The river was flooded; it rushed by, brown and turgid water. It gushed up over the banks, covering bushes and reeds, tree roots. The water even rose up to some of the lower branches.
The tour guides in both caves we visited marveled at the height of the waters, filled by hours of heavy falls from today and yesterday. The water levels were so high that the blackwater rafting tours were cancelled and our glowworm boat ride was truncated; the usual exit from the cave was impassable due to the height of the river water.
The entire area where we were visiting, Waitomo, is pocked with caves and tomos, holes in the surface of the green pastoral landscape.
Waitomo, in Maori, means “where the water enters the ground.” Wai = water, tomo = hole.
I peered over the simple wooden barrier, my eye following the steep incline down to the dark roiling brown water, more than 40 feet below. And I called for Charlotte at the top of my lungs again.
She didn’t answer.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a child going missing. For much of our time in New Zealand, the kids have happily walked the line of security right at our side and sheer freedom off on their own. Many of the tramps we have taken have offered the opportunity for the girls (12 and 9.5 years old) to skip off ahead of us.
There have been trails that are safe enough (like the Abel Tasman Great Walk) for Evelyn and Charlotte to explore out of our sight, as long as they didn’t get so far ahead that they couldn’t hear if we called out to them.
Back in Waitomo, James and I were treating this walk, the Ruakuri walkway, as a short and relatively safe hike. After all, it’s only a 30 minute return hike from the carpark. The trail is well-marked, and it was broad daylight.
The kids had balked at hiking when we told them our plan, having already walked about 2kms (1.2 miles) underground. But James and I were adamant… with a 90 minute drive back to our lodgings for the night, we wanted to stretch our legs out more before getting back in the car.
Their griping and complaining soon faded and the kids scampered ahead of us, expressing surprise and amazement at the river, cresting so high above its usual bounds. The landscape around us was a combination of green and gray, all glistening in the fresh dripping rainwater. The river had ground its way through the rocky valley through which we now walked, leaving behind limestone cliffs on both sides.
It was a magical, meandering path, including a natural archway and two caves.
With all three kids in front of me and James, we walked hand in hand, enjoying a rare moment of quiet.
We climbed up some stairs on the trail and then down, coming upon Evelyn and Calvin waiting up for us.
“Where’s Charlotte?” James asked.
Evelyn kind of shrugged.
“Was she with you?” we asked. Evelyn and Calvin both said Charlotte had been with them but that they hadn’t seen here for the last couple minutes.
I didn’t panic at that moment.
The trail split to the left and the right where Evelyn and Calvin were standing. I figured (rightly, it turned out), that this part of the trail was a small loop before walkers returned back to the carpark.
James went to the left and I went to the right, calling for Charlotte.
My voice echoed off the limestone walls and ferns.
I still wasn’t that scared. It was easy to conceive of a circumstance under which Charlotte could have run off ahead. Surely she’d realize she had gone too far ahead and turn back, or even go all the way around the loop and run into James from the other direction.
A couple minutes later, I returned to Evelyn and Calvin, both of whom were looking worried.
James hadn’t found her either, and we both were getting more scared. About 5 minutes had passed in searching for Charlotte.
I still thought that perhaps my little trickster, had hidden away near the trail. If she had done that, as she has in the past, she perhaps waited too long to reveal herself and now was scared that we would be angry when we found her. I called in a calming voice, “Charlotte, if you can hear me, please answer. I’m not going to be angry, we just want you to come out.”
That’s when I entered the cave mouth again and looked down into the angry waters so far below…
At this point, James had backtracked down an alternate route toward the carpark, calling Charlotte’s name. He sprinted there and then back with no sign of Charlotte.
That’s when we both got really scared.
James got out his cell phone and prepared to call emergency services, but we decided to hurry back to the carpark just in case she had walked further back than James did when he was searching for her.
Our calls of her name reverberated off the valley walls. I brought up the rear with Calvin, Evelyn jogged ahead of me, and James was in the front. The trail followed the raging river, gushing past us much faster than we could walk.
As we neared the carpark after a full 15 minutes of searching, I spied James ahead, hurrying toward me. Holding his hand was Charlotte.
The relief was profound. While I had worked hard to hold my imagination back from sensational and horrifying images, I admitted to myself then that I had been surveying the eddying pools and flowing river water for Charlotte’s sweater.
It took me nearly an hour to calm all the way back down and to stop feeling shaky.
After reuniting and hugging and crying, Charlotte explained that she had actually diverged from the main trail even earlier than we had thought: she took an early lefthand turn in the trail that said “carpark.” Shen then waited for us at a pavilion near the carpark until finally James found her 15 to 20 minutes later.
James and I took the golden opportunity to go over the rules for what to do if one gets separated from the rest of the group: stay still–never continue on or double back. We also reasserted the rule about not getting too far or too behind.
It’s a lesson I hope that Evelyn, Charlotte, and Calvin never forget.