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Zipping along ... at the Waitomo Caves Zipline Park circuit

Speed and fun proved to be a heady combination for Julie Haines when she visited Waitomo...

"I feel the need, the need for speed”.

That famous line from my favourite 1980s movie, Top Gun, popped into my head when I visited Waitomo Caves Zipline Park recently. I’ve always thought it would be pretty cool to fly, and when I heard about the zipline park, I figured it would be the next best thing to being a bird. It wasn’t until I was actually standing there on a platform high above the ground, about to leap into thin air, that I factored in the fact I would be going pretty darn fast.

It turns out that fast is fun though, and exhilarating, addictive, slightly scary of course, but above all, highly recommended.

Waitomo Caves Zipline Park comprises 10 ziplines over a 1km circuit. You start out on shorter ziplines to gain confidence, zipping between 100-year-old kahikatea trees, then work your way up to the mother of all ziplines, a heart pumping 280-metre speed demon with commanding views of the Waitomo area.

Instructor Rob Davis opened Waitomo Caves Zipline Park in May 2019 after working for many years for outdoor adventure companies such as tree parks. He wanted to offer some variety to tree parks but maintain the hands-on element, so he created a zipline park with a difference: the participants use the zipline gear themselves.

Our tour started with some hands-on tuition at the base, learning how to attach and detach the carabiners and pulley, where to place our hands to control our speed, and other general safety aspects. Then we walked uphill into the small native forest to put our newly-learned skills to the test.

I brought my 10-year-old daughter along for the experience, and when we climbed the steps to the first platform she baulked. Suddenly flying at bird height attached to a cable seemed like a rather irrational idea.

Circuit built over series of limestone bluffs

We were all a bit worried about how fast the zipline would go and whether we’d crash into the tree at the other end. But after a moment’s hesitation India jumped off the platform, and seconds later triumphantly reached the other end. The rest of us followed, no one fell, and our confidence soared.

As we progressed through the park the ziplines became more challenging and the scenery became more expansive. The circuit is built over a series of limestone bluffs, created by marine fossils when the area was submerged under the ocean about 30 million years ago. Rob pointed out scallop and oyster fossils on one of the bluffs in the forest.

While most of the ziplines finished on platforms, the one that made me nervous ended on jagged looking limestone rocks. As with most of the other ziplines, Rob went ahead first and reached out to make sure we all landed safely. It seemed like a terribly long way to fly at high speed, but when Rob told me it was probably only around 80 metres, I realised the 280-metre line at the end was going to be massive!

After whizzing through the air for a while we stopped briefly for photos at a lookout with scenic views over Waitomo. There are around 300 caves in the region and it was weird to think of the hidden world underneath the countryside around us.

Before becoming a zipline park the hillside was used for cattle grazing. Rob is beautifying the area by replanting some of the pasture in cabbage trees and flax, and he pointed out the regenerating ferns which have benefitted from the absence of hungry farm animals.

The penultimate zipline was one of my favourites — soaring above the picturesque countryside, towards a stand of trees with a narrow gap for the zipliner to squeeze through. The largest person in our group gently skimmed his feet across the tree tops as he flew overhead.

“People think they want to be high but really you want to be close to things,” Rob said later, when I told him that flying between the trees was one of the best parts of the experience.

And then it was time for the climax, the white-knuckle 280-metre line, not only the longest but also the fastest at a terrifyingly thrilling 80kmh. The wind buffeted our faces and spun our bodies around as we barrelled along the cable, faster than the speed limit on the nearest road. While we had controlled our own brake speed on the earlier ziplines, Rob used special braking equipment to ensure we all jolted safely to a halt on this high-speed ride.

Unfortunately, time flies as fast as a zipline, and all too soon our fun morning came to an end. We walked past the learner ziplines as we returned to the carpark, and wondered why we felt so scared in the beginning.

During the 90 minutes we’d gained a lot of confidence, learned some new skills, and gained an appreciation for speed. I found out afterwards courtesy of Google that most small birds fly around 40kmh, so although we didn’t travel as fast as Maverick in Top Gun, we did fly twice as fast as a bird.

© Copyright Julie Haines 2022

IT’S A BIGGIE: India Haines flies 280 metres at high speed across the Waitomo countryside.All pictures by Julie Haines
Scenic views from the zipline circuit: Limestone bluffs are dotted around the Waitomo countryside, hiding a secret world of tomos and caves below.
AMONG THE TREES: India Haines tackles the ziplines in the forest.
COMING IN TO LAND: Instructor Rob Davis helps ensure a safe arrival for a zipliner on their way to landing on a limestone bluff.