While bungee jumping or zorbing may come to mind when thinking about adrenaline-inducing experiences in New Zealand, there’s one activity that should be at the top of your list—black water rafting. Black water rafting the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand is most definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
As if black water rafting isn’t cool enough by itself, your ride on a rubber tube down an underground river takes you through glowworm caves. That’s right… glow worms that actually light up.
I had such an awesome experience with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company that I wanted to write this black water rafting review to share with everyone thinking about doing this truly epic New Zealand adventure.
What is Black Water Rafting?
Although it’s called black water rafting, there are no rafts or rapids. Instead, you ride a rubber inner tube through an underground river.
As opposed to white water rafting, black water rafting involves a combination of floating in the dark, climbing over underground rocks, squeezing through passages, and jumping off waterfalls. Consequently, black water rafting is an adventure that is not for the faint of heart.
That being said, deaf, blind, amputees, and even an 88 year old have all completed the black water rafting journey.
Original Black Water Rafting
Since 1987, more than 100,000 people have black water rafted in Ruakuri Cave, the largest cave system in the Waitomo village of New Zealand.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company has two black water rafting options in the Ruakuri Cave: the Black Labyrinth and Black Abyss. Most people choose the Black Labyrinth as it is a good choice for beginner cavers.
While both tours take you through the same Ruakuri Cave, the Black Abyss adventure is much more technical and involves repelling, gliding, and crawling.
I chose to do the Black Labyrinth tour as it fit my budget but still had plenty of thrills.
Black Water Rafting Price
The three hour Black Labyrinth trip costs NZD$147 and the 5 hour Black Abyss costs NZD$255. While youth tickets are priced at $125 for Black Labyrinth, families of four pay NZD$462, a savings of NZD$82.
The price of a black water rafting ticket includes a wetsuit, shoes helmet, rubber inner tube, transportation to and from the cave, a small snack in the cave, hot showers, and hot tomato soup and warm bagels after the trip.
Although you can’t take your camera with you into the caves for safety reasons, your guides will take pictures with a waterproof camera throughout the trip which are available for purchase.
The one piece of advice I have for you is to book your black water rafting directly through The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company as opposed to booking through a tour company. I made this mistake and ended up paying NZD$270 through HeadFirst Travel for the Black Labyrinth adventure which normally costs NZD$147. Granted I did get return transportation from Rotorua; however in my opinion, the price difference does not justify the shared two hour transfer.
Black Water Rafting Gear
Because the water is quite cold, full body wetsuits and footwear must be worn and are provided. Although slightly damp from the previous group, the wetsuits are cleaned after each use.
The wetsuit comes in three pieces: full length overalls, a long sleeved jacket, and booties. The wetsuit overalls go on first, then the jacket, and finally the wetsuit booties. After squeezing into your wetsuit, your tour guides will find a fitting pair of knee high waterproof boots or shoes.
The final piece to the ensemble is the helmet. Each helmet has a headlamp that you can switch on and off with the turn of a knob.
The bodysuit worked wonderfully considering the water temperature is between 50 and 57°F. The only exposed parts of your body are your hands and head. Since you will be paddling with your hands, your hands do tend to get cold. Other than your hands, the rest of your body remains quite warm.
I will warn you that when you first jump into the water, you’ll probably think to yourself that you’re going to freeze by the time you come out the other side of the cave. But as the guides explain, it only takes a few minutes for your body to heat up the cold water in your wetsuit. At least for me, the rest of the trip through the caves was rather comfortable.
No Experience Necessary
After gearing up, the first thing you do is practice jumping into the water in the daylight outside the cave.
Contrary to what you may think, the best way to enter the water is to jump backwards and essentially kick your feet up to head level. Although you get a rush of cold water to your face when jumping like that, it is apparently the safest way to enter the water.
Once everyone has mastered jumping into the water with their tubes, your tour guides will teach you the eel formation on land. Everyone sits in a straight line in their tubes and locks their ankles under the armpits of the person ahead of them. Later on in the cave, this formation comes in handy to ensure nobody gets lost in the dark.
Black Water Rafting
Although it’s advertised as a three hour tour, the guided portion of the Black Labyrinth tour through the caves lasts approximately two hours. The other hour consists of changing into wetsuits, driving to the caves, and practice jumping.
After all of the prep work is out of the way, it’s finally time to go black water rafting. Just a short walk through the jungle and you come across an unsuspecting group of rocks which turns out to be an entrance to Ruakuri Cave. Everyone gets a quick picture in front of the cave before descending underground.
Black water rafting is a combination of caving and rafting. Sometimes you’ll be hiking through streams of shallow water while other times you’ll be floating peacefully down the river.
I was stunned by how some sections of the caves are barely big enough to walk through while other sections are ridiculously spacious. There are a few portions of the cave that have cathedral-like, vaulted ceilings. It’s crazy to think that you are 80 meters below ground at points throughout the journey.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Aside from the beauty and the grandeur of the cave itself, the glowworms are definitely a highlight of black water rafting. Waitomo is famous for its glowworm caves. Within minutes of entering the caves, you’ll see your first few glowworms. By the end of the trip, you’ll have seen thousands of these fascinating luminescent creatures.
There’s a point in the tour where your guides have everyone turn off their headlamps for 15 minutes or so. As your eyes adjust to the darkness while you sit on the edge of the underground river, the brightness of the glowworms intensifies. Deep below the surface where daylight never reaches, your only source of light are the glowworms. The glowworms become so bright that you will see them reflect off the water.
The worms in the caves of Waitomo are actually the larvae of fungus gnats. It turns out that these glowworms eat insects that fly into the caves or even each other when desperate. These bioluminescent insects only produce this blue-green light during their larval stage.
You’ll see these beautiful glowworms all over the walls and ceilings of the majority of the Ruakuri cave, so rest assured that you won’t go home disappointed.
I had a fantastic time black water rafting, something I consider one of New Zealand’s best natural adventures. For me, this trip was part of my 20 day guided tour of New Zealand with Stray Journeys. If don’t have much time in New Zealand, a guided tour with Stray is the best way to see both the North Island and South Island.
Wether you’re planning on doing the same and have questions or have already black water rafted and want to share your story, drop a comment below and let’s chat!