WAITOMO CAVES, New Zealand — You're floating on your back, propelled inevitably forward by a gentle current, lulled by the profound silence and blackness. You stare up at nothing and listen intently to less; the damp chill is of little significance. Gradually, clusters of stars shift into your field of vision.
It's not night, however, and these stars are unlike any you've seen before. You are, in fact, drifting on an inner tube deep in the bowels of a cave, and the celestial splendor on the cavern ceilings is emanating from galaxies of glowworms.
The latest innovation from the folks Down Under--the people who brought you bungee jumping and jet boating--is called black-water rafting. It takes place underground, with wet suits and headlamps, and is as different from white-water rafting as eight-ball is from billiards. The adventure begins at New Zealand's Waitomo Caves, a two-hour drive south of Auckland on the road to Rotorua.
Before I left on my trip to New Zealand in December, the beginning of their summer, I had spotted the words "black water rafting" in a guidebook. While other adventures would also be on my agenda, I'd never heard of black-water rafting--which meant that wild horses couldn't keep me away.
Despite one jump over an underground waterfall that requires some mustering of courage, black-water rafting is actually family fun, far softer adventure than most white-water expeditions. According to cave guides, in the three years that rafting tours have been offered by the Museum of Caves, 16,000 people have glided through Waitomo's tunnels.
The most daunting aspect of the trip may be climbing into a cold wet suit, which is indeed wet. Participants are then advised to carefully select the right size of "raft," as Kiwis refer to the tubes. I and my fellow cave-travelers--six men and four women from all over the world--quickly discovered that the rafts are all one size, and that the guides are indefatigable jokesters.
The approach to Ruakuri Cave, the cavern used specifically for the rafting tours, is an easy hike, through rain forest, from a parking lot below the museum. Before entering the cave, we made a practice jump off a wooden platform into a creek, simulating the waterfall we'd encounter inside. Guide Phil Johnston advised each of us to "get a death grip" on the tube and jump as far forward as possible, past the rock that juts six feet out directly beneath the platform and into the water beyond that is a comfortable 20 feet deep.
Then he warned us about "The Blender."
"At the top of the waterfall," Johnston explained, "there's a hole a meter across and quite deep. If you step into it, you disappear. A few seconds later you pop back up, wash over the edge, hit the rock below and get smashed around a bit against the wall until eventually your remains get spat out." Like a manhole, the danger is forgetting it's there, he said, "so just remember it's there."
We carried our inner tubes over our shoulders when traversing shallow stretches and wore them around our middles when jumping off the waterfall; the rest of the time, we sat in them. We were advised to keep our hands and feet close to our tubes: Besides the danger of hypothermia--the water is cold--the only potential injuries seemed to be occasional minor scrapes and bruises from the cave walls.
Psychological dangers are another matter entirely.
There's the whole range of claustrophobics, for instance. Johnston said he semi-regularly escorts people back to the parking lot who "hadn't realized they even had a problem." Sometimes a participant will confess a "small" problem with claustrophobia only to faint dead away at the entrance to the cave; then again, many claustrophobes go through the caves specifically to conquer their fears, and usually succeed.
Those who have problems with things that go slither in the dark may be uncomfortable to learn that cave denizens include eels, and giant locust-like insects called wetas. But any stories about wetas attacking headlamps and attaching themselves to cavers' faces are entirely untrue, Johnston said.
For no discernible reason other than the fact that I may have asked more questions than the others, our guide appointed yours truly "leader." I was giddy with excitement: While everybody else could follow the headlamp of the person in front of them, there was nothing in front of the leader who, in this case, had no idea where he was going.
We began walking through water that varied from ankle- to knee-deep, but soon it was deep enough that we sat in our inner tubes and let the current carry us along. The guide brought up the rear.