Waitomo Lost World Adventure Review

This was to be my first time caving. I'm afraid of the dark (I know, still making the mad dash to the bathroom in the middle of the night before the monsters catch you; c'mon I'm not the only one!); get lost easily and not a massive fan of tight spaces - no pot-holing for me thank you very much. But I was turning twenty-five and wanted to do something big to mark the quarter-century occasion. So I signed up for the 4hr Waitomo Lost World Adventure which uses part of the same cave system that harbours New Zealand's famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

Above

Mostly, I wanted the chance to abseil again and if it meant tackling something I was nervous of, even better. I was already imagining the look on my grandparents' faces when I told them what grand scheme their little girl had tackled on the weekend - it's always fun to surprise people! So to the start of our journey deep underground, which begins of course like any good adventure - with a costume change. I felt like Indiana Jones but looked like a miner. Who had just escaped from prison. Cue bright blue jumpsuits, white butcher's boots and helmet with head-torch. A girl likes to dress for an occasion. Oh and don't forget the harness which is essentially like being strapped into a serious wedgie for four hours, but what Health & Safety wants, Health and Safety gets.

A short drive into nearby farmland, quick lesson in locking on and off guide ropes and a practice down a steep path and we were good to go. Somewhere in the dense forest around us lay a massive sinkhole, one of many in the area and our first insight into the Lost World that lay beneath our feet. Not surprisingly, these holes were originally stumbled upon by accident, but what is remarkable is that it was a smaller hole that was first utilised as the main entrance, because despite being less than 100m from the larger opening we were heading towards, the bush was so thick no-one had noticed it! Thankfully, once they did finally find it, a viewing platform was put in place so that nutters like me could pay to throw ourselves into the abyss. I say throw, but its more like a dangle. On a really really long rope. 100m to be exact.

Edging closer to the edge, you could barely see the river at the bottom clearly - the distance was so vast it was like looking at a postcard. Was I really going to do this? Off to the sides mist crept up the cavern walls as if to escape the pit, while moist foliage dripped from every available crack. The limestone which forms the bedrock of this cave system is full of layers, similar to that of the Pancake Rocks in the South Island, due to extreme pressure compacting alternating soft and hard rock. Strapping in and teetering at the edge of the platform, I couldn't help thinking if our ropes failed I'd be the next pancake. But thankfully, I had a guide and a bubbly American tourist to keep such morbid thoughts at bay. She was already dangling freely, posing for photos and laughing, so succumbing to fear wasn't really an option. 'I am woman, hear me roar' and all that. A squeak would have been more appropriate for me at the  time.

Finally, we pushed off together with our guide and steadily released the ropes that would allow us a controlled descent. Once you begin to trust your weight to your harness, the freedom is delicious. You can let go of everything - your fears, your worries, to-do list and even the rope if you want. Here, you are truly in the moment and I couldn't soak up enough of it. All around us truly felt like a Lost World, prehistoric in nature - there could have been dinosaurs at the bottom and I doubt I would have batted an eyelid. The further down we went, the more you could peer into the darkness of caves disappearing back underground on either side taking their secrets with them. I had so many questions, desperate to know where every passage led, where that river saw daylight again, how old that rock was etc. In the end I stayed quiet (apart from a few whoops of appreciation of course); our guide was knowledgeable but could not be expected to answer everything, and I didn't want muddy the majesty of the thundering river, trickling breeze and tweeting birds overhead with too much of my own voice. Better to sit and absorb than talk and miss the moment.

I'll be honest I was disappointed when it was over and we made it to the bottom, such was the enormity of the experience - words cannot do it justice, it simply has to be felt. Plus it is is hard to be profound when you have to be dragged by your rope out of the river I was swinging dangerously close too. Now I understood the need for the non-slip boots. The company website hadn't given too much detail so I presumed the abseil was the main part of the tour, but the adventure was only just beginning, and it was better than I had ever imagined!

Below

I was expecting a path but what I got was a full on scramble, and I couldn't have been happier! As we clambered over dripping boulders, leaving the light of the world above behind us, I really felt like a true explorer - without our guide we would have been lost in seconds as there was no clear walkway and at times we were scaling rock walls that appeared impassable from a distance. And there were plenty of treats along the way (not least the chocolate our guide had squirrelled in his pack to keep us going). Fossils of shellfish, fragments of stalactites and the beginnings of strange hexagonal patterns caused by erosion of different types of rock. We learned geology - how to guess the age of a stalactite with a similar principle to counting tree rings - and culture - early Maori never ventured far into a cave except for burying important people as they believed there was a direct underground link to Cape Reinga - the 'leaping-off' place for souls to leave this world.

As we delved further into the bowels of the cave system, natural light deserted us completely and it was time to unleash your inner mole and fumble around with only a head torch for guidance. Our guide kept up a fast pace - if we lost him now we would be stranded - but soon we came to his pièce de résistance. We took our places on stone seats next to a surging waterfall, switched off our head lamps and waited for the magic to happen. A silent reverie descended as each of us fixed our gaze on the ceiling above as it began to twinkle into life. I could have sat there for hours. The more your eyes adjusted, the more you saw, like looking at the Milky Way. Glowworms make a blue-tinged starscape across the cave giving it an other-worldly feel. We agreed we'd like some in our homes until we learnt the ugly truth. Brace yourselves - the pretty bit is actually their waste produce. Yes, my friend, they have glow-in-the-dark poo which they use to attract insects bought in by the river and ensnare them in their saliva-like fishing strands. Still want them in your living room? Thought not.

Onwards and upwards now to what I like to call the Ladder of Doom. 30m of ladder doesn't sound like a lot, but when you can't see the top, it moves a bit as you climb and is slippy with mud from people's boots it becomes a whole lot more daunting. But first, you remember I said I'm still afraid of the dark? Well that usually means I will firmly entrench myself in the middle of a group so as not to leave my back exposed. We could only climb the ladder one at a time, meaning someone had to be left behind with only the light of their torch to keep the dark at bay. I volunteered. I hadn't come all this way to wuss out at the last hurdle. I even switched my lamp off to better search out glowworms. The nerves were still there but it was worth it in search of beauty. Finally, my turn and I hit the ladder at a good pace - initially. At one point I thought I'd have to shout to be hauled up. Thankfully it was too dark so I couldn't freak out looking down. Eventually at the top - and more chocolate later - we continued up more smaller ladders and paths along the edge of a large drop til we could finally see natural light again drifting in from openings in the roof of our Lost World. We definitely got our money's worth of time spent underground!

Our exit looked like something straight out of Lord of the Rings - the limestone around us forming what could easily be mistaken as the ruins of an old fort, complete with a heart-shaped window all overgrown with forest. It's all rock of course, but the company website isn't far off when it suggests it looks like Burmese jungle, with twisted vines and lush green foliage. After posing for our final photos, it was time to pick our way out into the sunshine. Walking through open fields with the sun beating down on you felt like a world away from the cool, moist Lost World which now lay under out feet, just waiting to reveal its secrets to the next group of budding spelunkers. If you look hard enough, there's still magic to be found...

Helen Shelvey