I have to say now that had I realised quite what I was signing up for when I booked a tour with ‘Wildwest Adventures – Dragons Cave Rafting‘ near Greymouth on the South Island’s West Coast, then quite possibly I wouldn’t have seen it through. This in no way reflects on this excellent company who offer an awesome experience for thrillseekers, adrenalin junkies and anyone who wants to cave and pothole. However for a claustrophobic whose recurring nightmare involves tight underground places and water then this really wasn’t my best idea ever.
I wasn’t expecting the blackwater rafting title to encompass hours of clambering over slippery and sometimes almost vertical rocks, no open caverns but instead lots of close confined spaces and the entire experience to be conducted in total pitch black with ever present icy water at least knee deep, sometimes chest deep and sometimes only passable by swimming.
At our meeting base we were given multiple layers, Wellington boots, hard hats and head torches and then taken by sheep truck to a point from where we had a 20 minute walk through the rainforest to arrive at our caves.
As I watched the last of the daylight disappear I almost turned back with a panicky ‘I can’t do this’ but, knowing if I did so I would ruin it for everyone, I suppressed my rising claustrophobia as much as possible.
Our guide Peter was an A-grade student straight from the school of how to make caving as much fun as possible – in other words he was perfect in every way. Without his dry wit and total air of confidence which in turn made me feel as safe as I was going to I’m not sure I could have completed the next few hours. Admittedly his briefing us on what to do should he suffer some accident and the phone call he made on our cave entry, which sets off an alarm for a certain time if there is no cancellation, did get my knees knocking again.
Our first challenge went something like this – ‘so you sit at the top of this waterfall, slide down it to land into this water filled, tiny pothole where you may be held under for a few seconds by the churning water before I drag you out. Oh, and don’t go off to the sides underwater because there are caverns’…….what!!!! I am ashamed to admit I very rudely pushed everyone out of the way knowing that if I didn’t go first then there was no way I could do this.
The next challenge was an underground lake which we had to swim across. The water was so icily cold I could hardly breath and swimming in wellies is really not that easy.
The next bit, although something which might have freaked me out earlier seemed so tame in comparison with what I had already done that I just did as I was told. That involved throwing myself backwards off a slippery ledge into the water where I was joined by an inner tube in which I was to sit. Off we all then floated in a procession down the underground river, with our head torches off so that we could enjoy the glow worm display. Lying back on that inner tube, my backside frozen numb where it touched the water, I have to confess that this really was something quite magical – for all the world it looked like a sky of twinkling stars above us. I almost felt a calm descend.
After this we were allowed a reprieve for a little while we sat and drank hot chocolate, soaked through and squelching in our wellies. I wondered if I was the only one filled with trepidation at what might come next. My state was helped none by my partner Chris who was having a whale of a time and could barely suppress his huge grin. Everyone else looked like they were having fun too – I felt like a wimp.
So, next, the Love Tunnel – now that sounds like it could be nice……wrong! The Love Tunnel is a series of teeny tiny places all joined by holes which are just large enough for a human being to wriggle through. The only view I had most of the time was of the backside of the guy in front of me, Mark, who being a little on the large side took his time in squeezing through the holes. At one point he got totally stuck. There was I trapped in a space only large enough for me to crouch in, my hat scraping the ceiling my arms pinned to my sides and only Mark’s bum and legs for company. When Peter finally managed to pull him free after much grunting and groaning and ‘ows’ from poor Mark, I was fairly close to losing it completely.
When we finally emerged into daylight I felt like crying with relief but my feeling was also one of pride and achievement that I had done it. There was one more thrill for us all which involved a natural rock-slide into a pool not far from the cave entrance. Peter, who had broken his coccyx doing this didn’t take part. In fact the only takers were me, Chris and the pot-hole human cork, Mark. This wasn’t something I even had to think twice about which made me realise we all have our fears and limitations – they just happen to be different.
When we arrived back at base we had the treat of a beautifully warm spa bath, muffins and hot chocolate and were each handed a CD of pictures taken of us as we slithered, clambered, plunged and crawled through those caves. I look at mine occasionally and, the many comical facial poses brought about by the shock of submersion in ice-cold water aside, realise I did a fairly good job of hiding my terror.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Am I glad I did it? Heck yes!
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