From Matamata we headed north and west again towards Hamilton, a moderate-sized city without noticeable attractions (sorry, Hamiltonians), but a pretty and very habitable place. But we were really there for one main reason: the Waitomo caves.
Waitomo is a Maori word, and like many Maori (and Kiwi) names, it’s deliciously literal: “the place where water enters the earth”. The Waitomo caves are an extensive limestone cave system with subterranean rivers and beautiful glow-worms and stalactites. We were off to have a new experience: black-water rafting. Why, after all, raft along a surface river when you can do it 30 metres underground?
We were signed up for the full-on Black Abyss experience, which took us underground for almost five hours. On driving to Waitomo, we first had to get fully kitted out: wetsuits with jackets and socks, rubber boots, and helmets with lights, then climbing harnesses. Our journey started with a 35-metre abseil down a narrow shaft into the caves; I went first, and got knocked around against the walls, turning off my light, before managing to right myself and sweating and swearing the remaining distance down. Once at the foot of the shaft, Gareth, our guide, switched off my light and attached me to the zipline, then gave me a solid shove out into nothingness. I shot across a huge cave and then abruptly came up short, hanging in space, surrounded by a thousand tiny pinpricks of light.
We had the very very good fortune that several people didn’t turn up for the Black Abyss tour that morning, so it was literally us and one other person. This gave us far more time than is usual, and meant we could go beyond the usual confines of the tour to explore some of the other experiences. Once all descended the zipline, we began tubing upriver in rubber rings. Switching off our lights, we paddled to the head of a long, narrow passage with a ceiling completely covered with glow-worms, and then floated silently back down. In the faint glow, we could see huge, ornate rock chambers drifting past, with glow-worm formations almost like chandeliers.
Further downriver, we had to abandon the rings and walk or wade, occasionally swim, or jump over a small waterfall. At one point we had to wriggle full-length through a narrow opening the guides call the “rebirth tunnel”. Gareth was able to take us off our usual route and show us where some of the other tours go: the very mild walking tour of the upper caverns and their formations, the more leisurely rafting tour, and the hardcore cave climbers. The latter portion got challenging; cave climbing largely involves wedging any limb or foot into any available space, often using pressure against both walls to get the leverage to go upwards or wriggling through tight, narrow gaps, or finding ourselves crawling through a tunnel filled with thick brown mud. At times, awkwardly wedged, I thought of how far below the surface we were and could understand very easily why people panic, but knew that doing so myself wouldn’t make the gap any easier to get through. The tour finished with a freeclimb up two small waterfalls, the last bringing us to a small opening above the ground. I emerged by degrees feeling like a cross between a newborn calf and Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity.
Our time in New Zealand was drawing to an end, but first we had one more journey to make: up to Auckland. We spent a little time on Sunday morning exploring the Hamilton museum and its art exhibits, then took Shadowfax north once more.