Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Hire car packed, snacks packed and contraband hairdryer packed, today we are ready to set off on our road trip adventure of a lifetime.

First stop, Waitomo Glowworm Caves for the Black Labyrinth tubing adventure.

The drive from Auckland takes about 2.5 hours and thanks to the only conceivable benefit of colonialism, the Brits having taught the Kiwis to drive on my side of the road (to the left, to the left), we are able to have a relatively smooth and hiccup free drive down. Disclaimer: my version of hiccup free also includes a lifetime first of being chased to a stop by (Kiwi) police for being a couple kmph above the speed limit. In my defence, the hire car is an automatic without cruise control, the latter of which I’ve become dependent upon in my own car. Thankfully though, this is not the defence that saves the day, as it conveniently turns out that the designated “po-po” officer on duty is originally from my exact area of Yorkshire and so a couple of Yorkshire chuckles later, we are let off with a warm, friendly Yorkshire warning!

The threat of Cyclone Cook, I’m assuming some distant, more hormonally challenged relative of Doris, also seems to have completely passed, almost like a folklore that may not even have existed were it not for a few pools of flooded fields we pass along the roadside. The worst of the flooding affected Eastern areas of North Island and so being on the West side, we are very lucky with weather and unspoiled views.

Arriving at Waitomo a couple of hours earlier than our tour booking, we are luckily able to join an earlier session, which works out even better as it’s supposedly a thoroughly cold and wet adventure, after which the remaining few hours of warm New Zealand sun will be very welcome.

Our Black Labyrinth tour starts promptly at 11am and we are fortunate again with a pair of very fun Kiwi guides, as well as a big group. After our session finished, we saw another group suiting up for their adventure but it was only a small group of 4-5 which looked particularly sad. I don’t think the human eel formation would have looked quite as impressive in a group of five. Lesson one of the day: the early bird definitely catches the Glowworm!

Our tour starts in front of a walk-in closet of cold and pre-wet wetsuits hanging neatly, lined beautifully like parked cars in Auckland, and available in an array of sizes for all body shapes. Our guides trained eyes take a quick look at us up and down and hand us “appropriately sized” gear. One size too small fits all. The wet suits are heavy with cold pre-soaked cave water and we are instructed to change into them. Somehow we smilingly oblige, though inside the changing room, we exchange lingering looks at each other, waiting for the first brave soul to start changing and show us it’s not that bad. This doesn’t happen. It is that bad. Many minutes later, we have all zipped ourselves into wet socks, wet suits and wet jackets. Curiously, whilst all still smiling we are led to add gum boots and helmets to complete our instagram look of the day. Cold cave water human filet steak marinade complete, we are now ready for induction.

Induction entails a short drive in a pre wet and cold van, to a cold muddy stream of water, where we are instructed to select bottom size appropriate rubber tubes. Yes thank you, there was one in my size and larger still. Then, one by one we take a practice backward run and jump off the edge of a plank, landing bottom first into a cold muddy stream. A photograph is taken here to capture the beauty of the moment. I will offer viewing pleasure of my candid snap in exchange for the transfer of one million New Zealand dollars to my Nigerian bank account.

After induction, we are then loaded back on to the minibus, now equipped with our tubes and cold muddy water seasoning added to our suits, we are ready for the caves.

Helmet headlights on, we are led into the cave one by one, initially just up to our ankles in water but soon enough fully immersed and floating along in our tubes. The cave ceiling starts out smaller in height at the edge of the mountain but gradually the ceiling and passageways become much larger.

There are two waterfall jumps backwards in our tubes. After the second waterfall jump, our group is instructed to make a “human eel” formation: legs onto the tube in front of you and the person ahead is instructed to hold on to your ankles tightly. Having dainty ankles or larger hands helps in this formation. I have neither but a firm, albeit small handed grip prevented me from losing the human feet in the chain that followed me. Once in human eel formation, we drift along in the cave and as the ceiling starts to become higher, we are told to switch off our headlights. After a couple of seconds our eyes adjust to the darkness and looking up above we see them, glowing blue, there they are, the glowworms in all their magical bright blue majesty. It’s like looking at an impossibly starry night sky (very common in South Island, New Zealand), only the stars are blue. The photographs from our trip don’t do it justice but here is one below and of course much better photographs exist online should one feel so inclined to research the fascinating subject of glow worm cave nightlife.

The guide tells us the story of the glowworms and what causes them to glow blue. Apparently they aren’t actually worms per se, they are actually more like cave maggots but upon human discovery, tourism thinkers quickly realised that Glowing Maggot Cave Tours would probably not have the same ring nor appeal to it as Glowworms would, so they altered the name for public appeal. It gets worse. The glowing part is actually the excretion from the worms, so what we are actually seeing, shining bright blue above us, is blue starry maggot poop!

After this revelation, it’s time for a caving fush break, a popular New Zealand treat which is basically a fish shaped marshmallow covered in chocolate. I guess this is the kiwi equivalent of an English KitKat break. Haere Mai, it’s tasty!

Shortly after, we are freed from the caves, returned to the glorious sunshine and the mammoth mission of peeling our wetsuits from our now exceedingly pruney bodies begins. After 3 hours, the suit has become less of a “protective” outer garment and more of a new (unwanted) membrane adjoined to my epidermis. It is at this point, I recollect the fonder memory of putting this wetsuit on my body and realise that that was actually an infinitely easier task than the one that now presents itself to me. Whilst everyone else fumbles around outside in front of the “wetsuit wardrobe” where we were initially handed our wetsuits, I take a backwards creep and slither into the changing room to somehow extract myself from the suit like an anaconda shedding its outer skin. I’d imagine it was not a pretty sight to behold but thankfully no one was alive nor present to tell that story, so we’ll run with graceful and elegant as descriptions for my suit extraction process, thank you.

De-suited and showered, we are then treated to a buttered bagel and hot soup of the day and our first day of road tripping adventure concludes as a success!