Day #10,294: The alarm went off an hour before the wet winter’s sun rose in Punakaiki, New Zealand. I wanted to visit the Pancake Rocks at sunrise, when high tide meant the famous Punakaiki Blowhole would be at its blow-iest. Armed with a giant umbrella and two paper cups of surprisingly delish hotel room coffee (although honestly- what coffee isn’t delish at 6:30 in the morning?), Mr. M & I headed out into the dark, misty morning unaware of the fun the day would bring.
By the time we parked on the side of the road and made the short walk to the Pancake Rocks, it was a little past sunrise, but it was also our vacation, so allowances were made.
By some force of witchcraft I don’t profess to understand- something about layers of rock and marine creatures subject to intense pressure… sorry, kids- the limestone rocks are eroded into what appear to be giant stacks of pancakes.
The South Island of New Zealand is wrought with limestone. By the shore this yields amazing rock formations like those at Punakaiki; inland, the karst topography allows for the creation of massive underground cave systems. I had heard of cave tours on the Western coast and was cautiously interested. ‘Cautiously’ being the operative word; I hadn’t even gotten up the balls to schedule our tour. You may or may not- my guess is the latter- be surprised to learn that I’m claustrophobic (What, me? Afraid of something? Wha??). The idea of willfully sending myself squeezing into the depths of the black earth was terrifying, and yet, impossible to disregard completely.
Forever and inexplicably drawn to the things that scare the crap out of me, we called Underworld Adventures from Punakaiki to see if they could fit us in. Bingo! All signed up for an afternoon spelunking extravaganza.
When we drove up to their headquarters in nearby Charleston, NZ, we were happily surprised to learn we’d be getting a private tour! A fortunate side effect to wanting to go cave rafting in the middle of the winter, I suppose.
First up: getting sized for our extra-thick wetsuits- complete with grippy booties & webbed gloves for paddling! Super sexy, as you’ll see below. We changed into our swimsuits in a little wooden shack around the corner (the prudes amongst you may want to come already suited up), pulled on our wetsuits, and hopped in a 4 x 4 Jeep for a quick drive down to the start of our tour.
Waiting for us was one more mode of transportation on the way to getting to the entrance of the cave system: a toy jungle railroad.
The older gentleman who had checked us in set the little train into gear, and as we passed through the rainforest, he told us how he had built the railway years ago to introduce visitors to the Nile River Canyon (supposedly where the BBC’s “Lost World” was filmed?). The ride was such fun and so unexpected.
We left our older gentleman friend at the bottom station and continued on with our caving guide, a really nice kid named Matt who learned we were from the States and got all excited because his FAVORITE SHOW IN THE WORLD was TLC’s Storm Chasers.
After disembarking and crossing the Nile River Suspension bridge, we had a short but steep hike up to the cave entrance- made slightly more difficult by climbing with an inflatable tube… and in wetsuit booties. As we hiked, Matt kept us busy talking storms: Had we ever chased a storm? (No, California’s not really known for ‘weather’…) Did we know the Storm Chasers? (Umm…. no.) Did we at least watch Storm Chasers? (We lied and said yes. We were already teetering dangerously close to Loserdom.) He was so earnest in his love of… weather… that we seriously wished we had done a bit more tornado-chasing in our youth.
At the top of the hill, we found the entrance to our cave.
Before we went in, Matt taught us about the karst topography and warned us about some of the cave creatures we might encounter- apparently, some visitors are a bit put off by the bats, cave spiders, and weta (New Zealand cave grasshoppers) that call the limestone caves their home.
As we stepped inside and the rock ceilings got lower… and the quadrangle of light from the entrance grew smaller and smaller… I started feeling boxed in and edgy. Deep breaths, deeeep breaths. Matt did not help by telling us how easy it is for cavers to get disoriented and lost in the vast underground system.
Once we were far enough into the pitch black that the entrance was a distant memory, I actually started loosening up. The cave formations were stunning. In between teaching us all about stalagtites and stalagmites, Matt told us how the older gentleman who conducted our Rainforest Train was the original explorer of the cave system we were touring. How amazing is that?! Apparently, he happened into the cave system as a renegade adventurer and continues to explore and map the system in his free time.
After a fair bit of scrambling, climbing, and squeezing through rock hallways abittoonarrow for my personal taste, we got to the quietly coursing underground river that we’d be riding out of the cave system. With tube in place, we jumped backwards into the black water, linking arms and legs to keep from drifting apart.Matt then told us to turn off our headlamps. Complete black- and then- tiny dots of fluorescent green, like alternate stars floating above our heads. The cave ceiling was covered in glowing green galaxies. It was unbelievable.
The fluorescent starry sky was caused by the most famous of the New Zealand cave inhabitants: glowworms. Glowworm larvae live in silken nests on the cave roof and dangle a myriad of silk ‘fishing lines’ baited with bioluminescent mucous beads. Once they lure unsuspecting insects to the light, they reel in their glowing line and feast away. Matt had shown us one such set-up while on land, but it was other-worldly to be floating in silence under a sea of these ethereal, glowing orbs.
At which point Matt told us quickly to put our hands above our face and push down hard to avoid being caught up in a tight squeeze of cave right above the waterline. Claustrophobia, immediately remembered. EEEK!!! I pushed my tube down into the water like my little life depended on it. And almost as quickly, we were out… into a deep black pool and towards an oblong square of orange light. Despite the initial fear, I was kinda sad to hoist my tube up out of the water.
Matt announced that we had missed seeing the resident giant longfin eel that lives in said deep black pool and often ‘says hello’ to rafting visitors (What does this mean, ‘say hello’? So help me Jesus, I’d be airborne out of that tube if a 4-foot eel- friendly or no- slipped anywhere near my bootied foot).
Mr. M did jump out of the pool at the mere mention of eel (he doesn’t trust legless creatures), and then it was time for the really excellent part. Helmets and paddling gloves on, we jumped into the mild rapids of the Nile River and tubed all the way back to the jungle train station. It was SO much fun.
As we chugged along in the Rainforest Train, from the underworld back to the real world, Mr. M & I determined spelunking to be one of the highlights of a country already steeped in superlatives. “Friendly” giant eel notwithstanding.
Details of the Day:
Accommodations: More in another post, but the eco-friendly Punakaiki Resort is the only place for which we’ve thrown away our schedule to stay another night. We happened to catch a dead-of-winter special and got a comfy ocean view room for under $100.
Spelunking: Underworld Adventures could not get a better recommendation from us. Because there’s really no way to carry your own camera, your guide will take plenty of photos along the way… all of which you can download for free later. All you need to bring is your suit, a towel, and a healthy tolerance of creepy crawlies and tight spaces. I brought neither of the last two and still had a blast.
Tips & Tricks: Travel off-season! Visiting New Zealand in winter created a few logistical problems (ask Mr. M how much he enjoyed putting chains on our rental car to get us over an icy mountain pass), but yielded fantastic deals, private tours, and dramatic, foggy scenery that kinda made us feel like we were at the edge of the world.
**The caving pictures are all courtesy of Underworld Adventures, as I wasn’t able to bring my camera along for the ride.**