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Waitomo cavers turn to tree planting

Their workplace is usually inside Waitomo’s famous cave network.

But for a group of cave guides their attention has turned to an environmental initiative above ground in the face of the sudden tourism downturn.

Waitomo Adventures, a longstanding tourism operator in the area, is redeploying staff into a tree planting programme around the Lost World Cave entrance.

“We have got all these highly trained professional staff with nothing to do,” says Waitomo Adventures owner Nick Andreef.

“We are desperate to try and keep the team together and find a positive outlet for their energy.”

The company, which has been operating for 33 years, guides visitors through abseiling, black water rafting and underground adventuring.  

The company, founded by Nick in 1987, hosts mainly overseas tourists who want to experience some of New Zealand’s best adventure tourism, in Waitomo’s ‘underground playground.’

The company normally has around 23 staff but is currently unable to operate under the Covid-19 Alert system.  

While the caving operation has been put into hibernation, staff have started to plant native trees along a two kilometre stretch above one of the caves they use, Lost World.

It was a job first started some 25 years ago.  “We have already planted about half of it, so now when you are approaching the cave you are walking under canopy.  You are back in native bush.” 

Nick has rallied his staff to plant between 8,000 and 12,000 more native trees which helps retain good water quality in the area.

The tree planting is being paid for with support from Waikato Regional Council and the cave landowner. 

Staff have not seen each other since the lockdown so everyone is keen to catch up – whilst maintaining social distancing of course! 

“They are not only very good at this high tech rope work, they really care about the environment that we work in, so this is a chance for them to see each other and do something really positive for the long-term health of the cave system.”

Like all tourism operators, Waitomo Adventures’ operations have ground to a halt, due to the Covid-19 pandemic which hit in March and led to the closure of New Zealand’s borders to tourists.

“The company itself can’t operate under level three, or even two by the look of it.”

“Our business is 80 per cent international tourists and 20 per cent New Zealanders.  So, when the borders were closed that was 80 per cent of our clients just gone.  And under lockdown of course that’s 100 per cent of them just gone.”

The timing of the lockdown, right at the end of the high season, was a blow.

“For us what it did was rob us of that last two months of summer trading and that is usually your opportunity to save a few acorns for what we know is going to be a low winter season.”

“So that wasn’t able to happen. And now of course we are into winter so even when lockdown is removed, we know it is going to be poor trading right up until next summer.

“And it is actually worse than that, as next summer it is unlikely that internationals are going to be flying again in the absence of a vaccine.”

The best he can hope for at the moment is domestic tourists and Australians.

“So, we might have a bubble with New Zealand and Australia, but that would normally only represent 40 per cent of our turnover.”

Nick encourages New Zealanders to explore their backyard and support local tourism businesses.

He’s also investigating an ambitious plan to create an indoor caving and abseiling experience in Hamilton to diversity his business and bring some of the magic of Waitomo to a larger centre.

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