“Angus will be with you in a moment. He’s in the cave,” the girl at the reception told us.
Sharon, Megan and I shot each other a naughty look, as the same thoughts crossed our minds. With a name like Angus, he must be one beefy character.
Thirty minutes later, there was still no sign of our guide who was to take us on a black water rafting adventure. We politely enquired again.
“He’s still stuck down there. Must be having some problems but he should be out soon,” the girl answered back.
So we sat and waited for the operations supervisor of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (www.waitomo.com) in Waitomo, New Zealand. A labyrinth of caves, sinkholes and underground rivers lie in this area, touted as one of Maoriland’s best adventure spots.
Over thousands of years, underground streams pushed through soft limestone to carve the 5km cave system.
Many have amazing stalactites growing down from the ceiling and stalagmites sprouting from the cave floor, and pointy cones of layered rock formed over centuries by dripping water.
The cave walls are also decorated with galaxies of native glow worms – a highlight of the place.
The easiest way to see the caves is by walking or boat tour but we opted for a heart-thumping adventure, with the “caveman” nevertheless.
For those not in the know, black water rafting is carried out in underground caves whereas white water rafting is done outdoors, where the skies are visible.
Another 15 minutes passed before a pleasant chap appeared wearing a wetsuit and wellies. The Angus cattle are known to be hardy and have large muscles. Angus Stubbs, master of the cave playground, was no different as he apologetically greeted us with a roaring hello.
“Yes, my name is really Angus – like the cow!” he announced, reading our minds.
Wasting no time, he swung into action. Once the safety briefing was over, we had to gear up with wetsuits, boots, helmets and headlamps. Squeezing into a tiny wetsuit (it had to be a few sizes smaller to retain heat in the chilly caves) posed a huge challenge. Giggling like schoolgirls, we fell a few times trying to kit each other.
Stubbs then rounded us up into a van and drove to our next station for our rubber tube fitting.
“Go find a tube that your butts can get into comfortably, but don’t sink in,” he instructed.
Again, we burst into fits of laughter measuring our derriere sizes, hoping the smaller tubes would fit. Aaarrgh ... women and their obsession with sizes.
Next up was the jumping and eel formation test-run in a river. Yeah, apparently, we’d have to leap into a mini waterfall – booty first. We were not yet in the caves but the river water was brrrr! Pleased with our skills, Stubbs gave us the thumbs up.
We began our journey by walking along an uphill trail to the entrance of the cave. Along the way, we bumped into many of Stubbs’ colleagues who spoke fondly of him.
Tourism New Zealand is also immensely proud of their underground man, who was part of a team that explored the caves. Their website states that in the initial years before the spot became a tourism hub, Stubbs’ daily commute to work involved swimming 600m with his tools strapped to his back, sliding over a waterfall, and hanging off a rock face, his route lit by the low-wattage beam of glow worm tail-lights.
His workplace (no whiteboards or overhead projectors, but plenty of strategy meetings with fellow workers) was a limestone cave, 80m beneath the land his family has farmed for five generations.
“Pretty fantastic, huh?” he says. “Some people think it’s weird. But sitting in an air-conditioned office, working on a computer all day ... to me, that’s weirder.”
Having been in the business for more than two decades, Stubbs had loads of stories to share. On one occasion, a tourist who walked with a limp, signed up for the adventure.
“I thought he had an ankle injury and left it at that. Midway in the caves, he started shouting, ‘My leg, my leg!’ I saw a part of his leg floating in the gushing water and had to dive in to retrieve it! He was wearing a prosthetic leg,” he shared, recalling the incident.
“So, alert me if you have any loose limbs or false teeth so I’ll know what to look for when we’re inside!”
The temperature inside the cave stays consistent throughout the year, with the water temperature at 12°C and air temperature at 14°C.
As the original Waitomo subterranean adventure, Stubbs explained that we would be covering a 1.5km distance, climbing, crawling, black water tubing and leaping through Ruakuri Cave for over three hours. For the more daring, there are different tours that involve abseiling and zip-lining through the darkness. Not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobics.
For emergencies, there are a few telephones fixed inside the cave so help can be obtained easily.
He added, “We’re most vigilant about the water levels and there is an escape route.”
To enter the cave, we had to squeeze through a narrow crack and crawl for a bit. Wading through waist-high waters, we marvelled at the beauty inside. Glow worms dotted most of the passage and Stubbs picked a few for us to view up close.
We floated on our stomachs, slipped and slid as we meandered down. We arrived at the waterfall and Sharon volunteered to go first. The surroundings were pitch black and we couldn’t make out her expression. Standing at the edge, she took a deep breath and hurled herself backwards into the swirling waters.
I took the plunge next. It was icy cold and I felt the water seeping into my wetsuit. I started to shiver.
Once everyone leaped off, we floated along and stopped for a surprise treat. Stubbs whipped out a flask of hot orange juice and fish chocolates. Sharon and I began to exhibit signs of hypothermia and the hot drink immediately warmed us.
We finished off with some gentle black water tubing in our eel formation while marvelling at the glow worms. Flashing neon green, the colonies of glow worms were a sight to behold. These creatures spin a sticky web to catch their prey. Daylight soon came into view as we floated in silence.
Taking off our gear was even harder than putting it on as we struggled to strip our boots and clothes off.
Still, the adventure was worth every shiver and a drop of sweat.