'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Black water rafting in New Zealand. A personal account

Bonding with our Special Friends

About this time last year, we had an adventure.

Back in my student days I had been 'wild' caving in the extensive area of Waitomo (Maori: 'wai'-water, 'tomo'-enter), and also did what was then known as the 'Ruakuri float-through'. Which was a perfect description for the experience of choosing a sweltering hot summer's day, borrowing a carbide lamp and a wet-suit each, wandering vaguely around in the bush (forest) until we found some likely-looking cave entrances, wander in, turn left when we met a quiet stream, got in, floated along on our back looking at the glow-worms on the ceiling, and emerged in time to have a fizzy drink and a toasted sandwich from the local shop.

So I was very keen that my dear, unsuspecting guests from Germany should have this wonderful, uplifting and tranquil experience too. I sold it to them easily. The tickets were booked online. A., despite having very limited sight, would easily be able to cope. We could hold her hand all the time anyway. So I thought.

Why it didn't occur to me that rivers when they go underground can have just as many heights and moods as rivers above-ground, I do not know.

For after four days of torrential rain, the Ruakuri River was high and opaque brown, swirling and twisting like some live boa.

The 'Black Water Rafting Company' luckily know this river very well, in all its moods. They know all the ledges and depths and waterfalls and torrents and eddies, and what seemed like three hours of a confused pummeling torrent of black cold liquid and rocks in near-total darkness to us, was a carefully calculated series of runs and stops for breaths, debriefs, count-up-the- heads (lights) and new instructions to be given out, to them.

But of course at the beginning you don't know what you're in for. And at the end you are too euphoric to mind.

The company is very organised, and the whole trip had been carefully planned.

We met our guides at the 'Long Black Cafe', which is worth a visit even if you're not doing the rafting trip. We were allocated wetsuits and booties, boots and helmets, and our Special Friend, our inner tube. We posed with our Special Friends (above) for a photo opportunity. All was laughter and jocularity.

We jumped in the van and they drove us to the river.

We tried our Special Friends on our bottoms for size. All was still hilarious.

We walked into the forest to a platform above the Great Grey-Brown Ruakuri.

"Jump in." they instructed. "No, not that way; backwards."

Jumping in the water backwards while clutching your Special Friend to your bottom is harder than it sounds. We all did it, but I was a bit scared. The river was quite cold and we all got water up our noses, but, more seriously, my sight-impaired friend got muddy water on her glasses and couldn't see a thing until we got her out and they were cleaned. This was a hint of what was to come.

Then we did some stationary conga dancing while sitting in our tubes. This was another hint of things to come, and again didn't coincide with my previous serene rafting experience. We clasped the boots of the person behind and, on command, leaned "LEFT!" and "RIGHT!"

All lots of fun, tempered with a slight air of seriousness. They were shouting at us.

We drove to another spot and walked a little into the forest, coming upon a large hole in the ground from which issued soft coils of mist. One after the other, we descended into this hole and almost immediately were in darkness, but for our helmet lights.

They asked us to stop there, and everything quickly got much more serious. I don't remember all of the talk, but it involved 'you must' and 'never' and 'if you lose your tube' and other careful instructions that were not minced - everything was very clear and categorical. Finally they finished with a little joke. "If you are really, really cold and your hands and feet are really, really cold, then just tell one of the guides. And we'll tell you that ours are too."

I was beginning to wonder what on Earth I was doing there. And feeling embarrassed about the hard-sell to our guests. I was also very worried about my friend. She was having trouble seeing because of her limited sight in the darkness and also the misty atmosphere was fogging up her glasses. I wondered where the mist was coming from, but we soon found out. It was spray from the turbulent river. In a short time (10 minutes? twenty minutes?) in that timeless place, we had progressed through the cave to the intersection with the river, and I realised why we had been told all the instructions from then on were to be visual. The noise of the agitated water had steadily grown and now was almost deafening. Even a shout near your ear was almost indecipherable.

The river was very strong and tugged against our legs and sometimes our waists, and, added to the fact that the river bed was very uneven, it was a real struggle to keep our footing. We had to hold our tubes up out of the water, or risk them being grabbed and swept away by the current. At one point I wondered how much longer it was going to be. My arms and legs hurt, and I was very tired. Then the river grew deeper. It was too fast for us to all float along together, so we went singly or in batches of two, being grabbed out of the darkness by hands at the other end. It was more like a series of short, pounding, thrilling, whirls in a washing-machine. And my friend had to have help. A guide or someone else held onto her almost all the time. But she had to do some by herself. She was going almost entirely by feel, and the ground was just a tumble of rocks and boulders. I still have huge respect for her courage. This was no sanitised picnic in the park…

In the middle somewhere there was a waterfall we each had to jump off into the near-darkness. And then, suddenly we were all crocodiled together in total darkness, as we had practiced up there in that far-away world of the green and gold sunlight. And we were whirling along like a silent awestruck snake under the magical Christmas lights of the glow-worms, then into an enormous cathedral of a cave with a roof vaulting up invisibly into the blackness. An unforgettable peaceful and awesome half-minute or so of reflection.

Then we were swept into another area and it was quite a shock, after about 2 hours in isolation, to see coloured lights and people on metal walkways high above. It seemed to me that ours was the real cave, and this was one was just fantasyland.

We arrived, one by one, at the place where our river poured out of its underground lair. A guide stood on a huge rock, higher than me, with his hands out, and my legs would hardly work as I struggled to get up. I felt totally drained and weak as water.

But in ten minutes, after a much-needed wee-stop (on pain of death were we to do that in our wet-suits), and sitting back in the van, the pride and euphoria began. Our daughters were covered in smiles from ear to ear, and my friend and I sat quietly, delighted we'd done it, and, if not actually ready to rush in and do it all over again, at least ready to highly recommend the trip to anyone else. Fan-bloodly-tastic!


  1. That sounds both awesome and terrifying. When I went white water rafting some years ago we went over the highest single drop on a commercial run in the southern hemisphere (so we were told). Again the professionalism of the guides came into play when one of the boats flipped and threw the occupants into the whirlpool below. And again, afterwards, the 18 strangers who started on the trip ended as a group of people bonded by the incident. I'd do that again. But do what you did? Not on your nelly.

  2. Definitely not on my bucket list.

  3. I bet your Geerman friend was yelling, "Katherine, ich kam nach Neuseeland nicht, um zu sterben!"

  4. GB - I've been white water rafting too. But the problem was that I had fixed in my mind what a serene experience cave-rafting was... !
    Unfortunately it was too dark and too noisy to bond with the rest of our group. All we bonded with, was our inner tube.
    Robert - I would go today if the river was low!
    YP- Ah, is that what she was shouting! I wondered at the time.

  5. This might just too much adventure for me. First you have no bottoms in your tubes. I have learned from tubing Texas rivers that they will always have shallow, rocky bottoms to do a number on the butt. That's why I alway pay the extra $2 for a tube with a board tied below. Secondly, the 58 degrees of the Guadalupe River is cold enough even with the sun shining brightly and the air temp at 95 degrees. I do agree that seeing the glow worms would be awesome, but all that darkness has to be mighty scary. But so are all the water moccasins sunning on the rocks and hidden in the waters. After the last flood, I was told about a man sitting on his porch up a hill from the river shooting at the hundreds beached by the floods on his lawn. Haven't been back since.

  6. Judy - Thanks for your comment. Most of the time we had to hold onto our tubes in the water, as a float support, rather than sitting in them, so there were no boards on any of them. And yep, it was cold, but strangely, we were so busy thinking, and so active, I hardly noticed the cold at all, after the first trial jump in. The darkness was more inconvenient than scary, and as for snakes - we don't have a single one in New Zealand, so they are not even part of the equation! I'd have trouble with them too!