Fast and fu­ri­ous nat­u­ral ride

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Where/what is it?

South of West­port, Charleston was big dur­ing the gold rush but now there’s another sort of gold in­side those moun­tains.

Af­ter a ride on a dinky train called Dorothy through Kahikatea for­est and the streaked lime­stone cliffs of the Nile River Canyon, Un­der­world Ad­ven­tures takes you into a cave sys­tem that’s still nat­u­ral and real.

There, you’ll scram­ble through a dark­ness lit only by head­lamps and glow­worms past loom­ing lime­stone for­ma­tions.

You’ll then jump into the un­der­ground river and float on your in­ner tube out into the bush for a bit of a bump over some rapids be­fore re­turn­ing to the start some four hours later.

Why go?

Be­cause it’s lots of fun, full of in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion from the friendly and en­thu­si­as­tic guide, and a world apart from the tamed and com­mer­cial ex­pe­ri­ence at Wait­omo.

There are lots of photo stops, the chance to see an ac­tual glow­worm up close, more sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites than you could shake a stick at, and a real sense of ad­ven­ture.

Af­ter wrestling your tube through the caves, it’s a re­lief to cool off in the river, and float peace­fully back­wards with the cur­rent, ad­mir­ing the con­stel­la­tions of glow­worms over­head.

Then you’re out in the open again, in dap­pled sun­shine through the trees, bob­bing for a kilo­me­tre down the river and, if the wa­ter level is low, get­ting a bit of a ‘‘river spank­ing’’ from the rocks at the rapids.

And if it’s high? Whizz along to the end in four min­utes flat, in­stead of 20. They’ll record the trip for you so you’ll have plenty of pho­tos to post on In­sta­gram and Face­book to prove to your friends what a brave ex­plorer you are.

In­sider tip

There are steps and squeezes, lots of dark­ness, three lev­els of caves, and if it’s been rain­ing, that scoot over the rapids can be fast and fu­ri­ous – so you need a bit of a sense of ad­ven­ture and a rea­son­able level of fit­ness.

But the guides are en­cour­ag­ing, alert and knowl­edge­able, so you’re in good hands.

On the way/nearby

Pan­cake Rocks at Pu­nakaiki are a must-do – if it’s wet and windy, there’s even bet­ter blow­hole ac­tion. And for more spec­tac­u­lar rocky coast­line, plus a light­house and seal colony, head north to the Cape Foul­wind Walk­way. Or for some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent, spend a day at Bar­ry­town Knife­mak­ing cre­at­ing your very own blade: forge the steel, carve and fit the han­dle, pol­ish the fin­ished ar­ti­cle. For a break from the buff­ing, you can work on your ax­ethrow­ing tech­nique.

How much?

Raft­ing trip: adults $185, chil­dren 10-16 $150 – or just do the rail­way for $25 and $20. They also of­fer a Glow Worm Cave Tour and, at the other ex­treme, Ad­ven­ture Cav­ing.

Best time to go

It’s a year-round ex­pe­ri­ence, de­part­ing two or three times daily. Wet suits, hel­mets and life­jack­ets are pro­vided, and since you’re go­ing to get wet any­way, the weather doesn’t much mat­ter. See cav­er­aft­ - Pamela Wade

It’s a re­lief to float out on your in­ner tube into the bush.

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