Many of you know this image as one of Chris’s more well-know photographs. But maybe not so many of you know the story of this adventure, nor what it is like to experience the Lost World of Waitomo Caves in New Zealand. I thought I’d share here an old story written about my trip into this cave, and what this subterranean adventure actually involves. Read on and Enjoy!!
Finally, a trip that on the surface looks like it should carry a “Not for the faint-hearted” warning logo, but is actually surprisingly do-able with no previous abseiling or caving experience required. Although there is that height thing…
It all starts with a brief walk up the hillside to the opening of the Waitomo Lost World cavern – a small gap in the landscape that leads to the most amazing of subterranean adventures! I had imagined the abseil to be more of a bouncing walk down the side of a cave-like cliff (like you see in the movies I guess). I most definitely had not pictured myself climbing onto a structural steel platform, hooking up to the required safety gear (yes, double and trip checked), and having to swing my backside out over an immense drop, apparently with the intention of lowering my body until it was level with my feet before saying goodbye to the platform and lowering myself down into thin air, and the rest of the abseil.
Oh, and its 100 metres down by the way.
There is welcome security in the fact that an instructor is tethered to two ‘clients’ at a time. We are all on our own ropes, but all connected by safety ropes to our friendly instructor. This was a huge plus in my book. You get the thrill of controlling your own descent, but also the reassurance that an expert isn’t far away (literally) if you need help.
The first few minutes (probably seconds, but it definitely seemed longer), were spent getting the feel for my rope, and the adjustments required to enable my descent. At 100 metres, the Lost World is most likely the deepest commercial cave abseil. The weight of the huge length of rope hanging below you in effect stops you from freely sliding down the rope – you actually have to lift the rope and almost feed it through your ‘figure eight’ to allow downward movement. Not at all complicated, but takes a few moments to go from hanging on for dear life, to realising that you aren’t going anywhere unless you make it happen yourself!
Once I got this sorted, it was time to slowly start the downward journey. You spin slowly as you descend, allowing views of the dramatic cave structure as it widens around you. The light filters in gently, meeting with the misty air of the cave’s atmosphere, providing the most surreal and magical visions of a world seemingly untouched. I didn’t know if I felt more like Captain Cook or Peter Pan, but like the original discoverers of this cave had commented before me, this was like “entering a fairy tale land”!
The walls of the cave were covered with glistening green mosses, and as I descended further, I began to see the limestone formations of the cave floor below me. The entire descent actually only takes about fifteen minutes. But as you near the last third of the drop, there is enough stretch in the albeit very thick, very strong rope you travel on to create a gentle bounce as you release and hold, release and hold to finish the rest of your abseil. To be honest, the experience is so magnificent that I would have run back up and done it again if that had been an option! What a sense of achievement! Even with that height thing…
But it certainly wasn’t all over there. I was so preoccupied with the abseil component, I had not asked what the rest of the trip entailed. And so I blindly followed where I was lead (after a quick bite to eat to shore up our reserves), realising that there was still plenty of amazement yet to come. We left the large chamber of our abseil descent, to continue our journey onwards through the caves. We walked, climbed, squeezed, crawled, waded and inched our way through the caves, hoping our guide hadn’t lost his map and knew where he was taking us! His knowledge was without fault, filling the trip with education on the structure of these impressive limestone caves. Introducing us to stalagmites and stalactites, and the special relationship they have with each other. We learnt about the different minerals and deposits within the cave walls that provided such an interesting array of colours. And the unusually shaped rock formations and how they had each been created that way.
But most mesmerising of all had to be the lovely glow worms. A tiny insect called a fungus gnat has a larval stage that likes to live in damp, dark conditions such as overhanging river banks and cave surfaces. These larvae abound in the Waitomo glow worm caves, and we were awarded spectacular viewing whenever we turned our helmet lights off. The larvae produce light from one end of their little fat bodies, basically from their waste by-product! They dangle tiny little threads down below them – like fishing lines – and catch their dinner of tiny flying insects (attracted by the lights) that get caught in the sticky threads. They will even eat their own Ma or Pa if they accidentally get caught in the threads!
The glow worm highlight was the Galaxy Cave, a huge cavern with an absolute plethora of glow worms over its roof. So many that it was like viewing the Milky Way in the night sky. In fact, there was enough light given off by these glow worms that we could see around the cave quite well with just the combined glow from the millions and millions of tiny worms scattered above us.
But it was ever onward! Just when you thought the adventure was over, we came across the bottom rungs of a ladder. (The top of the ladder disappeared into a very dark cave shaft above us). Like all good explorers, we looked for an alternative route out, only to be told that no, this was it! One at a time we were attached to the safety rope on the ladder, and told to climb… and keep climbing… and keep climbing…
My hands became so cold and stiff (from nerves more than anything), that I began to worry I would not be able to keep holding on any longer. But my legs kept pushing me up, and so I kept climbing. If they had told me before hand that it was a 30 metre climb, I think I would have quailed at the prospect. But in the darkness you have no way of knowing how far you had come, and how far you still had to go. So you just keep on climbing! At last, I was welcomed into light and company at the top of the final section of ladder, and was able to sit back and enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the next climber to rise through the shaft. (Knowing they would be asking themselves the same questions I did halfway up). My sense of achievement – coupled with a fair helping of adrenaline – was a great feeling!
But we were still not back to the earth’s surface! We were now in a more open and less subterranean cave, more of a series of cracks and shafts in the earth’s crust really. We clambered along the sides of these openings, tethered at all times to safety ropes as we climbed along ledges, up small cliffs, and through steep gullies. Ever onward and upward…
Suffice to say that by the time we reached the surface, I felt that a whole lifetime had passed, not just half a day. I had been so immersed in the wonder and beauty hidden beneath the landscape, time had become irrelevant. Combined with the heady effects of physical achievement and personal accomplishment, I was feeling pretty good… If a bit blinded by the sudden daylight.
We were treated to a BBQ dinner following our adventure, and it would be fair to say that we all spoke with slightly raised voices, a glint of excitement in our eyes, retelling stories of marvelous feats attained, and memorable moments remembered.
What a trip! A moderate level of fitness would definitely be recommended, but otherwise very do-able for young and old alike. Certainly an adventure I won’t forget in a hurry, that height thing forgiven after all.
Words by Catherine McLennan.
Images from a separate trip to the Lost World by Chris McLennan.