I insisted on driving. If I was driving my mind would be consumed with thoughts on steering and changing gears, not with what the rest of the day had in store. That’s what was scaring me; I didn’t really know what exactly was going to happen.
The unknown always makes me nervous.
By the time my friends and I got to Waitomo, it had started to rain and I pictured the drizzle turning into a downpour, flooding the caves I was going to be exploring and swallowing me whole underground.
Stupid thoughts really. Thoughts that really shouldn’t be entering your mind when you know that thousands of people every year come to try black water rafting at Waitomo Caves and see the famous glow worms.
Yes, I said black water rafting. As in, rafting in the dark, underground, wearing a ridiculously heavy, super thick wet-suit and jumping down waterfalls backwards.
Except here’s the thing; the fact that I’d be jumping down waterfalls backwards in the dark underground in a cave wasn’t revealed until I was about 15 minutes into the tour and about to do a practice jump.
Perhaps this had been mentioned before, but to be honest I probably hadn’t been listening.
The basic premise of this practice jump was to stand on a wooden boardwalk with your back to the muddy river below, hold your inflatable tube behind you, bend your knees and jump backwards.
I mean, forget about easing into something you’ve never done before. Which would have been my preference, had I had the choice.
Once I’d accomplished my first jump into the river though (with a lot of encouragement from the guide) I wanted to do it again and as I carefully climbed downwards over the rocks and flowing water at the entrance to the caves, I was feeling a bit more confident
That confidence didn’t last for very long.
It was a combination of losing my footing on the uneven rocks beneath the water and feeling the fresh air in my lungs being replaced by the muggier air from inside the cave.
Anxiety made me want to climb back towards the small window of natural light while I still could but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to do something that I knew would give me a huge sense of accomplishment if I could see it through to the end.
Further inside, excited voices echoed around the caves. I couldn’t hear much of what our two instructors were saying, which made me anxious, but I kept my headlamp on like we’d be told to do and felt my way along the rocky wall.
Keeping your balance is really hard when you’ve got water slopping around your knees and rugged rocks beneath your feet.
At some points the water almost pushed me over but my confidence was growing and I quickly got used to the feeling of being underground, pushing my claustrophobia to the back of my mind and concentrating on staying present.
Telling myself to stay present is something I’ve started doing to cope with being nervous in any situation. I force myself to enjoy the moment and tell myself how amazing it is that I’m here, right now, doing something interesting or adventurous.
So when I’d waded and climbed through half of Ruakuri Cave and found myself standing on the edge of an underground waterfall, with only the little headlamp above me for guidance, it wasn’t that I wasn’t scared…
I just wasn’t about to ruin an awesome moment by thinking about it too much.
So I positioned my tube behind me, bent my knees and launched myself backwards into the water below, landing in my rubber-ring-like tube with a splash.
A sense of pride bubbled in my stomach as I realised I’d done something I’d never normally do
The scary bit wasn’t over completely though.
We floated through the caves in tubes, the water too deep to wade through anymore. Then, we hit a dead-end, of sorts.
There was an arch we had to float under for about a meter, but because the water was so high we were going to have to lay right back in our tubes and float backwards, using our hands to push ourselves under the flat underbelly of stone.
It doesn’t sound that scary, really. But when I opened my eyes half way through and found a layer of stone just inches away from my face, that feeling of being trapped filled me with a panic that didn’t go away until I could sit up in my tube again on the other side.
We got out of our tubes and squeezed through gaps and over protruding rocks with water creeping around our knees:
Then back in the water, the whole group formed a line with our feet under the arms of the person in front.
I thought I’d seen what pitch black looked like but when we all simultaneously flicked off our lights I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, however long I waited for my eyes to adjust.
It was at this moment that my brain decided to remember what someone had told me about huge spiders living in the caves and dropping onto your head when you couldn’t see.
Yeah brilliant, thanks for that.
Be present, I told myself, it’s going to be over soon and you’ll probably never be here in this exact spot again ever.
Although I couldn’t see anything, I could hear everything; the lapping of the water around my tube, the squeak of rubber boots against rubber tubes and, when we spotted the blue lights of the glow worms gathered above us, the mixture of ‘wow’s and excited chatter.
I relaxed into my tube and tried to block out the noise, concentrating on the glow worms above and letting myself float across the water.
It was over too soon and I before I knew it I was climbing, somewhat awkwardly, out of my tube and onto the rocks leading upwards out of the cave.
I was too tired to drive us back to Auckland and, besides, I didn’t want my thoughts consumed by steering and changing gears when I was so tired.
My mind wandered instead to jumping off that waterfall, to climbing into the cave for the first time, to realising that I’m actually more fearless now, without a travel partner, than I ever was before.
Note: the photo credits above will take you to the website of The Black Water Rafting Co. because these particular photos purchased on the trip belong to them. However, I was not a guest of the company and all opinions are my own.