Dec 08

Into the deep

by in Drawing & Writing

Just before 10AM the Black Water Rafting Co. van pulled up, driven by Niel, an Englishman from outside Manchester. He’s a good conversationalist and a calmly competent driver, but what really draws your attention at first is the fact that his entire body is tattooed, including his throat and the palm of his right hand.

After filling out the waivers we met our fellow cave-goers: Andrew from Louisiana, two conversation-resistant Danes (a couple), and three polite Singaporeans (two girls, one guy).
Next we were fitted with already-wet wetsuits, booties, helmets, harnesses, headlamps, and white boots that the staff had vandalized with Sharpies. One girl’s read: “Black Water Rafting Co. – keeping tour guides employed since 1985.”

At that point our second guide, Aaron, popped up, a little bit late and extremely relaxed given the fact that he was about to have an in-cave performance review by a superior.

That superior joined us at the cave’s entrance, where it began to drizzle, rain, rain harder, and then pour torrentially. It soaked through our neoprene. While practiced abseils (rappelling, basically), the superior crossed his arms and endured the downpour in a cotton t-shirt. He had a jacket around his waist.

We were ready. We had practiced our emergency arrest, and had even practiced screaming in case we lost control and went into free-fall. The females of the group had put on their balaclavas so that their hair wouldn’t be ripped out by the pulley system. lt was time for the 110-foot vertical drop into the cave.

If you balanced a beer bottle atop another, neck-to-neck, you’d have the approximate outline of this entrance. Its girth at the bottleneck point is about the same as a human being. We were advised to wriggle. Once through, everything goes dark.

The problem wasn’t free-fall. The rain had thickened the rope to the point that it had to be hand-fed through the pulley. That took time. Getting everyone down took about an hour, and it was cold and damp at the bottom. The Danes, who’d descended first, had gone from non-conversational to downright sullen.

“OK, guys, you all right? Everyone all right? Good, good. Everyone had a chance to see the glowworms?” Above us, hundreds of glowworms twinkled. “Good. So our next stop’s the flying fox. Turn on your headlamps and take care, all right?”

In between we learned about the cave, the stalactites and stalagmites. “They take 100 years to grow one cubic centimeter. 100 years. So don’t touch them, whatever you do.”

The walk to the flying fox (zip-line) was all of 100 feet… and then more waiting. We turned off our headlamps so that the zip-liners could fly through the blackness and see the glowworms. For 30 minutes we stood on a narrow grated platform that opened up to black empty nothingness below. And poor Aaron. Our second cave-guide was being reviewed the entire time, and his supervisor’s notepad had the word “Failed to….” written on it more than once.

“Dear Aaron,

You didn’t deserve it. You’re a good and friendly cave-guide.

Conor and Antje”

The zip-line ride lasted four seconds. Afterwards we were served hot chocolate and macadamia bars.

As Andrew from Louisiana later said, things were pretty disappointing at that point. Everything had taken too long, the adventure had been sort of fakey, we were cold for all the wrong reasons.

A pile of innertubes lay nearby, and we were told to grab them, step out onto the platform, and butt-flop six feet below into the water. That was fun for everyone – except one Singaporean girl.

Shivering, the group linked up and the headlamps went out. For a silent ninety seconds the chain of innertubes was pulled through the darkness of the cave.

The ceiling was covered in glowworms. It’s an underground Milky Way. Automatically your brain tries to find patterns in them, to look for the big dipper. And in the silence of the cave I had a moment of private philosophy: is there really a difference between us humans looking up at the stars and bugs in a cave looking up at glowworms? After two seconds this thought went into the scrapheap. Glowworms eat the bugs, whereas stars don’t eat humans, at least not on purpose. Plus, bugs hit the ceiling at some point. Also, they can leave the entire cave system if they want to. Goddamnit. Philosophy FAIL.

The innertubes were abandoned. It was time to fjord stuff.

“Everyone all right? Don’t cross your arms if you’re cold. Keep moving. Move your limbs. Dance a bit, there you go.”

The upstream trudge went from neck-deep to ankle-deep and back again – three times. We all kept slipping, nearly falling. It was fantastic. It was caving. There was a headfirst slide at one point – spelunk! Everyone was loving it. Everyone except…

… the Singaporean girl.

The Singaporean girl’s face had gone gray. Her mouth was slack, her glasses were fogged over. When she walked, the current splayed her boots open.

The change wasn’t physiological so much as psychological. The cave was beating her. The darkness, the wet, the cold – it was winning. She fell every fourth or fifth step, and when she didn’t fall, she prepared to. She clutched at the limestone walls. We took turns holding her other hand. She was trembling.

Next was “the re-birth,” a tiny round canal that had to be crawled through for about 7 feet. It was claustrophobia + aquaphobia + wet neoprene + a bulky helmet. Singaporean girl came out terrified.

We swam for a while. Singaporean girl couldn’t. She floated on her back, and someone pulled her feet. I helped her up a knee-high “waterfall,” and for the next 100 feet she didn’t let go.

Finally we came to a fork.

“All right. If you’re feeling adventurous, we’ll go this way.” Aaron pointed at a tiny crawl-space with water rushing out. “There are two waterfalls in there, and don’t be surprised if Neil’s yelling at you. It’s just because it’s noisy in there, with all the water. Anyone else can go that way, it’s much easier.” Singaporean girl went that way.

Waterfall was the wrong word. A waterfall implies a broad line of water. This was like standing inside an egg with a hole in the top and bottom, with water trying to fill it. Neil was yelling:


It was rock-climbing. It was rock-climbing inside a limestone egg, with water hitting your face.


It was one of those moments where you follow an order that you sense intuitively is wrong. But the knees, with their neoprene kneepads, held the limestone against the thigh-high rush of water.


I kept going, crawling, but it was intense enough that after a while I didn’t keep going. I doubled back to make sure Antje was OK. I was imagining yelling back at her, “GO BACK DOWN!”

By the time I go there she was yelling at Niel, “WHAT?!”






I yelled at her, “KNIE! KNIE! KNIE!”

She’d already understood. It was unnecessary, my yelling. But, at the moment, it had felt that serious.

Which is why, when we emerged ten minutes later, all of us agreed that the caving experience was one of the most intense of our lives, that it’d more than made up for the beginning.

On the way back to the van, Singaporean girl had to sit down. Fainting didn’t seem out of the question. Her friends helped her walk.

Back in Waitomo, above-ground life resumed. It was kite weather: gusty and warm with big white clouds. On the lawn, birds were snatching up mouthfuls of worms.

At the best restaurant in town (it’s a very small town), we ran into the Singaporean group again. They laughed and wished us well, even Singaporean girl.

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5 Responses to “Into the deep”

  1. From Brooke/Mom:

    Having a bit of claustrophobia, I could barely read this. My face was in a state of horror, I was pulling back in my chair, and shrinking down in a ball. Thanks for the vicarious trip, as I think the Singaporean girl is the bravest person ever. I’d be sitting outside waiting, reading a book :-). Thanks for the great drawing, Antje!

    Posted on December 8, 2011 at 15:44 #
  2. From Roxy:

    When you have a spare moment back home, watch “The Descent”, imagine those thingies around you, and know why I will NEVER GO IN A CAVE.

    Sounds fun, though!

    Posted on December 9, 2011 at 01:23 #
    • From Antje:

      I have heard that this is one of the scariest movies and I was tempted to watch it but I don’t know if my heart rate could be rescued afterwards :)

      Posted on December 11, 2011 at 07:48 #
  3. From Esther:

    the poor, poor girl!!!

    ps: don’t watch “the descent” :)

    Posted on December 9, 2011 at 19:05 #
    • From Antje:

      The pooooor girl was holding Conors hand the whole time. I also want to play scared princess in the dark sometimes and grap other husbands hands :)

      Posted on December 11, 2011 at 07:51 #