Friday, June 15, 2007

One Last Adventure- Waitomo Caves

Hey everybody, last exam was today! Hooray! So now I can come home, which I will do day after tomorrow. (Except I haven't packed anything yet. Good God, this is going to be fun...)

Anyway, my friend Jenny and I went to Waitomo Caves yesterday as one last New Zealand adventure. This was exciting for two mutually independent reasons- Waitomo Caves have glowworms and we were going to blackwater raft (ie float down the cave river on inner tubes), and I was going to drive as there was no other way to get there and Jenny doesn't have a license. Now it's not like I'm a bad driver or anything, of course, but the last time I drove prior to this was in February and that was on the other side of the road, so I was admittedly cautious about this prospect beforehand.

Fortunately we survived, I didn't destroy anything, and concluded that the nice thing about roundabouts is at least with them you don't get confused as to what lane to pull into at an intersection. The main problem with driving on the wrong side of the road, for the record, is a. you have a tendancy to veer left off the road and b. your turn signal and windshield wiper are backwards, and even worse you flick down for right and up for left. But hey, as long as the break pedal is where you instinctively know it should be it's not too bad! It was quite a pretty drive too of course, and reminded me a bit of the border of northern Hungary and Slovakia (which makes sense as they are both huge caving regions).

So onto pictures! Sorry these may not look as good as I'd like, as you're obviously not taking your own camera through the wet cave system, so Jenny and I split the cost for the picture CD they hawked at the end.
Our group fashionably dressed in caving attire at the cave entrance (Jenny's the furthest on the left, I am just to the right and a little up from her). The water in the cave is really cold (ie, 10-14 degrees C), meaning in addition to the bathing suit you have a thermal sweater and several layers of wetsuit. All in all it's enough gear to ensure that you have serious problems reaching down to pull your boots on, and while your body stays warm your fingers get pretty numb (as in, I couldn't manipulate them to undo the helmet clasp at the end numb). Fortunately the company that runs this are geniuses who know enough to provide hot showers and hot soup afterwards, so we thawed out pretty quickly.

Anyway, the cave entrance I'm referring to is a little slit in the ground just to the right where the little stream goes underground and the cave begins. We followed it until it came out again.

Me splashing over a waterfall- there are a couple of these in the cave system, and the only way to get over 'em is to jump! Yay! You also don't just get to float down your inner tube all the way either as this is a cave, so you get to do some spelunking (ie hiking in the riverbed) through the more shallow parts.

I will admit though, some parts of the cave were a little intense. First of all, there are some parts where there was only perhaps a foot between you and the rock ceiling, meaning you sorta tilt your head to the side so you can breathe. Second of all, this trip has a weight minimum of 45kg for good reason: at some points of the cave the water rushes really really fast, and it's all you can do to not get swept away.

Now as I'm sure the more astute amongst you noticed, I was pretty on the line here as far as weight goes- the last time I went to health services at Case, the doctor spent most of her time trying to figure out if I had an eating disorder. (Because no one in America is naturally thin. Ever.) So there were some points where I discovered that I just plain didn't have enough mass to stick my feet in the water and not get carried along with it, sort of scary until you resign yourself to it, meaning I took the "water route" more than once while the normal, non-twig people got to walk along the edge and stay a little more dry. Ah, fun.
If you click on the above, this is what glowworms look like (doesn't come through very well in the smaller version). You know what those fiberoptic cables look like that people buy to wave around at amusement parks and the like? Basically glowworms look just like that, but the source is a bit more fascinating...
What a glowworm actually looks like when you turn on the lights. First of all they're not worms, they're insects, and the ones in New Zealand are insects in their larval stage. Their glow is a chemical reaction which is supposed to attract prey like poor little flies that get lost in the cave, and the sticky strings hanging down snare these creatures in a similar manner to a spider's web. After 6-12 months of this, it morphs into its adult stage like a caterpillar does to a butterfly, but as the resulting adults can't eat all their energies go into having sex and laying more eggs for the glowworm colony. The result of this is you get cave sections which are beautifully covered in glowing dots, looking for all the world like an underground Milky Way.
The purchased CD has a lot of PR-type pictures, but this is the only one of them you get to see because firstly they're posed and secondly they have a LOT more light in them than there was in actuality (we only used our headlamps the whole time). But then if I don't use one of them you have no idea what the cave looked like or what blackwater tubing looks like, so I decided one such picture can't hurt.
The opening in the river whereby you return to the real world. It's a very wide opening compared to the one at the entrance, and it's really exciting to see natural light again after you've been in the dark underground! (Because it was easier to see the glowworms, we made do without headlamps wherever possible.)

So that's it, I survived going through a cave system and drove well enough to come back to Auckland and tell you all about it. Hooray! It was more than a little sad to end this trip though, knowing that I won't be driving through the New Zealand countryside in search of a crazy adventure for awhile now. But I suppose I've had so many good ones to remember that I shall never forget them for the rest of my days, and in the end that's what matters.