Alex: Caving

August 9, 2011

The day immediately following my day of adventure was designated for caving (that is, exploring caves, not acquiescing) in Waitomo.

As previously discussed, by the time I did the day of adventure I was quite thoroughly fed up with not having clean clothes, sleeping in a cold cabin (we couldn’t get the heat to work, and it was the middle of winter) and being constantly wet. So when I was informed that we were going to be spending hours that day squeezing through tiny holes up to our eyeballs in water and rappelling down 50-meter drops, I was less than excited. In fact, I was physically sickened by the very idea of it. But I put on a brave face and went along with it, hoping I could rely on my meager caving experience to steel myself for the experience.

So the day started with another early breakfast and an hour-long bus ride to Waitomo. We donned wetsuits and climbing harnesses. This was perhaps the worst part of the day. Let me explain: As a fat person, I know that there are two things fat people fear more than anything else: 1. beaches and 2. putting on “one size fits all” clothing, because we are the people for whom one size never fits. Luckily (forcefully) I managed to cram myself into a wet-suit, although my harness was too small, so one of the guides had to attach a rigged shoulder harness so it wouldn’t fall off, and I wouldn’t slip out of it and die. Fantastic.

Our harnesses on, we practiced abseiling (rappelling) on dry land, and headed down to the cave. Stairs, by the way, are perhaps the most awkward thing to attempt in a wet-suit. Far more so than the entire cave put together. So the first abseil was about a 50-meter drop (that’s about 165 feet), and on our walk down to it, one of the guys from the previous group had chickened out and had to walk back to wait on the bus all day. The fact that he was also a fat guy like myself incited in me a dual reaction. First, I projected myself into his shoes, and I could already see myself being scared and forced to wait on the bus. Luckily, my second reaction was considerably more positive. I determined to not repeat his mistake, so that I could mentally hold it over his head the rest of the week. I succeeded, mostly through no fault of my own.

There was no time to turn back. In addition to the long line of people behind me forcing me on, by the time I saw the huge drop, I was swinging above it, water trickling over me. The worst part was unlocking the rope. This is the transition from a locked-rope position wherein you cannot go anywhere to a free position, where you can lower yourself down. Letting this lock go is a bit like letting out the parking brake. That is, if your car is parked on a 90-degree hill, and you have to use your feet to stop Flintstone-style because your brake lines have been cut. At least that’s how it feels.

But I made it down, and as I stood at the bottom of this huge hole now soaking wet, endorphins coursing through me, the idea that I ever entertained turning back was repulsive. I was neck-deep in it now and damn was I excited. There were two more abseils, both in waterfalls. When they said in waterfalls, I pictured a trickle or stream of water. Boy was I wrong. Torrent is a word that does not even come close to describing the amount of water present. Might I remind you, gentle reader, that it had been raining for nearly a week straight at this point. These are waterfalls even in the dry months of the summer, now they were just mean.

But I survived them. I also survived climbing hands-and-knees through a hole where I was literally up to my eyeballs in water, free-climbing a slick, wet rock ledge and squeezing through half a dozen holes I was certain would tie up even the skinniest among the group. This is what I thought was the end, but there was more. Not a considerable amount more, but enough that by the time I reached the final ladder I was craving sunlight and fresh air like some sort of depraved nature-junky jonesing for a fix. By this point a sizable asthma attack had set in, likely as a result of the continued crushing of the wet suit and my nervousness at still being underground. The adrenaline had no doubt worn off, and I felt its lack as the dragging ankle-weights of fatigue and exhaustion.

But finally, gloriously, we emerged back to the world of the living, the world of warmth green and light. To say that I was excited to remove my wet suit would qualify me for the understatement lifetime achievement award. Now that I was standing in the daylight, hearing birds again, and seeing clouds dance lazily across the sky, I craved to breath fully the fresh air again. The fervor with which I removed those choking clothes put even the most zealous wedding couple to shame. The sunlight on my now-bare chest, a lung-full of pure New Zealand air, exhaustion creeping in and blurring the periphery of my senses: this was the greatest moment I had had in New Zealand thus far.

So we showered, changed back to our street clothes (now my only set of dry, albeit still not clean, clothing), and were bused back to Kiwipaka Waitomo for a delicious hot lunch. I did not realize until I began eating how hungry I was, as nerves and exhaustion had tied a Gordian knot in the very pit of my stomach. Then there was another hour-long ride back to Rotorua.

When we arrived it was about 5.30 in the afternoon. There was talk of going out for dinner, but I was thoroughly exhausted, so I determined to take a short nap before dinner. I set an alarm for six-thirty. I woke up at nine. I had slept right through dinner, but I was too tired to feel hungry. I felt bad that I had missed the outing, though, so I walked over to the bar/gathering area where the group was playing cards and having a few post-cave-victory drinks. I blearily ordered myself a tall pint of delicious Lion Red, drank it with great relish, and re-deposited myself in my bed by nine-thirty.

Another day ending with beer, this one accompanying a heaping helping of exhausted contentment. And victory.



  1. Sounds like a great trip, no pictures?

  2. It’s a great tour journal. Thanks Alex, for sharing your moments.

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