by Alexa Trotta

The thought of wading through murky waters surrounded by dark, slimy cave walls didn’t impress me at first. In fact most things that involve the word “slimy” don’t particularly excite me. So when Matt told me we were going cave spelunking in an underground dwelling of glowworms and who knows what else, my instant reaction was: “We’re going to do what?!”

Minus a few expletives. Matt, who is my adventure guru boyfriend otherwise known as the “crazy nut,” told me promptly: “Oh stop whining, you’re going to love it.” Since heaven forbid I be labeled as a whiner I kept my disconcerting thoughts to myself. I mean really, when else would I have the chance to repel hundreds of feet down a dark cavernous hole, fly wildly on an underground zipline, inner tube down cave rivers and hike up gushing waterfalls through openings no bigger than my own width? All this would be accomplished while surrounded by cannibalistic, bio-illuminecsent maggot shit, because that’s what glowworms really are. On second thought, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.

New Zealand is world famous for its awesome network of underground caverns, and thousands of people flock to the tiny town of Waitomo to marvel at nature’s magical underground light displays. There is a plethora of companies offering guided expeditions and the trick is to pick the one that is right for you. Some are more subdued, offering a relaxed and comfortable ride through a subterranean wonderland. Others require a bit more machismo if you will: luring you through rocky tunnels and up plummeting waterfalls.

Of course Matt and I wanted to make sure we got our moneys worth and see as much maggot poop as we could manage in a five hour tour so we opted to go with the Black Water Rafting Company. It offers a tour called the Black Abyss, “a premium adventure expedition that plays with your senses and provides an unforgettable thrill.” Fabulous.

When the time came for me to lower myself, by way of a single rope, into the pit of darkness, I can’t say that I was the fearless hero who moved effortlessly at lightening speed. Rather I was a cautious and stealth investigator: double checking every foot holding and crack as I inched my way slowly through the depths of the earth.

I did a lot of thinking as I inched my way down. One of the things I was thinking about was that I was glad I didn’t eat much that morning because it was quite a tight squeeze, in fact at one point I fretted that I might get stuck.

I also did a lot of cursing…of Matt, for making me go on this trip. But regardless of my irritations and hesitations I made it down, slowly, but the end result was that my feet were firmly planted on the ground.

I breathed a sigh of relief, possibly the most frightening part was over. And really it wasn’t that bad at all, in fact I felt pretty good about the whole experience. Matt of course sailed down the rope as if it was nothing. “Whew, that was great!” He blurted out. “Did you sail down too, babe?” I glared at him. “I went a lot faster than that!” I retorted. He laughed, “Well either way, I’m proud of ya!” And he patted me on the back. Wonderful, I had Matt’s approval.

Our small group gathered in the cavernous depths, shivering slightly. The damp wetsuit clung to my body, literally sucking out warmth. We proceeded onward, into darkness, our little headlights dimly lighting the way. Massive stalagmites jutted up out of the earth and stalactites hung down like sharp daggers. Suddenly I felt like Indiana Jones, all we needed now was a giant ball to come rolling towards us out of no-where. Wait, what was I saying?

Regardless of an underlying fear, it really was quite beautiful. It was quiet and peaceful, with only the distant drip drop of water echoing somewhere in the distance. As we climbed through a narrow cave, our feet had to be one foot in front of the other; our instructor stopped and asked, “Are you guys ready to fly?” A resounding yes from a few of us echoed. Some of us remained quiet. He advised us first to turn off our headlights, and upon doing so I couldn’t even see the guy in front of me.

I heard the instructor talking to whom I presumed was the first to fly solo- it was the poor fellow who went first down the hole. “ Just hang on to these bars here, and off you go!” Subsequently there was a high pitched whizzing sound and a pitiful scream that echoed in the distance. I guessed there were about four people in front of me. As the number dwindled, wild screams were followed by an eerie silence. I didn’t like the sound of this. Finally, I made it to the front of the line and the instructor attached me to the zip line. “You ready?” He smiled. God, he must love this, I thought.

He pushed me off the ledge and I sailed through a tunnel of brightly-lit stars. Or wait, those weren’t stars, they must be glowworms. It was amazing. I screamed of course, because that’s what you do when you’re flying through blackness, but it was great fun. Only I didn’t stop when I reached what I perceived to be the end, I was dragged backwards at the same speed., I decided to scream again. I heard laughing behind me; our instructor was playing a joke as I flew back and forth through the dark tunnels. I loved it. It was like Space Mountain at Disneyland, only ten times better and real.

I decided that I was beginning to enjoy this underground voyage: as chilly and muddy as it might be. And in fact the next leg of our journey we were told would be the most relaxing, and I hoped the additional guides who had joined us were right: a leisurely cruise on our intertubes through the gentle currents of subterranean waters. I gazed at the glimmering glowworms twinkling at me from above and around, it was hard to imagine that they were just discarded feces stuck on the surrounding walls. But I didn’t care what they were. In fact, if anything I was impressed that the shit could glow.

Afterwards we tromped through the rougher currents and slid through tiny archways, winding and weaving, until I was sure we would be lost forever in this underground maze. In fact our guides joked with us saying that if we had any qualms now, good luck trying to find the way back, because not even they knew where it was. Great, how reassuring.

The next part of our trek involved a lot of confidence building on my part, though I can’t say any of our fellow trekkers or even Matt looked thrilled to embark up the gushing white-waterfall. In fact I thought they were joking when they said we had to go up. I checked around for an elevator, none. Stairs, nope. A rope even, nada. It was pure hands and feet and a whole lot of carefulness on our part. Basically we straddled the cascading water that was substantially more than just a trickle, and pulled ourselves upwards, ever slowly, as our guides squatted by for help and guidance. I was petrified.

Both my hands and feet were shaking as I searched for sure footing along the slippery rocks and stones. At this point it didn’t matter how flimsy my arms were or even how uncoordinated I was. It was a matter of survival: the ultimate test. I was going to conquer this waterfall if it was the last thing I did. The experience itself left me tingling as I rounded the peak of the waterfall, seeing level land in sight. My determination had paid off: I was the artsy cliff climber and fearless cave explorer. In fact we all beamed from ear to ear when we finished the fantastic climb. Our guides expressed their approval and commented on our endurance and braveness.

We tramped through another small tunnel and were advised that our cave spelunking experience was almost to an end. Well, almost. In fact we still had one more waterfall to hike up. The little group who had been so upbeat and pleased just moments earlier stared in disbelief at the gigantic flow of water above us. It was the last hoorah, the last chance to prove to ourselves that we were not weak and helpless. This waterfall was the last obstacle that stood in the way of me and fresh air and the world above me. I was determined to finish strong, and above all else to prove Matt wrong. This trip was a test of my confidence and inner strengths: I looked at the looming waterfall and assured my footing on the rocks below. With that I reached out and pulled myself up….

* * * *

For more information visit: