Liz Light drops into a big black hole where trusting the ropes on the way down is one thing - and climbing back up is another.
The hardest part is letting go. Sam and I are connected to ropes on a platform 100m above the rocky bottom of the Lost World. Even though I know the ropes are strong enough to hold 10 times my weight and that Ryan, the guide, has meticulously checked all the knots, loops and steel fittings, it's still damn hard to push off the launching platform and just hang in empty air.
The bottom is far below; shadows and dark nothingness with the distant sound of a fast-flowing river. Close by, bush grows down the giant hole's edges and clings to rocky outcrops, and when my heart stops racing, I hear birdsong and notice tui and fantails flying about.
We hang, still, settling before we begin the slow abseil down. Fear gives way to amazement and I delight in the visual splendour of this lost world. Beams of light pierce the gloom, mist forms, swirls and dissipates, mosses hang like beaded curtains and common plants take on a different form. Parataniwha has giant serrated leaves of up to a metre long and five finger is unusually elongated, slender and translucently green.
The abseiling is easy, once I have the hang of it, and soon I'm brave enough to turn in circles, enjoying being suspended and striking hero poses for Ryan, who is taking photos.
After almost half an hour in the air, we touch down a couple of metres from an underground river and unhook. The ambience is otherworldly and magical. Except for parataniwha, a rare form of giant liverwort that is found only in caves in Waitomo, it's too dark for plants to grow. Above us the mouth of the hole is dazzlingly bright and ringed with the lacy silhouettes of trees.
We turn our hard hat lights on and go exploring, following the river, finding caverns of glow-worms and side-caves resplendent with thousands of hanging straw-thin stalactites.
There are two ways out and though we planned to take the long way, which involves following the river upwards, scrambling, swimming and climbing along its length through cathedral-sized caves and up waterfalls, we are foiled by recent rain and high water.
The other way out, the one we take, is straight up a steel ladder with 130 rungs. They are widely spaced, too, so each step is a big one. On the 100th my arms are like jelly from holding my weight on to the ladder, my knees are shaking and I'm out of breath. Getting out is much harder than dropping in.
But I would do it again in a heartbeat. It's the adrenalin-pumping abseil in and the stunning visual interplay of darkness, light, mist and vegetation that makes Lost World so fantastic.
IF YOU GO
Lost World: The four-hour journey through the massive vaults of the Lost World is an amazing experience. Bookings essential, $240.00
Waitomo Adventures, ph 0800 924866
Huhu Cafe: This upmarket restaurant is arguably one of the best in the King Country.
Ph (07) 878 6674
More information: kingcountry.co.nz