Sitting at my desk one balmy May morning, I was asked if I'd like to go black water rafting. "Sure", I replied, "that'd be a hoot, sign me up". The jaunt was diarised for September, and I forgot all about it, until arctic September rolled round. But there it was, in my diary, and it no longer sounded like fun. I was convinced I'd freeze to death, but it was too late to back out.
Waitomo, which translates as "the stream that flows into the hole in the ground", is just two and a half hours from Auckland. I'm glad I didn't pike because it's enchanting above ground, and below the surface it blew my mind.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co offer a range of trips and we went for the wildest. "The Black Abyss has everything an adrenaline junkie could want," the brochure declared. It's described as five hours of abseiling, tubing, waterfall climbs, flying foxes, plus you'll see more glow-worms than you can shake a stick at.
When we rocked up to rafting HQ on a crisp Waitomo morn, the air felt bright enough to snap. Crusty, our trusty barman from Curly's had tried to reassure us the night before that the water temperature doesn't change too much, it's always cold. Great. But when we laid eyes on our guides, Anne and Janna, we knew their warm humour would see us through.
Getting suited and booted was a mission in itself, as we struggled into undershirt, socks, booties, heavy two-piece wetsuit, harness, plus balaclavas for those with longer hair (to save us from being scalped by our abseiling gear). And to top it all off, helmets with torches. If nothing else, we looked the part.
After an abseiling lesson on dry land, one by one, we disappeared through a tiny aperture, 120 feet into the depths of the earth. Once below, breathless with delight, we switched on our lamps and the world above ceased to exist. The first cave was dotted with fossils, including a sand dollar from the days the area was all seabed.
Next was the flying fox, hurtling through the pitch black to our launch pad. To gird our loins for the inevitable dunk, we were treated to hot Milo and oaty slice, a last supper before our baptism by frost.
Rubber rings clamped to our rears, we flung ourselves unglamorously into the water. It was bracing, invigorating and, yes, it was cold, but no one really cared because we were in wonderland, floating, stomping, stumbling, sliding, waddling and plodding our way through the caves. My favourite fissure was called the "re-birthing canal", a tight spot that had some of us calling for a C-section.
I particularly enjoyed the illuminating talk given by guide Janna while we gazed at a ceiling lit like the Milky Way. Apparently, our gleaming companions are a type of fly. The glow-worm is the maggot stage, only they've been branded worms because worms are easier to market than maggots, and the glowing bit is a kind of luminous poo. Or, as Janna put it, "they are not little worms, they are carnivorous, cannibalistic maggots with shiny shit that fish for nine months, sleep for two weeks then shag themselves to death".
Near journey's end, dreaming of a warm shower, we had the option of walking out, or climbing up three thundering falls.
At the base of the waterfall, directions had to be pointed on account of the deafening noise. Hand over hand, we hauled our sodden selves toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Waitomo rocks. It's the sort of place where the proprietor of one establishment, Shane from Curly's, tells people they simply must dine somewhere else. That never happens on Ponsonby Rd. Huhu Cafe, he insisted, was world class and he was right. Outstanding gourmet food at country prices, and the service was spot on.
Plus there's so much else to do, so many other caves to explore. The i-site is much more than an information centre, more like a museum, with exhibits, films, and photos. There's even a moa skeleton. There are also walks galore, and we can vouch for the Ruakuri Walk, Mangapohue Natural Bridge and Marokopa Falls which are all good for a gander. And our accommodation, recently voted best Top Ten Holiday Park, was ideal. The kids would've loved the trampolines, hot pool, and amazing play area. We'll be back.
Waitomo is just cool. It has a magical charm, while still being down to earth, ethereal and full of surprises.
PS: On the way home, stop at Te Awamutu's Red Kitchen. Gourmet adventures await at this cafe, cook school and connoisseurs' heaven.
The Black Water Rafting Co.: Awesome range of trips for the wild and the timid. They're offering big discounts during the school hols, so visit the website and get up to 50 per cent off certain tours.
Waitomo Top Ten Holiday Park: Great spot, helpful staff, fab vistas. Get a room or BYO motorhome, caravan or tent.
Huhu Cafe: Everything about this little restaurant is top notch, all the accolades are deserved.
Elisabeth Easther was the guest of Hamilton & Waikato Tourism.