GrabOne is, for us, the best thing on the internet for getting deals. Honestly, Shannon and I would have far fewer adventures if not for GrabOne. Much like GroupOn in the US, they offer all kinds of things from food to entertainment to excursions at a deeply discounted price. A while back, one came through our email offering a tubing trip through the Waitomo Caves. We decided this would be a perfect way to spend our anniversary so we happily booked the trip.
According to Wikipedia:
The name "Waitomo" comes from the Māori word wai, water and tomo, hole or shaft. The local Māori people had known about the caves for quite some time before the local Māori Chief Tane Tinorau and an English surveyor, Fred Mace, did an extensive exploration in 1887. Their exploration was conducted with candlelight on a raft going into the cave where the stream goes underground. As they began their journey, they came across the Glowworm Grotto and were amazed by the twinkling glow coming from the ceiling. As they traveled further into the cave by poling themselves towards an embankment, they were also astounded by the limestone formations. These formations surrounded them in all shapes and sizes.
They returned many times after and Chief Tane independently discovered the upper level entrance to the cave... Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti, by 1889, had opened the cave to visitors and were leading groups for a small fee. The administration of the cave was taken over by the government in 1906 after there was an escalation in vandalism. In 1910, the Waitomo Caves Hotel was built to house the many visitors.
In 1989, the land and cave were returned to the descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and Huti. They now receive a percentage of the cave’s revenue and are involved in the management and development of the cave. These descendants encompass many of the employees of the caves today.
There are several caves and numerous companies that offer tours. The company offering the deal we booked was Cave World. According to their website, the Tube It adventure includes drifting through a beautiful cave, crawling to a hidden waterfall, sliding down the hydro slide, and seeing heaps of glow worms. The normal fee is $124 per adult and takes about two hours.
We arrived at the Cave World check in desk and were warmly greeted by a very cheerful and friendly woman. My co-workers continue to tell me I'm the one with the accent but really it's the Kiwis with the accents and this woman had a great one! I just love listening to the rhythmic way they speak.
Our transport arrived and all 13 of us piled in....for the 30 second drive down the hill to their base where we all piled out. They handed us our wet suits and pointed in the direction of the changing rooms.
Now, this was one of the reasons I was hesitant to go on this adventure. My only previous experience with a wet suit had left me humiliated and embarrassed. Years ago, I was a paramedic. During our academy they put us through a day of swift water training. At first, I thought it would be great fun. Until I tried to put on the wetsuit. I'm a fairly big girl so trying to stuff myself into yards of neoprene was much like trying to shove a king sized sleeping bag into a twin sized stuff sack. Finally, I ended up with one person on each side trying to force me into it like a pillowcase. And to add insult to injury there was a newspaper photographer taking pictures for an article in the paper about the cadets. It is high on my list of experiences I never want to have again. So, when Shannon mentioned this excursion would require a wetsuit, I was a bit trepidatious.
Turns out I was right to worry. This wasn't a lightweight sort-of-cold-water wetsuit. This was a heavy-duty-OMG-I-fell-into-the-Atlantic-off-my-crab-boat wetsuit. I managed to get my legs squeezed in but the knee pads were protecting my shins and the crotch was halfway down my thighs. I got it zipped over my belly only by displacing my spleen and liver into my chest cavity. I got the coat over my arms but couldn't zip it over my boobs and still expect to breathe. Luckily I was able to trade that one in for a bigger one that at least allowed shallow breathing. The booties and shoes went on easily...with Shannon's help. I waddled penguin-like out to the truck and then had to have help getting in because I couldn't bend my legs enough to reach the step. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.
We all piled into a jeep that had seen its last shock blow out in 1952 and off we went. The caves are, interestingly enough, in the middle of a bunch of farmland. I imagine some random Maori dude, wondering why his kids kept disappearing, went to investigate and found this GIANT hole in the ground. We bounced past herds of sheep and cows and eventually stopped at an anonymous pasture. I then had to hike penguin-like up a hill and down another, all while marinating in sweat and trying valiantly to breathe.
After choosing our inner tube and descending several dozen stairs into the depths, we were finally in the Footwhistle (Te Anaroa) cave. It was quite cool which was blessed relief as I was seriously overheating in the wet suit. The first hiccup came shortly thereafter. We entered a big opening and could hear a waterfall in the distance. Our guide said we were going to that waterfall. He said there would be a bit of crouching, a bit of crawling, and a bit of wiggling. I was concerned about the wiggling bit but he assured me I would fit.
We dropped down to all fours and crawled along an icy stream. Then we crouched through a slit in the rocks. Then came the wiggling part. I got down on my belly and slithered into the opening...only to get stuck at the exit. I could kick my feet and wave my arms but my hips wouldn't budge. Panic began to slide over me. The kid in front of me kept asking me if I needed help all while keeping his hand out of reach of mine. Shannon, behind me, was pushing on my butt and assuring me I was going to live. I'll admit I lost my cool and freaked out a bit. Finally, though, like a cork out of a champagne bottle I popped out the other side breathing a gasp of relief. The waterfall was cool, sure, but I was still reeling from my near death experience. The only thing I could think about was that I had to go back through that tiny hole to get out of there. The guide and I were in the back of the pack and he asked if I wanted him to go first so he could pull me through. I said hell no since I wanted him to be stuck behind me if I couldn't get out. I was pretty sure they would want him back and would rescue me in the process. He convinced me to go through the opening sideways this time instead of head on and what do you know, I wiggled through with ease. Phew.
The rest of the trip wasn't nearly so dramatic but it was quite fun. We floated along on our tubes staring up at a ceiling covered in tiny pinpricks of light. The glow worms are remarkable creatures that aren't actually worms. Their scientific name is arachnocampa luminosa. They look like stick bugs. They cling to the ceiling of the cave and drop down a sticky glowing filament from their butt. The light attracts bugs which get stuck in the filament (like a spider web) and become lunch. Hundreds of them overhead look like stars in a cloudless night sky. My favorite part of the trip was floating along in total darkness with the cave ceiling aglow and Shannon's feet tucked under my arms. It was wonderful. At one point, we jumped off a waterfall and then got to go down a water slide. The entire trip was about two hours long and well worth it. I would have gladly paid full price. Having it at a discount was a fantastic bonus.
Once done in the caves we had to hike up 104 steps to the farmland above and our waiting kidney buster. Back at the base, getting off that wetsuit was much easier than getting it on had been. Having to shower in front of a bunch of strangers was weird but after camping for two days, a hot shower was fabulous.
I highly recommend the tours at Cave World. They provided an enjoyable experience I would gladly do again. But maybe with a bigger wetsuit next time.
All the photos in this post were taken by our guides and provided to us on a CD after our tour.