The central region of New Zealand’s North Island is fertile, green, and lush. The hills are used for farming, lovely towns like Cambridge, Hamilton, Mata Mata and Hobbiton make driving distances manageable and pleasant, and one of the country’s principal cities – Auckland – lies only a couple of hours to the north. Beneath the green, rolling countryside and quaint villages, things are a little different – for starters – it’s a lot darker.
New Zealand lies on the Ring of Fire, which – in addition to volcanic activity (read about White Island here), and the increased risk of earthquake – means that the subterranean landscape is riddled with caves. Not content to leave the dark holes of the world unmined for adrenaline (a very different type of mining than that which we experience in holes in the ground here in Australia), the ingenious kiwis have applied their own methodology to cave exploration. Gone are the detailed safety plans and secure gates or access points such as you can see in many Western Australian caves, and in their place are tubes, adventure, and a disclaimer that “This is New Zealand, you can’t sue here!”
We left Rotorua mid-morning, having exhausted our list of things to do (Luge, hot pools, culture), hoping to make it to Waitomo in time for a late afternoon tour of the country’s underbelly. The village itself is understated (read, almost non-existent), but it is not the hamlet’s Bed and Breakfast opportunities that draw tourists in droves. We passed the township at around 3.30pm and arrived at The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company a little early for our 4.30pm booking. This was July – the height of winter – so we left the warmth of the car, stepping into a balmy 7 degrees and a gentle drizzle (fantastic weather for an underground tubing tour).
Our guide greeted us and began to fit our well used, wet, and cold wetsuits, which was not the most pleasant sensation I’ve ever experienced. The atmosphere was further sullied by discussion of wetsuit relief, and the imperative to not marinate in one’s own urine for the duration of the three-hour tour. Having been reminded that many others had worn my wetsuit, both today and previously, and warned that litigation was out of the question, I felt ready to spend the rest of the afternoon underground. We boarded a van that took us about ten minutes down the road to a creek that ran through the forested hills. We grabbed a tube each and were instructed to jump off a small pier into the muddy, frigid water. Having passed our training, we returned – sodden – to the van to be transported to the cave.
The path down to the entrance had no signage and little marking aside from a few rough-hewn steps where the descent became steep, and before long we arrived at a tiny opening in the ground – scarcely large enough to step through. This humble hole in the earth marked the start of the tour proper. We spent the next two hours wading through the river that made its way through the cave system and navigating the glow worm caves by tube and torchlight. Within five minutes of entering the cave, we found ourselves floating with our noses scraping the cave ceiling over an eel-infested pool towards a waterfall from which we would be forced to leap. I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hundred dollars!
The two guides were clear about instructions whenever we came close to a dangerous area, but I couldn’t help but realise that there was no way that a tour like this could happen in Australia. Insurance liability concerns would mean that the cost of such an adventure would be prohibitive, if it was approved in the first place. New Zealand has managed to strike a delicate balance between the ball-freezing craziness and eco-consciousness without running afoul of lawmakers or faceless insurance agencies. If it lasts they’ll be lucky, but if you miss the opportunity to get there before the rules do, you won’t.