When, in the darkness, the first lights suddenly appear, tiny and countless, like stars up in the night heavens, then all is forgotten – the strain, the excitement, the fear.
Even the darkness, which for the past two hours had covered the group deep down in Ruakuri Cave, is forgotten.
The cave belongs to the Waitomo Caves, a labyrinth of caverns, sinkholes and rivers criss-crossing beneath the green hills of New Zealand, about 200 kilometres south of Auckland.
For thousands of years the subterranean waterways have been carving out tunnels and caverns in the soft limestone. Each year, up to 450,000 visitors are drawn to Waitomo to see for themselves the fascinating underground world of countless stalagmites and stalactites.
Most people explore the caves by foot or in boats.
But on a recent day, nine visitors led by Matthew Atkins were out searching for adventure in a place called the Black Labyrinth. It’s an underground tube-rafting tour led by the 27-year-old cave guide, lasting more than three hours and at places going as deep as 65 metres below ground.
The path getting there is slippery. The group makes its way step by step over wet boulders into the cave that, from a distance, looks like a dark eye staring out of the landscape.
The large inner tubes that the people are carrying make it all the more difficult to keep their balance. Helmets protect their heads in any collisions with the cave walls, and diving suits protect them from the river’s icy cold waters.
One after the other, the trekkers wade into the water, the tubes around their bottoms, and off they go, paddling with hands and feet to try to avoid striking the stony obstacles jutting up out of the stream.
The headlamps on their helmets shoot out beams of light against the moist walls. Slowly, the group floats along past towering stone formations.
But suddenly things speed up. A slight current catches the inner tubes and drags them ever deeper inside the cave. The passageways become narrower and the ceiling ever lower.
“Now let’s practice the limbo dance,” Atkins calls out to the group, as he bends his torso backward, flat atop the tube as he manoeuvres his way through a narrow shaft.
At the end of the tunnel the space broadens out again and the group breaths a sigh of relief. Now they proceed on foot a few steps across a dry elevation. And then they hear it: a waterfall plunging 3 metres down into the darkness.
“Now backwards on my command!” Atkins calls out, referring to a routine the group had practiced earlier in the daylight. What he is demanding is that they drop from a ledge into the ice-cold lake.
“Don’t think. Just jump,” he commands.
Floating along, the group enters a cave that is as large as a cathedral above their heads. “Turn off the lamps,” Atkins calls out.
And then the magic. Above the trekkers’ heads, the glittering lights of thousands upon thousands of glow-worms convert the cave ceiling into a mass of sparkling galaxies.
The group floats along in this awe-inspiring world of countless tiny lights up above, wishing it will never end.