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Blackwater rafting, Kiwi-style Add to ...

Our half-day adventure started early in the morning in a van, careening around the curvy road. There are no straight roads anywhere in New Zealand. Brendan and Rus, our tour guides for the day, were planning the day's excursions and had picked us up at our motel in Westport. Their banter was difficult to tune in as we had only been in New Zealand for five days and were still adjusting to the Kiwi accent. They thought we sounded like Americans, until we suggested that they sounded like Australians. From that moment on, Brendan and Rus branded our family of four "Team Canada."

The blackwater rafting adventure in Paparoa National Park was one of the many planned highlights of our four-week road trip exploring New Zealand. (The sport gets its name from the pitch-black caves that rafters drift through.) Paparoa National Park covers 30,000 hectares of very wild land in the northwest coastal area of the South Island. It was created as a reserve in 1987 with carefully chosen boundaries to encompass a diverse range of ecosystems from karst limestone cave formations, rain forests, granite summits and the famous scenic attraction of coastal cliffs and blowholes known as Pancake Rocks.

The tour guides brought my husband and me, along with our children, aged 13 and 11, to Norwest Adventures' underworld rafting base in Charleston, which consisted of a shack of adventure gear at the back of a roadside diner. Charleston is a tiny village, about 25 kilometres south of Westport, left over from the gold rush of the 1800s -- blink while driving through and you will miss it altogether. At the peak of the gold fever around 1870, Charleston's population swelled to 40,000. Today, the population is recorded by one local mining historian as "130 in the summer and 80 plus one old grump in the winter." We collected our required gear -- full wetsuits, helmets with lights and life jackets -- and piled into vans with seven other tourists. Access to Paparoa National Park is limited, so the vans drove us down a small hilly road to a miniature train station in the jungle. Somewhat reminiscent of the train in Jurassic Park, the Nile River Rainforest Train chugged on narrow tracks thorough the jungle while Marilyn, the train driver, gave a little spiel about the park. The topography of limestone cliffs and rock formations reminded us of the Niagara Escarpment, except we were passing large fern trees and lush jungle foliage alive with the sound of exotic birdcalls. Brendan and Rus hung out the sides of the moving train to hack away the overgrowth of vegetation with garden loppers to keep the path clear.

We arrived at a clearing in the bush and disembarked. The trees were buzzing with the sound of cicadas. We found our change area, which consisted of a large wooden pallet on the ground in the clearing. Brendan explained that peeing in the tour company's wetsuits was "not an option." If anyone felt that three hours would be too long, they were free to use the "facilities," he told us, while gesturing into the jungle behind some trees. I strode up to find some privacy but had to watch my step, as there were huge plops of cow scat on the jungle floor. Cows in the jungle? Apparently, local farmers allow their cattle to graze in the clearing.

We divided into two groups, Team Canada with Brendan, and the seven others -- a couple of local Kiwis and some Americans -- collectively labelled the Black Sheep, with Rus. We collected our inner tubes and waded through the refreshing water, crossing the Nile River to reach the steps leading to the cave entrance. The Black Sheep used the footbridge instead, which had been built in 1876 during the gold rush, one of the earliest suspension bridges built in New Zealand. After climbing a hill of about 80 wooden steps, and feeling quite warm in the wetsuits on this hot summer day in February, we arrived at the mouth of the cave known as the Triclops Entrance. This large hole in the side of the hill is large enough to walk into upright. The cave system was relatively unmodified; save for a few rope trails on the floor that a group of Boy Scouts had installed about 20 years ago.

The Nile River cave was full of fresh air and never felt constricting. As the river originates in the cave system, the water level must be sufficiently low for blackwater rafting tours to operate. Brendan, with his vast knowledge of the geology of this underground karst landscape, explained the differences between stalagmites and stalactites. We saw unbelievably strange formations of calcium carbonate that cavers refer to as angel wings, columns, straws and ice cream falls, according to their appearance. Brendan reminded us to touch nothing, as oil from human fingers halts the calcification process and stops the incredibly slow growth of the magnificent underground features.

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