Surfing panic and dealing with claustrophobia

Last updated on January 22, 2024

Glowing Adventures Waitomo

Somewhere between New Plymouth and Waitomo I lost my shit. I was looking up the directions for our boat trip into some caves when I saw the line “No need to bring anything, we provide all the necessary gear”. Gear? I thought I was headed to a leisurely boat ride into a cave filled with glow worms – a cave large enough to fit a boat. The need for “gear” suggested something that was causing my nerves to jangle. And reading the website did nothing to abate that fear; I was on my way to a three-hour caving trip including two hours underground. This is not what someone prone to claustrophobia wants to hear.

I first found out I had issues with claustrophobia when I was deep inside the Cu-Chi tunnels in Vietnam, bats flying past my face and loose dirt upon my hands. I was on hands and knees, head to tail with a trail of tourists navigating the Viet Cong’s tracks when I lost sight of the person ahead and came to a crossing. Unsure which way to turn, I panicked. All I could think was “out”. I wanted out of there at once and the fear dialled up to a hundred. It was the first time I’d felt the wave of claustrophobic fear – the stifling panic of being trapped and far from daylight.

I found my way out of those tunnels and since then have tended to avoid similar adventures. I can hold myself together on the London tube or in a cellar –places where I’m subterranean but able to stand up – but small spaces scare me. If you have to squeeze through a little tunnel to get there, you can likely count me out. I have, on occasion, faced that fear and willed myself through the panic, like in Capilla del Monte where I squeezed through a gap and felt triumphant on the other side. But in that case, I could see the sky; I wasn’t contending with darkness.

Not for me

As you can imagine, caving has never been on my wish list. Like donning a wing suit or free diving, I put it in the “not for me” pile, skimming over its mention and being content without its presence. But now I was signed up for three hours of the sport. It wasn’t the most extreme version, but it was enough to make me scared. The seemingly easy option would have been to call and cancel, but by that time another annoying trait of mine was at play: I hate to chicken out. On one hand I could try and face the fear, or on the other hand I could back out and then be disappointed in myself. It was a Catch 22, stuck between fear and shame.

Backed into a corner, it was at that point that I lost my cool. I got mad at Steve for either not looking into it properly or failing to tell me what it involved. I got mad at myself for not reading the website. And most of all I got mad at the fear; I hated its power and felt no choice but to face it down. But of course, that meant I had to go caving.

Travel claustrophobia Waitomo

I read all 87 reviews on TripAdvisor, none less than good and the vast majority rated excellent. They all, without fail, loved it. The tour – Glowing Adventures – is a small family operation in the owner’s backyard that is also home to some caves. Only six people can go at a time and unlike the main Waitomo tourist caves, which are fitted out with walkways and ropes, these are completely untouched. Even to me, this sounded more attractive; I just wished I could somehow experience it  in broad daylight.

The thing that cinched my decision was the reviews that said “if you’re up for it, there are some small gaps to crawl through flat on your belly. The rewards are definitely worth it”. I didn’t care about those rewards, I was just overjoyed to hear this was optional. I would not be doing that.

Staring into the abyss

Fast forward a few hours and I’m staring into that gap – a gap so small, narrow and curved that it was impossible to see what lay on the other side. By this time, I’m all decked out in the “gear” that had triggered my fear. My gum boots, hard hat and fleece are totally caked in mud after a two-hour adventure wading through streams, climbing over boulders and navigating through the darkness.

I’m shocked to have come this far. I almost didn’t make it past the first corner. When we first entered the cave and daylight disappeared, a wave of panic came rushing and I turned to Steve and whispered “I really don’t think I can do this”. The internal scream “get me out” was resounding and my breath shortened in its shadow. I took a breath and asked our guide, Ash, how deep into this cave we’d go. We wouldn’t see daylight for at least 45 minutes. Ash acknowledged in calming tones that it was strange feeling, entering a cave, but that this journey was entirely safe. All I had do was concentrate on my footing and everything else would be fine. A combination of stubbornness, deep breaths and Ash’s reassurance made me resolve to keep on going.

Travel claustrophobia-5

So here I was, a couple of hours later, safely out the other side of cave number one and onto number two. We had already seen the magical glowworms and this was the optional cave I’d previously decided to skip. It came with warnings of very low ceilings and, of course, the tunnel at the end, which could only be crossed by shuffling – army style – on your belly for several metres. I’d got that far out of stubbornness, but at the entrance to the gap, I had a new problem: all I could think of was earthquakes.

Catastrophic thinking

I’m not only prone to claustrophobia, I also have what a therapist once told me is known as “catastrophic thinking” – I easily think the worst. Ash had been talking about how different earth formations are made when he simply mentioned the word “earthquake”. My mind had leapt on it and the panic had returned full tilt, bent on thoughts of doom and the wake of an earthquake’s destruction. I was so scared of the possibility that I couldn’t even say it out loud and ask Ash if earthquakes happen in that part of NZ. Instead I bottled it in, breathed and tried my best not to roll with the waves of panic.

Travel claustrophobia - Glowing adventures - Waitomo Caves
These were some of the first low ceilings we traversed – nothing in comparison to the final gap!

By that time, we were deep into the cave, having crawled beneath a string of challengingly low ceilings, so I had a few options now to choose from: sit tight where I was and let the others go in further while I waited for their return; find my way back to the entrance alone; or continue into the darkness with my team of five. I chose companionship; if there was going to be an earthquake I wanted to be with Steve when it happened. 

And that is how I found myself crawling belly-down through a tiny tunnel inside a cave – the very thing I had been sure I wouldn’t do. On the other side was the reward that the Tripadvisors had talked of: a beautiful, unspoilt cave, filled with crystal clear water and dotted with ancient stalactites. We turned off our headlamps and experienced total darkness.

Not over yet

I’d like to say that at that point I felt a total sense of calm or euphoria at facing fear, but I still had the whisper of “earthquake” in my ear and the prospect of getting back out. It was a one-way street into cave number two so we had the same to navigate again. I wasn’t in full-on panic; I had rode back down to something manageable, but I wouldn’t fully relax until we were back out in the brightness of daylight.

As humans we’re often set on conquering fear; there’s glory in the extreme and people take it to the limit, scaling mountains and going beyond what was ever thought possible. I’m not one of those people; danger has a shape for me and there are limits I’m happy to keep. But I’m pleased I delved into those caves. It wasn’t a dangerous pursuit – my fear was primal rather than real – and that’s the type of feeling I like to face, learning to ride the waves of panic. Claustrophobia is not my only fear and over the years, I’ve been getting better at surfing panic. The swell comes in and you have a choice to sit with it or struggle. To struggle is the route to defeat so you try to face it and ride back down. It gets a little easier each time, but never stops being hard.

Each time is something to be proud of.

A muddy me after the whole adventure
A muddy me after the whole adventure

P.S. I’m sorry some of these photos are a bit rubbish. We couldn’t bring the big camera and the lighting was dismal.

4 thoughts on “Surfing panic and dealing with claustrophobia”

  1. I got such a good sense while I was reading this of how you were feeling and what an accomplishment this was. Congratulations of getting through it 🙂

  2. I can totally relate as I don’t like caves either and also get claustrophobic. I had a similar experience in Thailand where we had to swim through a dark cave which filled up with waves! Argh even the reward doesn’t feel great after the feelings of panic. Well done though and very well written!

  3. I would have to do a lot of psyching myself out from being claustrophobic doing that, but what an amazing thing to do. I imagine you’re always thankful for having pushed through.

  4. What a great story, even though I don’t have claustrophobia or catastrophic thinking I can totally understand you: I am scared of heights (and I have been to New Zealand too…hanging bridges?).


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