After a few relaxing days in Gizzy, we drove on over to smell-ville (aka Rotorua). If you ask people what they think of Rotorua, they usually say, “It smells really bad there.” Yes, yes it does. Rotorua is a very active geothermal area and the smell of sulphur permeates everything. We started calling it the Myrtle Beach of New Zealand. It was smelly, had a lot of overweight tourists, and mini golf. See, Myrtle Beach=Rotorua. OK, I’ll stop hating on Rotorua. It was definitely a cool place to stop and we saw things we have never seen before. Rotorua is home to zorbing, the giant hamster ball you can get in and roll down a hill. We didn’t go zorbing, but it seemed that Rotorua is the place to go if you want to. It is also a really popular mountain biking region. The area is full of places you can go to have a mud spa session or sit in some natural geothermal pools. The Waiotapu Geothermal Park is in Rotorua and you can see bubbling mud pools and colorful geysers. We felt the prices for all the attractions were absurd, so we did some research and found out there were some free attractions. We went on a small hike to a natural hot spring where you could swim for free. The river lead into a pretty decent sized hole where you could swim under a small waterfall and enjoy this natural hot tub. Did we get in? No. Why? Well, there is one problem with these hot springs. There is a chance you can catch amoebic meningitis by swimming in the water there if the water comes in contact with your nose or ears. Weird, right? We figured we would not take the chance and just feel the water with our hands. Confirmed. The water was hot. There were several people near the hot spring hanging out, but only 3 people actually in the water. An older man was swimming under the waterfall and clearly getting the water in his nose, mouth, eyes, and ears. We were cringing, thinking that he must not have read the sign.
After seeing the natural hot springs, we continued on to look at some mud pools. We didn’t expect much from these mud pools but we were really surprised at how mesmerizing they were. I could just stare at that mud bubbling up for hours. The mud would start bubbling in one location and then spew out of another seconds later. It was practically impossible to predict where mud would start shooting up next.
Once we were finished hitting up the free Rotorua attractions, we drove west toward the Waitomo Caves. We were scheduled to be on a blackwater rafting tour the following day with The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company, so we camped nearby. Getting up at the crack of dawn for tours was becoming a trend in New Zealand so we got ourselves up nice and early and headed over to the office to check-in for the Black Abyss tour. This was an exhilarating 5 hour tour that began with our hilarious guide, Pip, handing out stinky wetsuits, booties, helmets with waterproof headlamps, and clown shoes. We were getting used to looking absolutely ridiculous on every tour in New Zealand and this was no exception. (Related Note: the entire staff here at RTDub Travel claims no rights to the photos that follow…nor do we accept responsibility for their poor quality).
We hopped into a shuttle with 4 other friendly Americans and two English people to set off for the cave. During the drive, two of the Americans had recently been engaged and told us their funny engagement story which can be summed up by saying, “they got drunk and ate a 20 piece chicken meal and he proposed”. After that story, we knew we would be exploring a cave with a pretty good group of people. Before rappelling into the cave, we were given a lesson on proper technique and taught how to use their equipment in an outdoor setting on a hill. We have experience rappelling, but have never done so with this type of gear. We all passed the test and descended into a 30 meter pocket deep within the cave. Midway through the rappel, we had to squeeze through a tight “throat” section before opening up into a large, dark chamber in the cave. When we turned our headlamps off, we could see tiny specs of blue on the cave ceiling. These were the famous glowworms we were expecting to see. Once we all were safely on the chamber floor, Pip played the first of many silly games with our group and asked us to all say our fantasy mixed with our fear. She said we all ought to get to know each other better before continuing on into a deep, dark cave together. Mine involved being able to fly and encountering giant flying spiders while John’s was a mixture of eating an amazing 5 course meal in an avalanche.
We headed deeper into the cave where we were told to sit along a small cliff on the side of the river and were given hot chocolate and a delectable bickie. We were being warmed up before our next adventurous feat. Pip says, “grab a tube! If you’re taller, get a bigger tube!” We all scramble to grab tubes and John and I opt for a regular sized tube since neither of us would ever be considered as tall. Now Pip does something we weren’t expecting. She walks over to a platform next to the ledge we were sitting on and puts the tube over her butt and jumps! She lands butt down into the river and pops up and shouts for us to follow. Oh my gosh, we have to do that?! Wanting to get it over with, I jump second in line and I walk to the edge. My heart was beating faster than it was when I was about to bungee jump. Pip counts to 3 and I leap off, holding onto my tube for dear life. I land correctly and am submerged in water before I pop back up ever so gracefully and shout “AHH, IT’S COLD!!” Shivering, I head over to the wall and sit patiently while everyone else jumps. John goes after me and manages to accidentally flip over backwards into the water upon landing. He pops back up and says “I should have gotten the bigger tube!!” He switched his tube out and joined me on the side of the wall. I couldn’t speak for about 5 minutes because I was laughing so hard at the tube flip replaying over and over in my head.
Once we all did the polar bear plunge, Pip took us over to the “rock of wisdom”. We all put one foot on the rock and she asked us to share a quote or inspirational saying. Hers was “do ordinary things in extraordinary places”. The man who started The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company used this as his motto when building it. Sitting in the middle of a cave, eating cookies and hot chocolate is definitely doing something ordinary in an extraordinary place. After soaking in some wisdom, we sat in our tubes and pulled ourselves along the wall, taking in the massive cave around us. We got to a point where Pip attached us together, feet to tubes, and pulled us down the river. We all had our headlamps off and were looking up to see all the bright blue glow worms on the ceiling. She told us about the glow worms and said that we paid to go on a tour to see a bunch of maggot poops, because that is really what we were looking at. Worm or no worm, those maggot poops were still pretty awesome to see! We stopped floating and Pip took our tubes from us so that we could hike the rest of the way out of the cave. Before continuing, she asked if anyone needed to “adventure pee” and nearly our entire group said yes. Adventure peeing is when you are in a cave, standing in water, everyone turns their headlamps off, and you all pull down your wetsuits and pee in the water. Very strange to be surrounded by 6 other strangers peeing right next to you in the dark. We decided the inspirational quote of the day should have been “don’t stand down stream in the Waitomo Cave”.
We had one more stop where we were each given half a chocolate bar and some hot orange tang. We knew we would probably be getting cold and wet again very soon. As we continued on in the cave, we crawled through a thin passage way where we had to tell Pip something we did in New Zealand that was against the rules. When we started thinking about it, we had several things we could share. Among these were John getting a speeding ticket (oops) and me accidentally sneaking into the Waiotapu Geothermal Park because I walked into the bathrooms that were actually a part of the park. We didn’t actually stay in the park, but we definitely could have if we wanted to. We continued on into a section with deeper water and Pip told us to watch out for the eel. She had been joking so much, we didn’t believe there was actually an eel in the cave. Well, she was right! We saw the eel, all 18 inches of him swimming happily alongside us. The eel pit stop was followed by the final section of the tour, which ended with a bang. We got to climb up two waterfalls before we could see a hint of daylight coming through the cave wall. We were almost out! One by one, we exited the cave and warmed up in the sunlight. We were escorted back to the office where we were given hot showers, bagels, and hot soup. The tour was extremely well run and Pip really made our experience spectacular. I can honestly say it was my favorite tour we did in New Zealand. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras or go pros on the tour, so we split the cost of a USB with pictures from the tour with our new American friends for our enjoyment and yours.