**Disclaimer: These are not our photos. We were not allowed to take a camera due to safety concerns (apparently selfies are a dangerous thing), so all images are from a Google image search. Don't judge me.**
Clad in a heavy duty wet suit, clunky rubber boots, and a spelunking helmet with headlamp, holding an inner tube to my backside I stand poised. Our tour guide has her hand on my shoulder, her right foot readied to sweep my feet out from under me. This is no way to jump off a waterfall. Especially in a cave, in the dark, into frigid river water.
But this is what we’re paying for. Well that and a silent, floating grand finale through awe-inspiring beauty.
I first visited New Zealand during high school. In hindsight, as an adult, traveling abroad with 30-someodd 17- and 18-year-olds sounds like a chaperone’s nightmare. Putting on my adult pants again, I can state with certainty that I did not appreciate the experience half as much as I should have. Teenagers are like that, I suppose. One of the things that did stick with me, through the quagmire of teenage drama that overwhelmed the entire trip, was the absolute, jaw-dropping beauty of the North Island’s glowworm caves.
Returning to New Zealand, I insisted that this be included on our list of activities for the trip. Not one to repeat experiences entirely, and based on the recommendations of numerous friends, we went the action adventure route to exploring Waitomo Caves. This meant doing something called Black Water Rafting. The name is a misnomer of sorts. The activity itself is more like underground cave river tubing, but I guess that’s a less catchy name.
Once again I have to say a little thank you to the humans who invented wet suits. Silly though we may have looked (we looked absurd, sorry for the lack of pictures of us specifically), with the exception of paddling with bare hands, the icy water that would sneak up sleeves, and the handful of backward leaps off waterfalls the sent us plunging and bobbing momentarily, we stayed relatively warm.
Despite learning that the “glowworms” are actually just fly larvae trying to catch a meal in the dark using bioluminescence, despite the cold water and the clumsy scrambling and occasional missteps involved in making our way through the caves, when the group of us daisy chained together and turned off our headlamps, none of it mattered.
An entire group of people struck speechless by beauty is a phenomenal thing. Floating silently through the caves was liked drifting downstream under a clear night’s sky in the high mountains, Milky Way poured out before you. Only in this case, it’s much closer, a tiny galaxy of blue-tinged stars almost within reach.
I understand why we weren’t allowed to take pictures. Not only are there no pictures that do the experience justice, but I don’t think we could reasonably have taken pictures in such an awe-struck state and also paid any attention to what we were doing as we made our way through the caves.