We awoke in New Zealand to our first Autumn morning of the year, in the month of April. It was crisp and sunny weather. A perfect day to spend underground.
We were scheduled for a rafting tour in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, an adventure that would include subterranean tubing, climbing, clambering, and leaping.
Once we arrived at the site, the first step was to put on our wetsuits. Neoprene overalls, jacket, and booties. Each piece was damp from previous use, and extremely cold. My jacket seemed to have been last worn by a small human with powerful body odour. I was increasingly grateful for the one-piece swimsuit I wore, minimizing the amount of direct skin-to-suit contact. The moist booties were bad enough, believe me. But, they had to be snuggly laced into rubber boots. It was all very squishy and unsettling.
Due to my facial expressions and body language that drew the attention of our guides, I got an extra accessory for my caving costume. A kidney warmer! That’s not what they called it, but it was an insulated belt that wrapped around your kidneys to help maintain a safe body temperature. It looked like a strange combination of one giant ankle weight and a wrestling championship belt.
Before we went underground, we practiced for our “waterfall jumps” by leaping off a platform into a river outside. Stand with your back towards the water, hold your tube directly behind your bum, aaaaand JUMP! Somehow I was selected to provide the leaping demonstration for our group.
The characters of our crew added additional spice to our experience. There was Summer, our new friend of the day- a sweet Chinese girl who went on the expedition solo. A genuinely terrified Indian woman who made us all a bit nervous. A sprinkling of British and German tourists. Then, a jovial Japanese man whose frequent thumbs-up made everything better.
Inside the cave, we found the trekking to be challenging enough to feel exciting. The cave boasted slippery rocks and unexpected holes under the rushing water. We climbed with our inner tubes over one shoulder, but still have plenty of time sitting inside them.
Once we had been afloat, our guides told us to extinguish our helmet lights. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, as tiny pin-prick dots of greenish-blue light came into vision. It was a miniature galaxy installed across the limestone architecture. In reality, the starlight was bioluminescent glowworms.
To my understanding, the glowworms are the larvae of a type of fungus gnat. They create sticky, illuminated threads of silk which they use as snares. These caught insects as well as the attention of our own eyes.
Later on, one of our guides produced a jar of goodies. “Do you want a fishie?” he asked, as I noticed everyone munching on something. Yeah, I do! Cave snack! It was a little chocolate fish-shaped treat. Upon my first nibble, I discovered a strawberry marshmallow interior. I decided it tasted yucky, so I just used the fishie as an oar for the remainder of the float.
After being sixty-five meters underground, the sunshine returned at the mouth of the cave.
The experience seemed to have whett David’s appetite for more adventurous exploits, but we were both happy to find a warm snack at the end of the tour. Until later notice, New Zealand’s spectacular subterranean wonders and tomato soup would suffice.