The caves of New Zealand

Waitomo Cave, New Zealand

Leaning back on the rope, securely tied overhead, I eased back towards the pitch black tear in the ground below me. The headtorch attached to my helmet could only penetrate so far into the 40 metre fall below. The rest was mystery.

Feeding the rope through my “control” hand, I began to descend. The cold hit the second my head passed beneath ground level, the boots, wetsuit and thermal jacket unable to keep it out. The narrow beam of light showed where to place my feet, highlighting deep shades of stoney grey, wet from recent rain, allowing little comfort or grip. The sliver of light overhead became smaller and smaller, and suddenly the wall fell away from my soles and I was hanging in midair, no concept of the space around me, unable to see the bottom.

Soon the rocky surface below came in to view, and I eased myself on to the rocks, disconnecting myself from the rope, standing at the bottom of a deep, dark funnel within the earth. The cave extended away in only one direction, limiting the options but making the decision an easy one. Guided by my headtorch, and using the ropes already placed along the walls I pressed on – the route in was no option, an exit would have to be found seperately. Ducking and squeezing through the cave, the sound of running water turned from a distant whisper to a present rush, and rounding yet another bend the ground came to an end, met by an underground “blackwater” river passing across the path, running for unseen miles. Despite this it seemed lighter here, somehow, although deeper and further from the kiss of the sun. As I stepped into the chilling water, and climbed upon a buoyancy aid, the reason why became clear.

All along the seemingly endless black above me hung millions of glowworms, lying in wait for their prey. Tiny blue-white lights lit up the depths of the cave like infinite stars in a clear night sky. They guided the way as the water pushed me onwards through the cave, often coming down the walls almost to the waterline, until the river became shallow enough for me to stand and make my own way. At the earliest opportunity I pulled myself out of the water, the wetsuit offering little comfort, and began to press along a gently upward winding narrow path. At points the way became so narrow and contorted that progress was almost impossible, but I managed to press ahead, ever upwards, a good sign. I sensed an almost imperceptible rise in temperature, but with it a definite, thunderous noise of falling water. I entered the next chamber.

It was a 15 foot, underground waterfall and it blocked the way forward, tumbling down into the small cavern in which I stood and flowing way through a small gap off into the darkness. The waterfall needed to be climbed, without ropes. Taking grip, the downward force of the water was intense, opposing every reach and every push, occasionally blinding as the flow increased and decreased, irregular but constant. Pulling and forcing my way up against the water, using whatever holds the rocks offered, I eventually managed to slide my stomach over the lip of the drop, soaked to the core, fingers numb. Hauling myself to my feet, weighed down by the water held in the wetsuit, I squelched over and through to the next cavern.

A steep slope led upwards, I had to squint. Pressing my face into the narrow space, the warmth of the sun brushed my cheek, giving that last ounce of energy to slide up the stone and out into the world. I was filthy, cold, wet and exhilerated. I felt alive.

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