I had just rappelled down a twenty-meter (100 foot) waterfall in complete darkness with only my tiny headlight illuminating the shroud of water that pummeled me from above, the light bouncing and reflecting off the stream of water that continued to rain down on me from above.
After unhitching my rappel rack, I looked upward. I could see my guide far above me in the cave signaling for me to move to my right. He looked like he was at the top of a deep well and I was at the bottom. But there was nowhere to go. I turned around several times, the roar of the water in my ears. As far as I could tell there was no exit. I was in a blind chamber five feet in diameter with solid rock walls on both sides. Up ahead, the chamber narrowed and ended in a blind apex of jagged rock. Behind me was the glistening smooth surface I had just rappelled down. The water seemed to swirl and disappear at my feet. The drone of the waterfall continued to resonate in my ears.
I continued to stumble around in my blind chamber. Finally like discovering the solution to some ingenious Chinese puzzle, I bent down into the waterfall itself and saw a passageway its roof one foot above the surface of the water leading to my right. I got down on my belly and began to crawl through the tiny opening my chin just above the surface of the underground stream.
This was Haggas Honking Holes, a commercial caving adventure in Waitomo, New Zealand, an area of New Zealand noted for its vast network of limestone caves. It is winter here and we signed up for the trip two days before and as it turned out, we were the only two on this particular trip which usually consisted of up to ten participants.
After checking in, we drove in a van for half an hour out through the jungle before taking a sharp left turn down an obscure country lane. Passing through a number of sheep and cow pastures, we finally arrived at an outbuilding were we would suit up.
Our two guides, Craig and Gareth, gave us our instructions. Our gear consisted of extra heavy duty wetsuits with pads on knees, elbows and rump, gum boots, helmets, headlamps, climbing harnesses and rappelling gear. Fully ensconced in a gear, we looked and felt like Gumby or some alien Sci-Fi invaders. Next was a brief lesson on rappelling (called abseiling in New Zealand): how to feed the rope through our equipment, how to go on and off belay and a dry practice run down a short hill.
We were in some farmer’s pasture. Off to the side, as in most of New Zealand, sheep grazed starring absently at us while ripping off tufts of grass and chewing. After checking our gear one final time, we climbed down a steep hill. At the bottom was an ominous black hole with a tiny metal ladder leading down into the opening. After climbing down to it, we turned on our headlamps and entered the cave.
We didn’t know quite what to expect. We had purposely avoided the more tame trips in this famous cave district of New Zealand such as an underground boat ride to see glowworms, or the slightly more adventurous trip where you float underground on a river on inner tubes. Our trip promised to be the real thing. The brochure blithely promised that you will get wet and that “this trip is not for the faint hearted.”
After perhaps only a hundred feet into the limestone cave, we came to our first waterfall rappel. An almost perfectly round chute plunged directly downward with no bottom in sight. Water roiled off the edge and into the black abyss. Gareth helped me feed my rope through the rappel rack and attached a belay, then rechecked things one more time. This was the moment of commitment. Once I stepped off that edge, there would be no coming back up at least not that way and not for a long time. The trip was scheduled to last four hours with two hours underground. I eased myself off the edge into the plunging water.
Rappeling is surprisingly easy with the right equipment and technique. You feel like you are in complete control of your descent. I gently bounced off the rock gliding toward the bottom as the water splashed down on me. Unfastening the ropes, I was met by Craig who was already at the bottom.
A few minutes later Rebecca and Gareth joined us. We clambered onward in the cave following the brisk underground stream clambering over and around rocks our headlights dancing off the low ceiling. A short while later we came to the second waterfall rappel of about the same length as the first. Down, down—we were rapidly dropping deeper and deeper underground.
Then another waterfall rappel. This is where I found myself in the blind chamber before finally finding the illusive exit. While crawling through the narrow chute on my belly, my rappel harness got caught in some of the rocks making me unable to move forward as the water boiled past me.
After a brief moment of panic, I released myself and continued on entering a larger chamber where I was once again able to stand.
The next major obstacle was a narrow chute about two and a half feet in diameter called the plug hole. I attached the belay rope and stood braced above the tiny swirling hole of water. The idea was that I would point my feet, and bring my elbows tight in front of my face making myself as narrow and streamlined as possible. Then Gareth would lower me straight down the tiny watery chute. If I had any remaining claustrophobic fears or fears of drowning deep underground, this would be a good time to address them!
After Rebecca and I survived the plug hole, the cave journey became more gradual. We stopped to admire prisitine stalagmites and stalactites.
Looking around, we could have been the first explorers in this wild cave.
Finally in one of the larger rooms we turned off our headlamps. The ceiling of the cave was alight with hundreds of spots of bright fluorescence. These were New Zealand glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa) which are not actually worms, but rather the larvae of small flies called fungus gnats. Do you remember your insect biology? I don’t. Well, glowworms go through four stages: egg, larvae, pupa (cocoon) and adult fly. Eggs are laid by the adult. Larvae, technically maggots, hatch three weeks later. At first, only a few millimetres long, they grow to 3-4 centimetres over about six months. The larvae hang from damp places and set up snares of silky sticky threads by which they catch prey, the prey being attracted to the glowworm’s light. These threads, glowworm lines, can be up to half a meter long in still environments like caves. A glowworm can make 15-25 lines a night—hey, how do they know it’s night in a cave —and may have as many as seventy lines going at one time. For what it is worth, the larva eventually enters the pupa stage. After two weeks, an adult fly emerges which only lasts a few days, just time enough to mate and for the female to produce about one hundred eggs. Glowworms’ entire lives are spent deep inside the cave; at this point we were 80 meters below the surface.
At times the cave followed a more convoluted path. Climbing up and around misshapen rocks, it was easy to get stuck and end up kicking one’s feet stupidly and blinding in the air.
Sometimes we hunched down and duck-walked through the tiny caverns or crawled some more on our bellies through the water.
A little past the halfway point, we stopped for a drink of water and a snack before beginning to head back upward through another channel. There was a series of narrow metal ladders and one steep ten-meter rock climb while on belay. Throughout the entire trip water rushed past on the floor beneath our feet.
Finally hours later we emerged back onto the surface. It had grown dusk and the same sheep (well, they looked the same) starred at us.
I don’t usually like commercial activities because they are too—well, commercial and touristy. But this trip was something else and something Rebecca and I will never forget.
Do people ever freak out I asked Gareth, our guide, on the drive back. Sometimes he says. They get to the first rappel and they say no way. So they have to bring them back out before they start going down. Last week some woman began taking off her wetsuit in one of the passages of the cave refusing to go on. She had to be talked out of it.
Somebody broke a leg once, I think it was in one of their other caves, by foolishly jumping down some rocks. I can only imagine how hard it must be to get someone out of the cave if they are hurt. In fact, the man who discovered the cave in the early 1900’s fell into it by mistake when he was cutting down trees. That’s how he found it, and it was only when he was missed some time later, that he was found and rescued.
Another thing that comes to mind is that I couldn’t believe anything like this could ever be done in the United States because of the liability and the inevitable lawsuits. Pity.
One of Waitomo Adventures other popular trips is called Lost World and includes a 100 meter (328 foot) free rappel where you drop down into the opening of a giant cave. Free rappel means you are not in contact with any wall on the way down.
This is longest commercial cave free rappel in the world. And if that isn’t enough, Tom Cruise has done it four times!