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What is Blackwater Rafting?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2014
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Blackwater rafting is a form of extreme sport which involves floating on underground rivers, navigating networks of caves and small falls. Some people prefer the term “cave tubing,” which they feel is a more accurate description of the sport. Several firms around the world offer blackwater rafting tours, most notably in New Zealand, where the sport originated.

The term “blackwater rafting” is a bit of a misnomer, because the water isn't black, and there are no rafts involved. Instead, participants wear wetsuits to protect themselves from chills, and then they don inflated inner tubes. The inner tubes keep them afloat, and cushion them from potentially painful bumps against the walls of the caves they navigate. Most blackwater rafters also wear head lamps, so that they can see what they are doing.

Typically, blackwater rafting is done in a group, and in many cases the members of the group link up with each other to ensure that they will not be separated. Once everyone has suited up and jumped in the water, the trip begins. Depending on the caves involved, this subterranean twist on rafting may be relatively calm, or it may be a physically demanding adventure; some trips even combine rock climbing with the blackwater rafting.

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This sport emerged in the late 1980s in Waitomo, New Zealand. This area is famous for its natural beauty and large caves, and initially blackwater rafting was designed as a special treat for people who were particularly bold or perhaps foolhardy. With refinement, blackwater rafting has been made accessible to people in a wide range of physical conditions, with most companies offering several levels of difficulty to cater to casual vacationers as well as serious outdoor enthusiasts. It is also possible to book trips for corporate retreats and other trust building or bonding groups.

Caves can be quite interesting to navigate, as they have an assortment of intriguing natural features, from strange rock formations to unique phosphorescent fungi. On a blackwater rafting trip, people may see a wide range of interesting things underground, and they can also experience the sensation of being hurtled over underground rapids and drifting at a leisurely rate through large underground pools.

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