As I age I’ve noticed two things:
1) I’m knackered (constantly)
2) I’m scared of stuff.
The knackered bit is because I was daft enough to think four kids was a nice round number (‘2’ is nice and round … even ‘3’ has lovely curves… what was I thinking… ‘4’ is BENT OUT OF SHAPE). There are solutions for being knackered: long coffees, early nights, Instagram edit function. But the fear is harder. I’ve long since stopped being a big brave girl in the face of the serious stuff (nuclear war, disease, slow WiFi): now is most definitely the time to PANIC. But worse still is that I’m now sweating the small stuff too. The new ‘me’ is now so risk averse I make my dear departed Pop (Grandpa Potter) look like Evel Knievel and he practically passed out with terror when we did tipple-tails on the living room carpet. I’m a scaredy-cat, a snowflake, a yellow belly. And you can’t get cream for that.
But NO MORE. As well as being an active member of the Armchair Resistance, I’m also using this trip to relocate my Inner Ninja. Part One of my training involved white water rafting some Class 3 rapids in Bhutan, something I’d normally cross the Milky Way to avoid. Part Two saw me walk the length of a pitch black railway tunnel in Australia, all alone. Yes, it’s hardly the first half hour of Wonder Woman, I admit. But it’s a start.
And now we come to Waitomo Caves. We’re signed up to do what’s known as ‘Black Water Rafting’. It’s floating down an underground river on inner tubes. The river is swollen after torrential rains. The cave is narrow, low-ceilinged. I’m claustrophobic. Plus I have to drag my 3KG of excess baggage into an already wet wetsuit, breaking my nails, breaking my spirit, breaking my resolution never to get photographed alive in a wetsuit. This place basically broke me DOWN to Chinatown.
I’m thinking of turning back when we get to the cave mouth. This is pretty much POTHOLING, something I’m so horrified that people actually do for fun that I lie awake at night. We descend into the abyss with our ‘guide’ and it’s clear from the off that he’s not taking any of my shit. ‘This gravel’s a bit of a safety hazard’ I say, weakly, as I slide into hell’s own mouth. No mercy. On we trudge.
Before we actually get to the black water bit, we pose for a selfie with the glow-worms. Yes, it’s our friendly invertebrates again. They hang out on cave roofs and produce strands of goop (official term) out their bums. Then they turn on their bum-lights and it’s like Regent’s Street at Christmas. Flies get attracted to the light, head for the source and end up stuck in the goop, where they’re reeled up to their deaths as worm-food. I have sympathy for these flies. It’s possibly my least favourite way to die.
We also happen upon a pile of animal bones, the remains of livestock that fell into the cave complex then thrashed around wildly trying to work out why the hell anyone would pay for the privilege, until they were stilled for ever more. It’s a pretty cheery place.
And then suddenly we’re up to our waists in mucky water. We get in the tubes, turn out the lights and hook ankle-under-armpit in a human chain of misery. The ceiling glows with pin-pricks of light as we get towed along and I think it’s meant to be atmospheric and awe-inspiring but cold water is seeping down the back of my neck and Alice’s booties stink from the last sucker who wore them.
But floating up to our necks in dreck will seem like a weekend in Positano compared to what’s next. An actual slide has been dragged down here and installed over a waterfall. ‘I’ll go first’ I say brightly. My kids and my husband are suitably impressed. Off I go, arms crossed in corpse position. It’s extremely fast, I bash my elbow on a rocky outcrop half way down and am then shot off the end into a raging whirlpool, completely submerged in chilly, mucky worm-juice. I drink some.
Finally, the best bit of the whole experience: the staircase out. Never has daylight seemed so … superior to worm-light. I can now chalk this one up to ‘Already done it so don’t have to do it again’, a category which includes bungee jumping, sky-diving and hypno-birthing. Of course this doesn’t so much mean that I’m getting braver, more that I’m getting increasingly concerned about being seen as cowardly. Which is just another kind of fear. Damn.