It is inevitable, if you work in the Adventure Tourism Industry that the annual team building exercise is going to be on the extreme side of adventure. With this of course comes fear-facing challenges, so it was of no surprise to the team at Stray and Spaceships when we were invited to Waitomo Caves to get to know each other better whilst hanging over a 100m crevice and exploring the amazing abyss that is ‘The Lost World’.
Waitomo, located in the heart of the Waikato, is home to an extensive network of limestone caves with openings nestled throughout surrounding farmland. Imagine the surprise of Famer Joe tending to his sheep back in the early 1900’s only to stumble across (or lose a few sheep in to) a labyrinth of rock formations and fossils. Thanks to this natural wonder, Waitomo is now a tourist mecca, with over 150,000 visitors passing through daily, which is quite something for a town that has a population of a mere 400 permanent residents! Caving, obviously an activity not for the faint hearted, can offer mental and physical challenges ranging from tight spaces to abseiling down waterfalls, with the odd stalactite and glowworm thrown in to calm the nerves. Of course less extreme options are available, though today we were to explore The Lost World, just a casual level 5 on the extremo-meter (5 being the most extreme)!
“The Lost World” isn’t exactly a reassuring name for an amateur caving tour, perhaps I would have felt more at ease if it was called “Happy Valley”. It also didn’t help the nerves that conversation amongst the group on the way to the cave consisted of references to ‘The Descent’ – a savage horror film that takes place in a cave. But what’s an adventure activity without an element of fear right? Thankfully, we placed our lives in the hands of three friendly, laid-back guides who were reassuring and supportive whilst harnessing us up and leading us to our doom – a 100m free abseil. The tour began looking over the edge of the descent where a deep mist meant the drop looked never-ending…a lost world indeed! As we were harnessed up and told to lean ourselves onto a supporting bar, there were a few shaking hands and distressed looks. Our inspiration came from an unlikely source after we were told that Helen Clark had done the very same tour, “If she can do it any man can!” So as we allowed our life to fall on the security rope, we each lowered ourselves off the bar and into the enormous space below. Operating our own speed of abseil it took a good few metres to calm the nerves and eventually sit back and enjoy the ride. As the mist below cleared a vast cave was unveiled surrounded by growth and formations.
With ground beneath our feet, some orange juice and a chocolate ‘Freddo the Frog’ down us, it was time to explore this enormous cave that we had spent a good 20 minutes lowering ourselves in to. On went the head-lamps and away we went, clambering over rocks and crawling through small gaps. Stopping at intervals for some amazing photo opportunities, to admire the oyster fossils that thousands of years ago lay under sea, and check out the massive stalactites and stalagmites that never cease to amaze. Sitting down with the glowworms, our guide had us turn off our lights and focus on getting “philosophical about the cave”. The river beside us roared as it travelled through the sound shell of crevices; this overpowering noise coupled with a roof littered with glowworms above to look at, was indeed a great time of reflection, admiration of nature and escapism which lead us all to sit in silence for a short while.
Onwards and upwards as they say, and truth be told, once in a cave there is no other way out than up! After a 100m abseil in, no doubt there would be a significant climb ahead of us. I must say there was no element of fear on my mind as we approached a ladder – our ticket to daylight. Nothing occurred to me when the guide asked me if I was “OK with ladders”, “Whad’ya mean, it’s just a ladder?!” This chilled nature came crashing down as I started my solo ascent up the 30 metre ladder, as I reached about a third of the way up and I could no longer see / hear my group below, the ladder suddenly felt far too frail to hold me, attached to the cave wall at about 5 metre intervals I was convinced that today was the day it was going to come unstuck. This paranoia coupled with aching arms trying to hold on for dear life, all rationale was lost – yes I was attached to a safety harness! Just get me off this freaking ladder! Upon reaching the top, the relief was overwhelming yet rewarding! Another Freddo the Frog? Yes, please!
Six smaller ladders later, we emerged from the cave a happy crew of cavers. Conquering fears and exploring and ancient wonder meant we all deserved a cold beverage! Our epic journey was a 3-hour adventure, the same tour can be extended to a 6-hour mission which continues through the cave, getting a little wet and taking on some waterfalls….after this taste of what it’s all about I will definitely be back for more!