Our temperatures were almost back up to a steady ninety-something degrees by the time we made it back to the HTG Lodge. The day’s excitement had started to wind down by then so it was just as well that we be in a place with a roof above us instead of a cave. Particularly a cave famous for its thousands of glow-in-the-dark insects.
It was better this way.
I sat in the common room of the Hamilton Tomo Group backpacker’s lodge, where we were staying that night for only twelve bucks. A gaggle of backpackers was doing what backpackers do best: chill. I opened up the Spaight’s Ale that we had been hauling for exactly this sort of time when the dust has settled, everyone has showered and the mission has been accomplished. Well actually, not everyone had showered, but no matter – two out of three ain’t bad. A part of me listened to a Maori story-teller from the Department of Conservation while another part of me watched Paulo, my little brother and partner in crime, play drinking games with some blond wasteland from Chicago who had evidently lost her way. Good for him. My other nefarious cohorts were mingling with the crowd and chilling just as well as any of them. Good for them.
As I scanned the scene, taking it in and letting myself appreciate the absurd success of the day, I spotted James in the audience, listening indifferently to the stories and drinking a beer. James had been our guide earlier that afternoon, taking us on a tour of the Waitomo Caves in a way that no Lonely Planet book could have foreseen; by their very nature, guidebooks can’t take you off the beaten path, but there are people who can, if you’re willing. In the end, he had really saved the day for us, perhaps even made the trip.
See, nothing that day had gone according to the plan. Normally this is at least expected when traveling but we had seen a freakish streak of good luck in the last two weeks that pretty much convinced us that we were unstoppable. So when we had arrived in Taupo we had earmarked some cash and booked a skydive with the Freefall Tandem Co., thinking that time was our puppet. Then came the rain and the winds.
We had been bumming around for two days doing short hikes, checking out the local attractions like natural geysers and absurd water falls, sleeping in and catching up on some drinking – whatever the weather would allow, really. Lake Taupo is a friendly little nothing of a town across a vast lake from Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Ngauruhoe, a perfectly conical and dormant volcano that appropriately sits smack in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. Within the adrenalin capital of the world, it is the island nation’s hotspot for skydiving. So we held out.
In the early hours of the morning on the third day it rained, though I thought I had dreamed it. We woke up foolishly optimistic for the sky-dive because there was no wind and Lake Taupo was a mirror. It was still overcast but we stalled, hoping for the third day in a row that the sun would cast aside its sheepishness and creep out from behind the clouds to wipe the fog away like Windex, the way it does by mid-morning on the central coast of California in April. However hopeful we longed however, after some tea and a little guitar we agreed to agree that skydiving was a lost cause and not worth further loss of time. We got the hell out of Dodge.
On our way north towards Auckland, we stopped in a small damp place called Waitomo, little more than a collection of a few convenience stores, a post office, a museum and limestone caves to behold. Not having sky-dived, we had some extra cash, which we agreed to burn on a spelunking tour of the famous caves from which the town gets its name.
The “Black Abyss Co.” cave tour got us into wet suits, rubber boots and hardhats with headlamps and then took us ab-sailing (rappelling) down a damp hole thirty-four meters (100 feet) deep. After a brief and very tight-squeezed walk underground we came to a cliff that overlooked another ledge perched roughly ten meters (thirty feet) below us, separated by a river that ran god knows how far below us. James had us turn off our headlamps and listen to the liquid rush against the gorge. Underground. And then he did something I didn’t expect.
He tied someone to a line and pushed them off the cliff. At least, that’s about as much as I can assume from listening to shuffling feet and whispers in the dark followed by a girlish shriek. When he turned his headlamp on again we saw that J.J., the assisting guide, had careened down a foxline (zipline) connected to the cliff across from the river. Very cool.
Once we had all traversed the chasm (in the dark) he sat us down with our legs dangling over this lower cliff and busted out a waterproof bag of hot tang and little squares of chocolate, insisting that we enjoy the snack in the dark, listening to the underground river that was now about six meters (20 feet) below us.
“Is this guy for real?” somebody whispered in the abyss. I thought it was a fair question.
I listened to the water rush its way past stones that lived in the blackness and heard a pair of girls in our group mumble something to one another about not being able to get back out. At that moment, armed with a hot drink and munchies, my feet hanging over an underground river in the dark, I didn’t really understand why one would want to.
James brought out a stash of large inner tubes they keep down in the caves and passed them around.
“Now, this is what you’re gonna do,” he said, emphasizing the you to J.J., “Hold the tube against your bum, just like J.J. is doing here and then jump off the cliff, landing on the water already sitting on your tube …”
A moment passed, along with the river and his words hung in the air as if even they couldn’t believe what he had just said. Then J.J.’s tube hit the water with him on it, and the cracking sound that reverberated throughout the caves was deafening. I wondered what it would be like to do this every day and as I did, it occurred to me that maybe the way out really was to go deeper still into the darkness and the unknown – that perhaps it was the only way.
But no matter – too late to go back and too stupid with excitement to know the difference, I saddled up and jumped in after J.J. Most everyone in the group landed just fine; Paulo managed to miss his inner tube almost completely but we would all end up getting wet eventually. We floated down stream with the river’s current, looking up at the famous Waitomo glow worms, small insects that produce glow-in-the-dark mucus to trap prey, and part of what makes these caves so special. Bats flapped their thin wings somewhere in the distance. The water that lapped at our butts was out-of-control freezing but we didn’t care – it was a magical place for a perfect series of moments that discomfort couldn’t ruin.
After some time floating on our backs with the current, the river got too shallow for the tubes and we dismounted. With the cave walls so steep and slick there was no real way to walk dry along the edge of the river, so we waded downstream until our freezing mass of moving liquid met with another freezing mass of moving liquid. We turned a dark-colored stone corner and stood facing an underground waterfall about three meters (ten feet) tall. The way out entailed climbing up the waterfall so it was either freeze or stay. We stared in reverence, inspired by the underground cataract lit only by insect mucus and a handful of LEDs. Soon, standing still in a pool of swishing, recently thawed water motivated us, one by one, to sack it up and get a move on. We continued wading through a series of tunnels, large and small until we came to see patches of light. Alas, we had made good time and were early.
James was a sport, though. Not wanting to short change us on what should’ve been a 4 hour adventure, he said he wanted to show us another cave.
“It’s not part of the tour and if it starts raining we’ll be in a bit of a jam but it’s incredible, if you’re up for it.” With sophomorish intent, we didn’t even look back to see how far behind us the others were – we wanted more.
He took us along a small creek that seemed to dead-end against a rock wall with trees on either side, but I wondered why the water level didn’t rise.
“That’s because it’s being drained beneath this wall,” he explained by tapping his hands on the rock, “and we’ve got to go under it.”
“You mean under it, like, hold your breath and go underwater?” someone asked, “Are you daft?”
“Listen, mate, the tour’s effectively over. If you prefer, you can hike back over that hill to the lodge for bagels and soup…warm your toasty little heart out.” I felt like we were finally off the beaten path, going into a place unfit for those that only have the spirit. This was the part where you had to have balls and be willing to get them wet, too.
“Right, then,” James concluded. It was more of a speech to inspire the stupid, but we were beyond saving at that point.
The nature of the crack just beneath the creek’s surface was such that you had to go in head first and once we came up on the other side we saw a crack, barely large enough for a human being. The passage was so small and narrow and horizontal that for a good while we had to inch our way on our stomachs and elbows, in very strange, “people-don’t-belong-here” kind of positions. There were cave crickets everywhere but they ignored us for the large part, which is not to downplay the horror that those girls who left would’ve experienced had they come into these here caves. Cave crickets are creepy little things with antennae that move with a strange, patternless smoothness. They look sort of like spiders but they have long legs … longer legs, about the size of an open palm, and they covered the walls like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, tickling rocks and creeping things out. No, those girls would not have made it this far.
We could tell when it started raining because the water level in those narrow passageways began to rise with a noticeable quickness. We continued to squeeze and inch our way deeper into what semed more and more like a crack in a boulder rather than a passage to anywhere at all and the cold water was at our knees and rising. Around the same time that the water level passed the male package threshold, the notion that this move was imprudent simultaneously crossed all of our minds. Collectively, we all took a deep breath so quickly that a light whimper echoed throughout the caves.
When I noticed that the cave crickets were gone like drowned rats I got an icy, sinking feeling as cold as the water that was up to our chests now and approaching nipple level. Another collective whimper filled the small space left in the corridor.
Soon we had to lift up our chins in order to navigate and still have enough room to breath. “We’re almost there,” I barely heard James say from a few meters forward, but I don’t know if I bought it. I was too focused on wriggling forward like some kind of dumb gopher but I wanted to yell out at him: “Where are the crickets, James? If we’re almost there and we’re not going to drown or die sealing the cracks in this rock, then where are the Goddamned crickets?
Suddenly the gap widened and we waded up the bank to our ankles. We found ourselves at a taller waterfall than before, colder still than before, dealing with the same decision as before: freeze or stay. We looked up and at each other without honestly weighing the options, each of us wearing the same thought stamped on his face: staying is for suckers and cave crickets.