Learning to Fly
WAITOMO & TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND: February 22-26, 2013
Steve: Waking up around six and trying to be as quiet as possible we broke down our tent and packed our bags. We would be taking our first paid road trip in New Zealand in the form of an Intercity Bus leaving from Rotorura’s iSite at a quarter to eight; we had booked a cave tour in Waitomo for later that day and couldn’t risk being late by hitchhiking. So after a quick breakfast these two Americans were hoofing across town on a crisp, sunny Kiwi morning, looking forward to the day’s adventures.
It was oddly comforting to be back on a bus. After spending inordinate amounts of time on buses in Central and South America it was nice to have time to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, hitchhiking has been great fun, cheap (i.e. free), and it’s still my preferred means of travel in New Zealand. But on a bus ride you don’t have to talk to someone if you’re tired and don’t feel like it…you can read, sleep, take in the passing scenery in silence. And if you’re like me you can pop in your iPod and zone out, which is one of my ways of relaxing (I need to throw out a huge thank you to me best mate Kris for throwing me a bro-down in the form of a music-filled USB drive, and to my wifey and Manda for coordinating this early birthday present).
The Original Blackwater Rafting Company, with whom we had booked our cave tour. I should mention that when Leah visited New Zealand years ago one of her splurges was a Waitomo glowworm cave tour…she has raved about it since we’d met and it was a must-do as far as she was concerned. (Leah: I used another tour company last time, but I had loved pushing my limits physically and mentally with long abseils, tiny squeezes through subterranean tunnels, and jumping into water far below with no lights on. Definitely an extreme face-your-fears situation and one I knew Steve would enjoy.) So we pitched our tent, ate some lunch and relaxed for a few before making the daunting journey across the road for our 2 P.M. cave date.
After a short wait in the bustling cafeteria within the tour offices we were gathered up by Anna and Janna, our guides for the afternoon Black Abyss tour. Introductions followed with the six other participants before we were led down to lockers where we would be outfitted with wetsuits, boots, helmets and abseiling gear. Yes, you can call me Scuba Steve. Anyways, once everyone was good to go and a few silly pictures were taken we hopped into a musty, B.O.-filled van for a ride to Blackwater’s proprietary cave (each tour company in Waitomo pays for rights to one of the hundreds of caves that lie beneath private properties). Anna and Janna gave the group a quick lesson in abseiling and away we went.
With Leah safely below the group was once again whole and we followed our guides through a system of tunnels which allowed us up-close-and-personal views of glowworms and the castles of stalactites and stalagmites that make up their kingdom. Before long we found ourselves at a long crevasse over which several ropes stretched. Being one of the first in line, I found myself being hooked onto the flying fox, not knowing what to expect. During each person’s turn the guides would turn off all lights; I lifted my legs and was hurled down into the darkness, the blue glow of the worms above and in front of me. It was a rush not knowing when and how you would be suddenly brought to a halt. Although the ride itself was only five to ten seconds long this was one of the highlights of the tour.
The rest of the tour consisted of crawling and sliding deeper and deeper into the system of caves. At one point we even met one of the resident eels who greeted each guest by slithering through their legs. The piece de resistance was a climb up, through and over several waterfalls which brought back memories of our Semuc Champey cave excursion back in Guatemala. Surprisingly I’m not sure which climb was the least-safe but either way it made the ensuing sunlight that much sweeter.
The tour over we walked back up to our tent site exhausted but still in awe at the sights. Although tired we struck up conversation with a pair of friendly Kiwis (seriously, find me one who isn’t) on a holiday road trip, as well as an American couple in the middle of a sailing trip around the Pacific Rim. Throw in some hammock reading time and we were spent. We had an early rise the next morning since we knew the road through Waitomo isn’t heavily traveled and could make hitching to our next destination difficult. To make a long story short we ended up with one of our longest hitchhiking waits in Te Kuiti, a town just south of Waitomo. We kept positive and after waiting a couple of hours we found ourselves with a ride all the way to Taupo with Richard and June, a nice older Kiwi couple. We weren’t short of conversation with this friendly pair and the two-hour ride passed in what seemed like minutes.
We were fast approaching cranky and desperate when Steve called The Berkenhoff Lodge & Backpackers, the last place on our list. The woman on the other end told us she had one dorm bed available but that she’d be fine if we pitched our tent outside under a tree near the parking lot. Oh, and did we want a free pickup, since they were a 20 minute walk from town? SOLD! Thus we met J.B., one of the owners, and she went above and beyond to make sure we were fine on our little patch of grass adjacent to the parking lot and right near the clotheslines. She even gave us a key to a storage shed where we could stash our gear when we’d be gone for long stretches of time instead of leaving it in the tent. It immediately felt like home and over the next few days we took advantage of the fantastic kitchen, lounge (with book exchange! I…can’t… break…the…habit…), location to the grocery store and all sorts of outdoorsy pursuits.
Another must-do we had previously decided to tackle was the Tongariro Crossing, something I hadn’t done on my previous NZ trip but have always wanted to—who doesn’t want to spend 8 hours walking 16km across lava flows, crater floors, geothermal areas and emerald lakes? To top it off, you walk right underneath Mt. Ngauruhoe, which not only resides over Lake Taupo and the cities dotting the banks, but was also reworked with a little CGI magic to create Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings. Yes, the nerdery continues.
Taupo Bungy and jokingly agreed that our WorkAway jobs here as well as some recent donations (thanks Marivic and Mike!) are helping free up some cash for other New Zealand pursuits, which could include bungy jumping (at which point we laughed jokingly). I should inform our followers at this point that I’m not an adrenaline junky and hate the sensation of free falling and/or extreme speed; while my husband is more adventurous than me and would like to try sky diving, I’m just fine with my feet planted firmly on terra firma, thankyouverymuch. Neither one of us has ever harbored the remotest desire to bungy, but we were in Taupo with a chance to jump over the glorious Waikato River and honor Jayna, so you can probably see where this is leading!
Once on the platform and having my ankles lassoed with Velcro to what Steve called a “giant stretched out Koosh ball”, I kept having out of body sensations and not really believing I was about to voluntarily heave myself into the open air attached to my husband. I knew Jayna was there (with Minger along for the ride) and I kept reminding myself how easy she made it seem to fly, but my insides were liquefied. As we shuffled toward the edge, I kept telling Steve he was going too fast, cursed my brains out and kept saying, “nonononono”. However, I did manage to smile for the camera and use sign language to spell “I love you, J” before the technicians told us how to fall with our chins down and arms up. That last moment took both an eternity and a nanosecond as we stepped off into nothing. And started screaming. A lot. The exhilaration of feeling yourself hurtle toward the earth and knowing (hoping?) you won’t hit it can’t be compared to anything else. Even though I still hated the sensation of free falling, the adrenaline rush was unsurpassed, the views exquisite and once the bungy rope kicked in and we bounced back upward only to fall again on a smaller scale, I was euphoric (but still screaming my head off—see if you can hear me shout “I love you, Jaynaaaaa!”).
our bungy video. Learning to fly isn’t so hard when you have the best teacher...love you, J.