I spent the morning stretching my legs around the shores Lake Ngaroto. My body aching from two days fighting the sea, from climbing up Mount Karioi. The flat loop around the lake is comfortable, easy walking. The melted candle wax peaks of Mount Pirongia drip over the horizon. Soon, I think to myself. Grey clouds roll in, shrouding the mountain under a sheet of rain. Before I get to my next summit I’ve booked myself a black water rafting adventure in the Waitomo Caves. Where better to spend a wet afternoon than underground? I drove into Waitomo, filled in the if anything bad happens to me it’s my own fault form and met up with Joel and James off of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. I had doubts this trip might be cancelled last minute due to the lack of participants. This is one of the downsides of a closed country. A couple of Kiwis on holiday join the group. That’s it, the three of us. We board the dry bus which takes us down to the changing rooms. Decked out in a damp smelling fleece, and neoprene booties, dungarees and a jacket. I pull on a pair of bright white wellington boots. Joel hands me a blue helmet and I’m ready to go. We get on the wet bus, which smells like a stagnant pond. The wet bus delivered us to the natural tunnel network that gives Waitomo Caves the second part of its name. We were now given our inner tubes. To give us a taste of what was to come, Joel led us down to the a small jetty over the river. “All you need to do,” he said, “is turn around, hold the tube behind you, and jump out away from the jetty.” Sounds simple enough. There is something deeply unsettling about leaping off a solid object backwards. Not knowing exactly when you’re going to hit the water. I take a few seconds to compose myself before leaping into the unknown. The cold water hits my hands and face the hardest. The warm, wet weather gear prevents any further notice.
For those that don’t know, black water rafting isn’t a more extreme version of white water rafting. The black refers to the darkness of being underground. The water rafting is sort of similar only way less extreme; you ride a tube downstream. There are occasional breaks where the water is too shallow to float, or waterfalls need to be navigated. Before our adventure went any further we had to make our way to the cave entrance. We climbed up hill through the thick growth of forest to a slim crack in the ground. A small stream gurgled over the rocks before being disappearing into the dark. Tube in hand, I follow Joel through the crevasse before descending in to the underworld. The light of day doesn’t follow me. The cave becomes dark. The water rushing underfoot hides the ground. Walking through is slow, placing each foot carefully. The jagged walls of water carved limestone offer hand holds and hazards. Close to the entrance stalactites grow down from the ceiling, extending slowly with the drip, drip of moisture flowing through the earth. The river flows deeper, over the top of my bright white wellington boots. They fill but I notice holes drilled in the base allow the water to escape. Water pools in the loose sleeves of my jacket. Already I feel heavier. We walk the first length of the cave, listening to the roar of water as the river grows deeper, moves faster, tumbles over cliff edges. The noise echoes in the cavities surrounding us. Joel stops us above the first serious drop off. The water pumping over the edge into a pool below. Threatening rocks loom on either side. Another leap into the unknown, this time in the dark. “Don’t hit your head on that rock,” is Joel’s advice. The water comes up fast. A gentle bounce, the splash sends cold cave water up my nose.
The water is deep enough now to take our weight, to float us through the next section of caves. Before we disappear into the depths, Joel stops us, hands out sweets, goes through his list of useful facts and information. We’re in the Ruakuri Cave, one of the longest in the Waitomo area. The name of the cave roughly translates to the den of dogs. A Maori chief sent one of his men to hunt birds. Wild dogs made their den in the entrance and attacked the bird hunter. The chief set traps to catch the dogs. After the success, he moved his people here. The remains of the dead were left in the main entrance to the cave. While we’re getting our fill of knowledge the surrounding cave begins to glow. A handful of white lights. Reaction to the vibrations of Joel’s voice the number of lights, the brightness of their glow intensifies. Moving on from the name of the cave Joel moves on to the nature of glow worms. The marketing photos always look like a magical display of blue lights on string. The string, a sticky line used to catch insects, is formed of saliva and urine. The glow is the bait. The worm is actually a maggot. They spend most of their lives like this, feeding until the pupate and become flies. The flies breed, laying eggs in strands of 200. The first of those eggs to hatch goes feral, cannibalising its brothers and sisters. The more I hear, the less magical the images appear. The increasing light in the cave doesn’t lessen in appeal. Maori also found joy in the light. Their name for these flash maggots is titiwai, translating to something like light reflected in the water.
We float on, allowing the gentle flow of the underground river to carry us through the impossibly bright caverns. This, I think is the main difference between black and white water. Floating in the dark, beneath the star like ceiling of the cave is a calming, beautiful experience. There is no thrashing about, no hard paddling. Only the occasional backwards jump of a waterfall to add a burst of adrenaline. The ceiling pulls further away from the surface of the river. The string of blue-white glow worms ahead and behind light the way. With the endless cycle of maggot to fly, egg to maggot the light in these caves may never go out. In what counts for the distance, a streak of white descends from the ceiling, brighter than the glow worms and getting stronger. The cave mouth opens in to the vibrant green of the bush. Our journey through darkness is over. I scramble up the limestone boulders on the rivers shore. We make our way back to the wet bus, to the changing room, to a hot shower. I drive back to Lake Ngaroto feeling clean, warm and utterly exhausted.
In the morning I awake to agony. This is the one thing I really did not want to happen. I feel as though I’m 18, waking up after the weight of hundreds of people behind you, pushing you further into the barrier at the front of the London Astoria. I hope whatever damage I’ve done is as superficial. Each crunch of my shoulder could be a rib, no longer one but two. I’m not prepared for a serious injury. I’ve always lived in the hope it can’t, it won’t happen to me. All movement brings a little pain, every action passing through my core. I struggle to pull myself into the driver’s seat of the van. I was going to climb Mount Pirongia today. I’m not sure I’m getting out of the carpark. I call the Healthline to get a diagnosis, a treatment plan. Most likely it’s muscular, but even if it is bone the path to recovery is the same. Rest and painkillers. For three days I begin with paracetamol. I slam down two ibuprofen for dessert after every meal. Morning and night I rub Deep Heat into my ribs. I sleep well at night, I start to feel better. More movement happens without the shot of pain across my right side. Otherwise, I go nowhere, I do nothing. I get frustrated. The enthusiasm of last week has been stopped dead. I’ve overdone it. The surfing, I suspect the cause. The hiking, the rafting hindering rather than helping. Too much, too soon. After a few days I stop taking medication, I’m comfortable enough to walk. I’ve lost one good weather window, I’m reluctant to wait for another.
The morning is overcast but dry. I drive out to the road end in Pirongia Forest Park. I’m going up. If things don’t go well, I can always turn back. I start off on the Mangakara Nature Walk. Telegraph pole trunks reach into the distant canopy. Movement is easy over the well graded track. I join up with the Link Track to cross to the Ruapane, stairs cut in to the hillside make for a more comfortable ascent. This has been easier than Mount Karioi so far. If it’s like this the whole way I’m going to be there in no time. These are, as always, the famous last thoughts along this line. The canopy thins. Trunks become shorter. The temperature drips a little lower. The sound of a rippling sail. The Maori flag atop the summit trig of Ruapane stands proud in the wind. From here I can see Karioi over on the coast. I can almost touch the clouds. The rain doesn’t fall so much as I climb up to meet it. Views disappear beneath blankets of grey. The wet vegetation shines crisp and fresh in the lingering damp. I spend a majority of my time looking down at my feet. Measured steps. In this way distance and time disappear. Speed isn’t important. All that matters is I keep moving forward. I’ll get there when I get there. A loud rustling reveal the presence of a feral goat. It launches off down the trail, constantly surprised to find I’m following. “You’re lucky,” I say to the goat, “I don’t have a gun, otherwise I’d be having you for dinner.” It eventually realises the short, dense sub-alpine shrubbery offers better protection than the thin strip of chewed up mud I’m plodding along.
I realise I’m getting close to the summit of Mount Pirongia when boardwalks appear over the thick mud. The solid form of flat wood underfoot comes as a treat. No longer looking down, no longer thinking about where to place my feet. I climb up the summit tower to incredible views over a few meters of stunted growth and the thick bank of cloud. I tell myself I didn’t do it for the view. I climbed up this mountain with my bag on my back to find out if I could climb up this mountain with my bag on my pack. I arrived at the empty Pahautea Hut, congratulating myself on making it half way. At least now I could rest. I unrolled my bed, set up my kitchen. Reheated a tin of beans and a packet of instant rice. Cracked open a beer, swallowed a couple of ibuprofen just to be safe. I was put out to find there was no fire place, no source of heat. From my arrival I could see my breathe fog in front of my nose. Getting into bed early seemed like the best course. I rubbed Deep Heat into my ribs, I thought about rubbing it into my feet as well. Anything to generate a little warmth.
The weather worsened in the night. The hut endured the shakes of wind, the rattles of rain. I don’t feel as though I’ve had much sleep. At least I’m in no rush, nobody else arrived in the night. I’ve had the place to myself. I put my bed away, move to the first table of my belongings, pack these away. I boil water, make a coffee, stir the remaining water through my porridge mix. When I leave the hut I can’t be sure if the clouds are starting to thin and I can see blue above or if I’m looking at another shade of grey. I get back to the summit and the morning wind is blasting the clouds off the side of the mountain. Blues skies are opening up above. Sprawling green fields, pockets of dark green trees spread out below. A smudge of white out on the horizon might be Ruapehu, or it might be a really big cloud. Impossible to tell. I stumble over the polished black bones of fallen giants. I don’t know if I feel the shoelace underfoot or hear it slide out of the knot. I’ve stepped deep into the mud. The flat red lace now thick and black. This is always a fun time to stop and retie my laces. The rocks are painted wet with last night’s rain. The steep trail now has a trick of water cascading into the small pools I have to put my feet. The mountain air is fresh. The cold mountain water seeps into my boots. Carpets of moss cover trunks to the canopy. Beards of green sway on branches in the steady breeze. Water drips through the moss, sending me into shock as it finds the gap between my neck and my shirt.
What had been a relatively dry ascent for my feet has turned into a mudfest. The ground bubbles and glugs, sucking on my boots. Where the water pools on the mud I have no way of knowing how deep I’ll sink. Sometimes the ground beneath remains firm. Other times I’m up to my ankles. Despite the fact that I’m meant to be coming off the mountain I spend a significant amount of time going up. At least I’m generating heat now, I can feel my hands again. The eroded top of the mountain is like a sea star, twisted arms spread out from the peak. I knock off three more false summits before I start the final descent. The trail becomes more family friendly the further away the canopy is. The track widens, flattens. As the tree tops disappear behind one another, I begin to hear voices. A blackbird whistles. A tui mimics a car alarm. A keruru explodes out from the understory. I get back to the van. I’m always delighted to find it where I left it. Windows intact. Wheels still in place. I’m ready for a night of the comfort it offers. But not yet, I need food, a place to park and I need to get to where ever it is.
I drive back through Waitomo passing a sign that says no fuel for 105km. I check the gauge. I’ve got a quarter of a tank. That won’t be enough. It will get me to where I’m spending the night and I’ll have to hope it’ll get me back to the nearest fuel stop behind me. I pull into the carpark at the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. The temperature is already dropping, it’s going to be a cold night in the hills. When darkness falls I take a walk out to the bridge. A limestone ceiling joins the sides of a deep gorge. This used to be a cave too and perhaps serves as an indicator for the future of Waitomo. Sooner or later, caves cave. There are glow worms here too. The steep cliffs lit up with dots of white and blue. In the gap above, the stars demonstrate the other ways in which light can be done. Even after the incredible scenes below the ground, this additional display still leaves me in awe. I climb into the back of the van. I wrap myself up in a sheet, a duvet, a blanket. My impression of a glow worm ends when I turn out the lights.