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Rocking the underground thrills in Waitomo Caves for over 30 years, Black Water Rafting are the pioneers in New Zealand’s adventure tourism movement. This unique adventure has grown from its intrepid beginnings into an NZ Must-Do. Take a quick and quirky history lesson with our 10 fast facts of how Waitomo’s caving originals hit the big time.
1. The discovery of the den: Long before Black Water Rafting started floating through Ruakuri Cave, it was a pack of wild dogs who called this cave home. First discovered by local Maori 300-400 years ago, it was a hunter, gathering birds that stumbled upon the caves and was set upon by the dogs! Hence the name Ruakuri which means ‘den of dogs’.
2. Chief Tinorau brings the tourists: It wouldn’t be until the end of the 19th century that Ruakrui Cave was first properly explored. Local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and surveyor Fred Mace made the first expedition in 1887, floating down the cave’s underground river. Chief Tinorau then started showing tourists through the cave in 1904, though it was walking rather than tubing tours that were the order of the day
3. The original adventure: Come the late 80s, Waitomo locals and Black Water Rafting founders Peter Chandler and Josh Ash were plotting new ways to show off the caves to intrepid travelers. While Waitomo Caves walking tours were already in full swing they wanted to take cave exploration to the next level. Perfecting the art of tubing down the underground streams and they developed Black Water Rafting in Ruakuri Cave. Wetsuits on, inner tubes attached and stunning glowworms at max, the original tour was ready to kick off.
4. Before there was Bungy: Come 1987 and Black Water Rafting was one of New Zealand’s very first adventure tourism operators to burst onto the scene. A whole year before commercial bungy jumping launched, Black Water Rafting already had intrepid locals and tourists jumping and floating through underground streams. Fuelled by a passion for caving and a healthy dose of Kiwi ingenuity, the early days were grassroots. Driving around town in an old Austin ute, they’d sell their tours to any travelers up for a unique experience.
5. A family business: The first guide to join Black Water Rafting ranks was Angus Stubbs. Waitomo born and bred the caves run in his blood. From the tender age of five, he was already hoping in and out of caves, helping the local caving club discover new holes. Thirty years on and Angus is now the Operations Manager and loves the caves as much as ever. Keeping the family legacy going, his daughter Rachel is of the friendly faces you’ll find behind the desk at the Black Water Rafting centre!
6. Tube Ingenuity: Indispensable cave accessory since day one, it’s the humble tyre tube that’s the star of the Black Water Rafting equipment line-up. While the team no longer hang around car tyre shops picking up the unused inner tubes, the rubber rings used today are exactly the same type as the original tours. Sitting around your waist or attached to your derriere, they’re the ultimate floatation device that makes all the bobbing and leaping a whole lot more fun.
7. Longevity of the Limestone: The tours may have evolved since they first launched in 1987 but the ancient caves they take place in have remained exactly the same. The limestone found in Waitomo started forming 30 million years ago, and the caves were formed 1 million years ago. Careful cave preservation and a specialized Environmental Officer means even with the tours this natural wonder remains in its original state.
8. Link to the to the Lord of the Rings: Over the years Black Water Rafting has hosted more than a few famous faces, and in recent years it’s been all things Middle Earth bringing fame to the cave’s corners. Andy Serkis spent time channeling his Gollum vibe in Ruakuri’s depths, sound effects for the first Hobbit film were recorded here and Sir Peter Jackson himself went Black Water Rafting in 2012 just before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released!
9. Soup to warm the soul: A post-cave chat around a bowl of steaming soup has always been the way Black Water Rafting groups wind up their epic tours. Back in the day, it was the local campground who loaned their hot showers to chilly cavers, while the guides served up homemade pumpkin soup alongside white bread and margarine (90’s staples!). The white bread has been upgraded for bagels and the showers are now on site but the enthusiasm and caving conviviality stay the same.
10. Anyone can do it!: Making adventure accessible to all, the team are experts in making sure everyone comes out of the caves buzzing from the experience. Developing the adrenaline-charged Black Abyss tour alongside the original Black Water Rafting tour, both can be tackled by anyone with an appetite for adventure. From an 88-year-old woman to those who are deaf, blind and tetraplegic, Black Water Rafting makes the extreme safe and the challenging conquerable! It’s no coincidence that Ruakuri Cave is also home to the Southern Hemisphere’s only fully wheelchair accessible cave tour.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. is New Zealand's first Black Water Rafting adventure operator. We’ve been sharing thrills and excitement since 1987, and have experienced guides to take you safely through the stunning underworld of Ruakuri Cave.