Day 4 – What I want to say is that I don’t have the words to describe the day I had today, but I do. The problem is, rather, that I’m brimming with far too many words and struggling picking which ones to share. I’ll do my best to choose those that are most relevant and illustrative of the experience. But, like pairing an epic trilogy down to a short story, there is much that will go unsaid. Which is just as well, because I can keep a little for myself. Which I don’t mind at all.
The day began with a bustling hostel, and my consciousness saying – HEY! You’re alive! Youuu’re aaalive!!! Huzzah! Feeling pretty good about the alive thing, but also that my possessions remained intact, I strutted out to my car and made the endless 2 minute drive to the Waitomo Aventures hub.
Once there, I met the rest of the crew for the day. Two couples – one group from Mexico, the other from Germany. I was super stoked that our crew was small, and that both pairs seemed nice enough – absolutely key as we’d be spending the next 8-9 hours together. The usual routine with these kinds of tours followed: we hopped in a bus, awkwardly bumbled through introductions, and tried to contain our excitement as we neared the mouth of the caves.
I’ll skip most of the boring preamble. Safety instructions, wetsuits are awkward, ow ow ow on my neck sunburn, etc., etc. Who cares. Onwards and downwards.
We were walked out onto a platform suspended 330 feet above the entrance to the cave. Looking down was more than enough to make your knees weak. I am not one that is afraid of heights, but the fear was real with me on that platform. Think about it though, you’re not only abseiling (essentially rapelling) down a ridiculous height but also into a cave. Friendly reminder – caves are homes to monsters like: yes, Gollum but also Shelob, Orcs and Balrogs, and moving away from Lotr – those horrible human vampire scuttling things from The Descent. Nothing traditionally considered cute and cuddly ever lived in a cave. So the trip down is more than just, “will I fall to my death?” It’s that plus “will my dying body be ripped apart by cave dwelling cannibals with canines bigger than my toothbrush?” But the fear is fun! It’s the closest I’ll ever get to understanding why people like horror movies. It’s part of the experience because to echo words that have been spoken/written/read millions of times – once you conquer your fear, you feel like you can conquer the world.
To be fair, there was not much time for fear conquering. We abseiled as a group. I went down with one guide, Nathan, and the Germans – Katherina and Dirk. After we’d lowered down 6 feet or so into the mouth of the cave, there was no time to be afraid but all the time in the world for jaw-dropping. The “this cannot be real” thing happened again. But there was another one that’s been bubbling for a while now, “this cannot be happening.” Translated it means, roughly, extreme gratitude.
We abseiled slowly into a cavern that is best described as a cathedral, but more moving than any man-made cathedral I have come across in my (now) 30 years. Once at the bottom, our guide Nathan offered us lunch – some delicious homemade sandwiches (even my veggie one), freshly baked muesli bar, tea – and we enjoyed our meal surrounded by nothing less than undiluted splendor. Beams of light filtered in from the top and shifted as the clouds went on their way above us. There was no chatting. None of us had any words. We just hungrily devoured the vista, and I tried not to drown under the waves of gratitude that buffeted me relentlessly.
The trek we were on is called the “Lost World,” not just for whimsy’s sake but because it’s from a quote by one of the guys that discovered the cave. He and his partner were looking for a good place to build a railroad to help transport some national resources. Instead, they stumbled across the lip of an enormous cave. Obviously not ideal for a railway. Though the land would serve no functional purpose, the guy supposedly looked down in wonder and said something along the lines of “it’s like a lost world, just without the sprites and faeries.”
Completing both groups’ abseil and polishing off lunch took around an hour. We snapped a few pics via the guides’ waterproof cameras, and off we went into the abyss. Bye bye natural light. Hello nervous jitters.
Now, I must tell you what we were wearing because it was a lot of stuff. Swimming suits covered by a wetsuit overall thing. Over that was a wetsuit jacket. Over THAT came our harnesses that we wore not only for the abseil, but the remainder of the journey. This was to allow us to clip into ropes occasionally found along the walls, you know, to prevent us from taking a bad tumble. We all wore helmets with lights that we could turn on or off as instructed, and the final piece of this killer look is the butcher boots. Extra grippy. Blood is slippery, or so I’ve been told. I bring up the look we were rocking not because it was stylish, it certainly wasn’t. I mention it because it is HARD to hike/climb/swim in this gear. We did a lot of hiking/climbing/swimming. They did not mention how utterly physically challenging the trip would be, made 10 times worse by our clunky gear. Oh well. Truth be told, it made it all the more fun.
Hilights from the Lost World:
- Eels! There are eels in the caves. We saw one. It was both scary and cute. Apparently there are pools of tons of them… thankfully we didn’t come across any of those.
- Drinking some very fresh water from some cave springs.
- Climbing a waterfall. This was crazy hard in the gear we were wearing. I almost didn’t make it to the top, and I did a number on my hands.
- Squeeze. This is what cavers call smooshing through tight spaces.
- Being completely submerged in a cave pool. 100% underwater. Who knows what’s underneath?!?!
- Ancient oyster fossils with their pearls still inside, captured within the cave walls.
- Prehistoric whale vertebrae. Coooool.
- They showed us a giganto spider on the side of the cave wall. Blablabla, interesting stuff about the spider. It can swim, it can jump, it uses it’s sack of eggs as a floaty. Then, our delightful guides told us to shut off all our lights and walk only by moving forward and feeling the wall to our right. THIS IS RIGHT AFTER SEEING A HUGE SPIDER ON THE WALL. And we idiots did as we were told.
But nothing beat the very last thing, saved for the end of the cave. We came upon a big room with a large flat rock in the middle. Glow worm time. We were all thoroughly tired by this point and more than happy to lie down and catch our breaths. Turns out it would be hard to catch. Because when we turned off our lights, there, everywhere were the glowworms we were promised. Little specks of glowing blue-ish green light in all their glory. This stranger-than-fiction sight coupled with the steady sound of roaring water in the cave created an experience that was beyond surreal. We only had 5 minutes, stretched out to maybe 10. I could have stayed there for hours without complaint. The world we live in is just too much sometimes. I want to go back. I wanted to stay there forever.
In that moment of pure grace and wonder, our guide found a way to shatter it – but in a good/funny/grounding way that helped ease us back into reality. The glowing of the worms? Turns out it’s burning poo. Yup. It’s a reaction caused when the worms’ feces makes contact with some other chemical. Those chemicals burning is what makes the worms glow, and helps them attract flying critters to the spider-like strings they dangle to catch prey. So, yup. Burning poo. Ain’t never seen nothing prettier than burning poo in a cave in the dark.
From burning poo cavern, we emerged into yet another ridiculously stunning vista: a tropical stream that fed into the caves. We shuffled up the stream, mustering whatever strength was left. Then came a too-long (tired, oh so tired) walk uphill through a farm filled with sheepies. We saw some baby ducklings. A bunny. I rallied. Then we returned to our home-base where we removed the icky wetsuits, emptied our boots of the water we’d been sloshing around in, took decadently hot showers, and gathered for a bbq. They made me really top-notch vegetarian food. Then bussed us back to the base where we said our goodbyes, and then went off to our respective hotels to sleep soundly, as I have no doubt all of us did. Only my hotel was a 2 hour drive away… so there was that… which, after the day I had, didn’t matter one bit.
Because this day. This day… without fear of exaggeration, I can count it as one of the finest days of my lives. It was one of the good ones. One to remember.
Addendum to The Shire post: there was something I forgot to capture, but that has stayed with me since I first stepped into Hobbiton. The alone-ness that I’ve crafted for myself on this trip has been good to marinade in. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed it immensely. But when I reached the land where the hobbitses roam, I wished more than anything that I could snap my fingers and accio my family and friends. I am lucky in more ways than I deserve, but luck in other arenas is dwarfed by the greatness of my people. I miss you all. You know who you are. These bragging rights will be fun for a while, and – you know me – I won’t be shy about rubbing your face in it. Better than bragging rights would have been your company. XOXO. *End cheese.*