When I told my bus driver I was hopping off in Waitomo, he responded, “Why? The only thing to do there is Blackwater Rafting. You’ll be bored out of your mind, but good luck.”

I didn’t let his negativity sway me. He didn’t know about the connections I had in Waitomo who assured my lack of boredom.

When the time came for me to leave home, my job, obviously, had to replace me. My fortune became discovering that my replacement, Crystal, had done a gap year in Waitomo in high school.

She also worked at those caves.

I begged Crystal to set me up with anybody she knew out there. I had a year to kill, and I needed places to stay. She spoke of the farm she lived on with pride and fondness and told me I’d have the best time of my life there.

Needless to say, she was right.


Crystal posted a Facebook status about my visiting Waitomo, which prompted a message from one of her old friends.

Her name was Ruth, and she’d migrated from England in the early 90’s. She felt as though it was her time to show someone else the hospitality shown to her on her arrival. At that, because I knew someone she trusted, she assumed me to be a safe traveler to show around.

Ruth lost her job the day before I arrived, which turned into a bittersweet event. On the one hand, she was hurt. On the other, I provided her with a distraction, which led to a personalized tour of the Waitomo area.

Ruth lived twenty minutes outside of Waitomo in a little town called Te Kuiti. At the time, Ruth volunteered on a farm taking care of an untamed horse. Together, we named her Myotomo, and I joined Ruth in part of the training.

I also helped Ruth tend her garden, where I discovered Chilean guavas (or Ugni molinae), a sweet, berry-like fruit. After we had picked them, we added some sugar to a handle of vodka and let them ferment.

Our Chilean Guava Vodka accompanied most of our dinners for the week.

One night, I joined Ruth on her choir meeting, which happened to be at the farm Crystal mentioned. There, she introduced me to Ann, Alister, and Ben, who needed some extra help around the farm.

Though Ruth found me another job, she refused to let me go without a tour of the glowworm caves. Ann and Alister’s other son, Agnus, happened to run the Blackwater Rafting caves, and one of Ruth’s dearest friends, Zane, was its most experienced tour guide.

It is certainly not what you know, but who, and Crystal knew everyone on the list of people to know in Waitomo.

With that, I ended up with a personalized tour with Blackwater Rafting’s best through two of the three tours.

Repelling into the mouth of a dark cave ranked high in the list fears I wanted to overcome in New Zealand. I tried and failed to conquer it when I was 12 and attempted to repel into California’s Moaning Caverns. The view of the darkness and the thought of falling into oblivion if the rope snapped stopped me.

Standing at the mouth of Waitomo’s finest when I was 25 wasn’t any less intimidating.

Blackwater Rafting

Before diving into the cave, however, I practiced repelling on a small hill near the entrance. Though I backed out when I was 12, I had since experienced a climbing wall or two, and knew I could survive this.

“What you’re looking at now is the throat of the cave,” said Zane when I finished practice. “Just past what you can’t see, it opens into the stomach. When you’re passing through, it’s a little tight, so just be careful.”

Survival pending.

I ignored the beating my heart gave my ribcage as I descended into the cave’s stomach. I tried to stay focused, but my eyes busied themselves adjusting to the darkness and gawking at the rock formations.

Once Zane caught up with me, he hooked me up to another rope that ziplined into the deepest pit of the cave where the river lay.

Having never done a zipline before either, my stomach flipped as the whoosh passed over me on the ride.

At the bottom, Zane handed me a cookie and something warm to drink. At the time, my body was still hot from exertion, but Zane told me I’d appreciate the warmth in a minute.

He then instructed me to jump into an inner tube on the river.


The immediate freeze that slapped against my skin had me gasping until my body heated up the wetsuit.

Though Id opted for the most adventurous tour, the beginning provided a relaxing float down the river. The first glimpse of the glowworms came immediately, and wonder replaced any fear or coldness I felt.

The glowing portion, I discovered, is their digestive system devouring whatever pray fell victim to its clutches. Though the process is slightly repulsive, the result is a tourist’s dream. The way the worms speckle across the roof of the cave emits the feeling of floating through a river of stars.

After we had spent some time admiring the glowworms, it wasn’t long before Zane had me swimming through tight canals, belly flopping off of ledges, and climbing waterfalls.

Everything went great until I saw the eels beneath us.

I did my best to ignore all thoughts of the eels swallowing me alive (perhaps I’ve seen The Princess Bride one too many times), and I followed Zane to the end.

After we had completed the adventurous activities, we meandered along the river until the end. Zane and I stayed silent as we lay back in the inner tubes and admired the beauty of the glowworms.

An eternal gratefulness overcame me when I reunited with Ruth on the other end. Though she owed me nothing, she did everything she could to ensure I left with memories I would cherish forever.

She succeeded.

How have people helped you along the way in your travels? Do you plan on returning the favor to other travelers? Share your stories with me in the comments!