New Zealand has an overwhelming amount of adrenaline activities but if there’s one that’s truly unique to the country, can’t be replicated anywhere else, and is wickedly fun, it’d have to be the Legendary Black Water Rafting. Save your glowworm visits for Waitomo, you won’t regret it!
This tube rafting experience in the Ruakuri Cave is truly magical that I’ll attempt to describe and review here but honestly is the kind of thing that you just have to go and see for yourself. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of what to expect so that you’re prepared for your trip and I get to answer a number of common questions to help you make a decision if you haven’t yet.
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Here's what we're covering:
- How adventurous do you want to go?
- Black Water Rafting packing checklist – what to bring
- An inside look into the Black Labyrinth
- Is the photo package worth it?
- Are there differences between winter and summer?
How adventurous do you want to go?
When it comes to Black Water Rafting in Waitomo, there two options available to you depending on how much of a thrill you’re looking for and how much time you have. You have one called Black Abyss and the other, Black Labyrinth.
This is the original black water rafting tour that takes you into the deep of Ruakuri Cave (den of dogs by local Māori). Armed with a rubber tube, you’ll have a chance to hike into the cave, jump into small cascading waterfalls, see the glowworms, and float on the underground river.
This is a 3 hour experience and takes you to see the staples of what has made this experience so legendary.
If you’re itching for something a bit more physically demanding and will allow you to get even more hands-on, consider this 5 hour experience in the same Ruakuri Cave. This extended edition of sorts will take you into the black with a more comprehensive caving experience (closer to what we did in Canmore, Alberta). You’ll be able to get down on your knees, pass through tight squeezes, climb waterfalls, glide in what they call a flying fox, and repelling down a 35 metre hole.
Choose this if you want a more complete experience in the caves, being able to see much more of it than you would with the Black Labyrinth experience.
FUN FACT : Ruakuri Cave is located in Waitomo which in Māori is broken into the words ‘Wai’ for water and ‘Tomo’ for hole
Discover Waitomo has a good comparison page that helps you determine which one is the right activity for you.
Black Water Rafting packing checklist – what to bring
There’s not a lot to bring because they provide almost everything you need for going into the cave but there are still a few essentials that you need to remember.
- Swimsuit – If you don’t have one, anything that you’d be willing to get wet
- Towel – You’ll need this for the shower
- Body wash and shampoo/conditioner – Not mandatory but is certainly nice to have to feel nice and clean after
- Change of clothes – After the hot shower, you’ll need something to change into
- Bag to hold it all – Since the lockers are quite large, feel free to bring a giant backpack like the Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack I was using. Alternatively, you can also bring a small drawstring backpack too.
An inside look into the Black Labyrinth
Since we were travelling with Flying Kiwi, we had a specific schedule to follow and we also didn’t have 5 hours to work with. That’s why we ended up choosing Black Labyrinth. The following is walkthrough of the activity from end to end.
Once you arrive at the Black Water Rafting HQ, you’ll be required to sign in. They recommend that you arrive 30 minutes ahead of your booked activity time. You’ll fill out a standard waiver and if you have any remaining balance to pay, you’ll do that as well. One thing you don’t necessarily have to decide at this point is the photo package.
While you wait for your group to be called, you’ll be able to walk around the small gift shop and take a set at the tables.
When the time has come, your guides will come in and call your group. They’ll give you a quick briefing and then escort you down to the staging area outdoors. This is where you’ll be given all your equipment and where you’ll be gearing up.
What do they provide? You’ll be given a full body wetsuit, socks, boots, fleece, and helmet. There’s a change room or you can just get ready out in the open.
This is probably a good time to go to the bathroom and those facilities are in the area as well.
Near the centre is the locker area. Each group is given access to a large locker that has multiple levels and large enough for the largest backpacks but know that it is shared with everyone else that you’re rafting with.
Once ready, your group will get on a van and you’ll be transported to near the entrance of the cave. Here is where you’ll grab your black rubber tube and get a few group photos in.
Before heading into the depths of the cave, you’ll practice a few things because it’s much easier to do it in daylight than in the dark. The first move you’ll work on is the eel where everyone will link up together in a straight line while sitting on their tube.
The second thing you’ll work on is the jumping into the water backwards with the tube. Everyone gets an opportunity to fall in and you’ll immediately climb out of the river a few metres down.
You’re probably thinking why this is necessary but turns out there are a few small water falls you need to jump into. This gave me a bit of anxiety at first but then I realized this just meant getting into the water from standing position into the water. You’re doing it backwards and holding the tube to your butt with barely any drop. The only thing if anything that’s a bit of a shock is the temperature of the water and the splash that envelops you from the fall.
In Ruakuri Cave
There’s a short walk to the entrance of the cave and one at a time you’ll descend into the subterranean tunnel.
Something you learn pretty quickly is that it’s not like the Kauai cave tubing that I’ve done before where you’re on the tube the entire time. With Black Water Rafting, it really is a mix of caving where you’re hiking through the uneven ground (low level water flowing through) and getting to pockets of deeper water where you’ll be getting on your tube.
I won’t spoil too much of the experience but you’ll be alternating between hiking and tubing.
The thing you’ll need to prepare for is the temperature of the water. If there’s anything uncomfortable about the whole experience, it’s how cold I felt despite the full body wetsuit and fleece on top. By the end, my fingers and feet were definitely tingly from the chill. It’s manageable but I won’t lie, it’s cold!
The grand finale is the glow worm part of the cave and this was definitely the highlight of the experience. Linked together in eel formation, we slowly floated down the water in our tubes and while looking up all you can see are the twinkling blue glow of the glow worms. There are so many of them that it feels like you’re in a planetarium of stars.
To add to the surreal experience, our guides Pippen and Scuba did their own rendition of a welcome. Scuba belted out a Maori welcome that almost sounded like a haka. Pippen, delighted us with her singing of Lord of the Ring’s Passing of the Elves which really set the mood.
Fanuilos heryn aglar
Rîn athar annún-aearath
Calad ammen i reniar
Mi ‘aladhremmin ennorath!
When we came out the other end, the group gathered again and we took the van back to HQ.
There, we were given instructions for how to take off our gear, rinse them in the chlorine bath and put everything back in place. It’s at this point your designated lockers will be opened and you’ll get access to your things.
You’ll be dying to warm up at this point and so leverage the showers which all have piping hot water flowing through them.
Bagels and soup
To round everything out, make your way back to the main building and it’s here that you’ll be able to toast your own bagels and get a cup of hot soup to warm up. This was definitely a nice bonus to the activity that I didn’t expect.
There’s no limits set on how many bagels or refills of soup you can have so go nuts!
While you’re sitting down and enjoying this bit of refuelling, photos from the group will go up on the TVs and you’ll have a chance to decide whether you want to purchase the photo package or not.
Is the photo package worth it?
There are two options when it comes to purchasing the photos from your trip. You can either purchase individual photos for NZ$23 or you can purchase the full album of photos for NZ$40 and this also includes a bundle of stock promotional photos.
If you’re looking for some sort of photographic evidence if your rafting in Waitomo, this is going to be your best and only option. The only criticism I have is that the quality of the photos isn’t going to be high because they use one of those Olympus waterproof point and shoot cameras so in the cave, not every shot will be crystal clear and you definitely won’t be able to see the glow worms.
That said, they do include their professionally shot photos where you can see the glow worms so there is that.
If you can’t decide in the moment, you can always purchase them months later since they stay alive online.
Are there differences between winter and summer?
What’s unique about caves is that the temperatures stay consistent all year around. The Ruakuri Cave stays at 11-15 degrees Celsius so no matter what time of the year it is, it’ll be more or less the same experience.
Where to stay in Waitomo
If you’re looking to stay near the Waitomo caves, here are two top picks for you to consider.
WE STAYED HERE
600 meters from the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, this is part of the collection of holiday parks scattered all around New Zealand and features a large swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, BBQ area and a children’s playground with trampoline.
Centrally located hotel that isn’t going to run you through roof. As a new hotel, everything is modern and extremely comfortable. On top of that, they have an incredible rooftop patio that offers spectacular views since it’s on a hill and facing the lake.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
These details specifically for the Black Labyrinth. For a more adventurous activity, consider the Black Abyss.
Address: 585 Waitomo Caves Road, Ruakuri Cave, Waitomo, Waitomo 3977
Hours: Regular tours are 9.00am, 10.30am, 12.00pm, 1.30pm, 3.00pm. Summer: every 30 minutes from 7am. Last session normally at 3pm. Experience runs 3 hours from beginning to end.
Price: NZ$147 adult, NZ$125 youth, $NZ462 family (2 adult and 2 youth)
Parking: Free parking
- Age/weight limitations? You must be 12 years and 45kg+
- Any expertise required? No. This is labelled as beginner level
- Are there lockers? Yes, there’s a specific shared locker for your group so it’s secure. It was also big enough to put in my 45L Peak Design Travel Backpack so there’s a ton of space
- What are the group sizes? Maximum 12 people
- Are there change rooms? – Yes, in the area where you grab your gear, there is a change room/shower
- Can you shower? There are 6 shower stalls in the change room with piping hot water which is just what you’ll want after coming out
- Is food included? Surprisingly yes! Bagels and soup are available in the main office
- Can I bring a GoPro? No, unfortunately not allowed since your focus needs to be on the uneven surfaces and handling your tube
You’ve booked your Black Water Rafting trip right? If you’re still iffy about it, drop a comment about any lingering questions that you have!