The day after the day after Christmas, Cece and I drove up to Waitomo to visit the famous caves.

Road trippin'!

There are lots of caves, and lots of companies who run tours through the caves, but we chose “Rap, Raft, and Rock” because they offered three hours of rappelling, blackwater tubing, and rock climbing for a reasonable price.

They also have a backpacker’s lodge on site, so we stayed for two nights – the first night to get a good sleep, the second night to recuperate from what we were pretty sure might be a near-death experience.

Doing my pre-caving exercises

In the morning, we checked in at the office and met our tour guide, Brendon, and a family of Aussies in country for a wedding, named Angela, Andrew, Alex, and Austin.

We all piled into a van and Brendon drove us out to put on our caving uniforms – wet suits, gumboots, helmets, and rappelling harnesses.

(I’m going to use the terms “abseiling” and “rappelling” interchangeably in this post, because I think they mean the same thing, but please correct me if there’s a difference between them.)

They tell you to bring a bathing suit, towel, and extra socks. I did, but I made the mistake of wearing my bathing suit rather than carrying it. That means I had to nude up under the wetsuit so I could wear my bathing suit home. Ah well, lesson learned.

From there we climbed back into the van for a thrilling and perilous ride over unpaved roads to the entrance of the cave. Anyone who has been on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland would feel a sense of recognition in this trip, except without the comfort of knowing the vehicle was on rails.

But we managed to survive, and Brendon taught us how to use the ladderlike thing on the abseiling harness to protect ourselves from a long drop and a quick stop.

The entrance to the caves is a vertical drop of 27 meters. That’s about the height of a 9-story building.

That's not a smile, it's a rictus of fear

Goin' down!

That's a long way doooooown...

This is what the cave entrance looks like from the inside

Not too shabby

Now, I first thought that Blackwater Rafting meant I was going to briefly join a certain mercenary army, and go rafting with them. But apparently that’s not the case.

(And it makes me really suspicious of that Halliburton Rafting trip I signed up for.)

No, blackwater rafting is riding on underground rivers. The river in this cave was sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep.

Always hiding sharp rocks.

And apparently eels as long as my… leg. Though I was lucky enough not to be eaten by one.

The first course of business was to collect our innertubes and wade upstream. We found our way to a gravel beach (do you still call it a beach if it’s underground?) where Brendon had us turn off our headlamps. Suddenly we were in the middle of the Milky Way.

"My God. It's full of stars."

These are glow worms, which light up to attract flying insects to their webs.

It's like silly string. Tiny deadly silly string.

Those beads are glue. If a bug gets caught, the worm sucks the string back up, drinks the bug’s precious bodily fluids, then casts the string back out. It’s like fly fishing, in the air.

If you look closely in the middle of the picture above, you can see a glow worm. His butt is glowing, and you can see that he’s eaten recently because he has that dark line in his gut.

Next we rafted down the river, which included a few rapids and waterfalls.

You have to keep your feet up, or they could get caught underneath you. And get broken. Or ripped off. Or eaten by eels.

Note my arm on the sharp sharp rocks.

I left my heart in the Waitomo caves. As well as some pieces of my arm.

This brings up an opportunity to talk about something cool about New Zealand. We were able to do things on this cave tour that we never would have been allowed to do in America.

America is such a litigious society that people there are forced to live by the Idiot Rule of Risk-Taking. If you make a rule that would keep a sensible person from harm, some idiot is going to come along and get himself killed. And then his idiot family is going to sue the pants off of anyone within a mile of where the idiot met his unfortunate demise.

That’s not the case in New Zealand. This tour is listed as being suitable for anyone with a moderate level of physical fitness, and they have safety backups on the abseiling and rock climbing portions of the tour, but mostly they’re just counting on the tourists to have a basic level of self-awareness and intelligence. And because most people actually do have a basic level of self-awareness and intelligence, I doubt anyone has been seriously hurt on this tour. But in America, we wouldn’t even be allowed to try.

In short, New Zealand is rad. Thanks to Brendon and the rest of the company for treating us like responsible adults.

Next we came to a place where we had to climb through a little tunnel underwater…

Cece wasn't so sure about this...

Brendan then posed us for a timelapse shot in the darkness, turning us into cave ghosts…

Finally, we made our way back to the entrance, where we got to climb 20 meters of rock face back into daylight.


  • Made it!
  • Note the Aussie family below her. That’s where she climbed from.

    And that was our most excellent rappelling, rafting, and rock-climbing tour of the Waitomo caves. I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t meet Gollum and get to have a riddle game with him down there, but other than that I couldn’t imagine a cooler time.

    American friends, you gotta come visit so we have an excuse to do it again.