed down the big tunnel and said that’s where all the tour groups go; and then pointed at the small stream-hole I was kidding about & said that’s where we’re going.

I took the lead once again, trusting that it wasn’t a joke he hadn’t quite gotten to the punchline yet.  Face first into the water, I held my breath until I felt that my helmet wasn’t bashing against rock anymore.  Face back up; it was actually a pretty roomy pull to get the rest of my body to follow.  I used that helmet a lot…  Our next step was to ascend a waterfall.  The guide pointed each foothold and handhold, and in reality the climb was only a 5.1 or 5.2 (read: very easy).  It was only the cold water (which was actually starting to feel pretty good by this point) gushing at you which made it seem trickier; but the waterfall was only about 2-3 meters high and we all got by in a breeze.  A second waterfall was just like the first, and shortly thereafter we were back outside… back in the bright and searing hot outdoors… we missed our caves.

Back at base, we socialized a bit over tomato soup and bagels, staring at amusing sketches drawn by past patrons & adding a few of our own.  Upon parting ways, I immediately headed out toward Rotorua to pickup Gitti.  Along the way I stopped by the Hamilton Gardens – a lovely stop for anyone in the area.  It provides a fascinating history of various types of garden formats, providing far more interest and information than I’d ever really thought there was.  If only the town were nearly so nice… cars everywhere and an utter lack of parking for my car, hence my decision to skip my dinner intentions for Hamilton.

From the gardens I came upon my first native eucalyptus tree.  I think I now have a new tree to add to my favorites listing… willows are still #1, but eucalyptus is now vying with sakura / cherry blossoms for #2 / #3.

Alas, Gitti didn’t finish work until 10pm, hence I wandered about Rotorua for a couple hours & we ultimately slept at her place.  She was renting a room from a local guy – Ash – and I gotta say: what a sweet deal.  Dirt-cheap rent, nice house, not a shabby commute (it’s even doable by bike; or a longer walk), and Ash even drove her around, provided food, laundry machines, internet, and so forth.

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