Cave of Stars

If you visit New Zealand, put down the delicious local chocolate (I know it’s hard), plan to visit Hobbiton another day, resist jumping out of the car to pet the endless droves of fluffy sheep, and head to Waitomo Caves for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience—black water rafting through a glowworm cave.

Black water rafting was an exhilarating, unearthly experience, one that definitively topped the list of my favorite New Zealand activities. The caves sit two and a half hours south of Auckland and boast some of the Pacific’s most gorgeous glowworm caves. For 30 years now, the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. has been guiding people through the caves’ subterranean labyrinth.

When we arrived at the rafting company’s headquarters, employees directed us to changing rooms, where we squeezed into wet suits that would help attenuate the bite of the icy mountain water that runs through the caves. The employees issued each of us a pair of waterproof boots, a helmet, a headlamp, and our own donut-shaped black rubber tube, and then we hopped into a bus with our two guides and four other rafters and zipped off to the cave entrance.

After hunching through the entrance, we began trekking through ankle-high water, the daylight quickly fading into utter blackness. We flipped on our headlamps. The river that runs through the caves alternated between stretches of deeper water (which we tubed through) and shallow shoals (which we hiked through).

One of the more intense moments arrived when the cave ceiling dropped to less than a foot above the three-foot-deep water. For several seconds we had to get on hands and knees and push our tubes out in front of us while breathing out of the sides of our mouths for several seconds in the tiny air pocket between water and cave ceiling. My heart was pounding like a Travis Barker drum solo. Although the whole trip is adventurous, it is perfectly safe, as the very competent guides know the caves and river well and consider your safety their number-one priority.

Then, after whishing through some particularly swift currents on our tubes, we arrived at the top of a small waterfall, about 10 feet high. One by one, we toed the edge of the waterfall, turned around so that our backs faced the drop-off, held the tubes firmly to our backsides, and sprang backward off the waterfall—splashing into the drink, our tubes keeping us from getting fully submerged.

After a few more swift sections and one more blind leap off a waterfall, we arrived at the pièce de résistance, the grand finale. Our guides told us to sit in our tubes and form a chain, with each rafter gripping the legs of the tuber behind. They told us to turn off our headlamps and allowed us to float down the river, the lazy current slowly, smoothly pulling us along.

I reclined back in my tube and tilted my head upward, gazing at the cave roof. Thousands of glowworms greeted my eyes, the animals’ bluish-white light penetrating through the darkness. They looked like tiny stars burning in the night sky. Their appearance, coupled with the weightless feeling of slowly floating through the cave, truly made me feel like I was an astronaut floating through space (sorry Space Mountain, but you’ve got nothing on Waitomo). The sensation caused a feeling of peaceful awe to wash over me. I’m not sure how long we drifted under those terrestrial stars, because the view was all-consuming, but gradually the concentration of glowworms began to thin until we spotted no more of them.

Following our sublime encounter with the glowworms, we exited the cave and emerged out into the sunlight once again. All in all, the trip took about an hour and a half. Someone picked us up in a bus again and brought us back to headquarters, where dry clothes and complimentary bowls of warm soup awaited us.

Black water rafting is one of the don’t-you-dare-miss-it attractions in the land of the long white cloud. The experience provides a great mix of adventure, exhilaration, and wonder-inspiring natural beauty. I’m as much of a Lord of the Rings fan as most, but there is so much more to New Zealand than just visiting the homes of little men with hairy, abnormally large feet. So while Hobbiton and other sights are indeed enjoyable, make time to go to Waitomo.

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