Rafting Waitomo’s Black Labyrinth

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The idea to tackle my claustrophobia and fear of death in dark places came from my good friend Deano, who spent Christmas of 2009 risking life and limb in New Zealand and loving every minute of it. One of his highest recommendations was to tackle the black water rafting available in Waitomo – about halfway between Rotorua and Auckland.

What is black water rafting? It’s much like white water rafting except that it takes place in pitch black caves and often involves throwing your inflatable tube raft over your shoulder to clamber over slick rocks. There’s some glow worms and a few waterfalls to leap off thrown in for good measure as well.

With our time in New Zealand winding down Fallon and I left Rotorua for the trip across to Auckland where we’d be spending our last day in the country. Rather than just take the six hour bus ride through relatively unremarkable scenery (especially after we’d been spoiled by the south island) – we opted to take a slight detour to Waitomo and join the Black Water Rafting Company on a run through their ominous named Black Labyrinth. Not to be confused with the more intense Abyss that they also run.

Having left Rotorua shortly after the sun had peeped out over the horizon, we arrived in Waitomo with me still bleary eyed and not feeling too excited about the prospect of squeezing my Christmas stuffed body into a tight wet-suit and spending a few hours of an otherwise gorgeous day hauling myself through freezing cold and potentially eel infested water. Had this really been my idea?

Things began in earnest with a bunch of introductions being made before we were introduced to our instructors for the day – Zane and Jory. Zane in particular realized full well how daunting the prospect of rafting in pitch black and sometimes uncomfortably narrow underground passageways might be to a newcomer – and he was jovial and supportive from the moment we began searching for wetsuits to the moment we’d emerged blinking into the bright day a few hours later.

The process begins with the all important change from casual clothes to the far less glamorous wet-suits and helmets. It’s hard to stay nervous about what lies ahead when you’re laughing at the English guy who puts his suit on inside out or the Aussie dolt who is trying to wear a jacket that is about three sizes too small. I am said Aussie dolt. By the time we’d all squeezed into our damp suits and deposited our belongings in a crate for safe-keeping, most of us seemed to have forgotten that we’d even been nervous.

Our brave crew prepares to enter the Black Labyrinth



A brief stop for a pose and then we were all piling into the van for the ride out to the national park where the various local companies run their underground adventures. We arrived to the gawking stares of picnicers and bush-walkers, and made a discrete move over to where a small horde of black rubber tubes had been arranged. It was now time to pick the device that would come between us and having to dog paddle our way through the caves, and more fun was had as we forced our butts in and tried to see what would fit us best.

The all important test drive was next, and the tubes were conveniently placed by an idyllic looking stream with a deck jutting out over it. One by one we backed up to the edge and launched ourselves back into what we would discover was surprisingly cold water. Some of us took to it beter than others, and I learned the importance of an adequately inflated tube as I disappeared underneath the water where others had simply floated.

Changes were made and some last minute instructions were given, and then we threw our tubes over our shoulders and embarked on the hike to the caves. In truth, this mini bush-walk was probably the most physically draining part of the day – and we lost two of our party before we’d even begun to head down into the caves. You don’t need to be a marathon runner by any stretch, but this is an active pursuit and you’re going to be sorely disappointed if you’re expecting an air conditioned van to chauffeur you around.

We came upon the cave about twenty minutes later, and it didn’t look like much. A tiny creek trickling down into a hole which, sure enough, we were asked to enter one by one. Once beneath the earth we each perched upon a likely looking rock and posed for photographs before the real adventure began.


Checking the stability and fit of our tubes
A split second before I disappeared completely due to an insufficiently buoyant tube

There were some hairy moments, I won’t lie. Very early on you’re asked to float underneath a low roof that your nose comes close to scraping. I had a moment of panic as I pictured myself becoming stuck between the stone and my tube forever, but soon enough I’d emerged out the other side and felt all the better for having succeeded.

There are other tight squeezes, a pair of waterfalls to leap blindly off (the higher of the two is around 3 metres, but the leap is not near as terrifying as you might imagine), and you’ll doubtless hear a surprised squeal or two when somebody feels an eel brush up against their leg.

Posing underground. Who looks terrified?

But there’s beautiful moments as well. My favorite part of the whole trip was the serene journey through a long cavern lit only by the fey blue of the glow-worms that dotted the roof. Zane added to the atmosphere by humming the tune to My Heart Will Go On, which didn’t sound half bad echoing off the walls as we moved in near total darkness. Head lamps are provided, but there are several parts of the trip where we were asked to turn them off.

It didn’t feel like much time had passed, but soon we rounded one last corner and came upon a cave that opened out into the forest. After an hour or so of blackness with only our headlamps for illumination, it was a bit dazzling to see the sun filtering in through the dense forest of the national park.

Soaking wet and more than a little cold, it was time for a few more photographs before we headed back to base for a much needed shower and a bite to eat. The company provides a complimentary cup of tomato soup and a bagel to all who complete the course, but there’s a well stocked cafe on site if you’re after something a little more elaborate.

With Fallon and I needing to kill a few hours before our bus came to whisk us off to Auckland, we bought a CD of the pictures from our trip and whiled away the afternoon sunning ourselves and trying to decide which had been the highlight of our New Zealand trip – zorbing, Franz Josef Glacier, Milford Sound, or Black Water Rafting.

It’s a pretty cool dilemma to have.

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