Guiding people out of the ordinary at Discover Waitomo

December 17, 2018

Taking people into underground cave systems is the ultimate bonding experience, says Angus Stubbs, and well-trained guides make sure guests who arrive as strangers leave feeling like friends.

Angus is the people and safety advisor for Discover Waitomo, which offers a range of cave experiences and tours for all ages and abilities in the central North Island.

Discover Waitomo’s cave guides are currently enrolled in the New Zealand Certificate in Outdoor Leadership (Level 4) – Caving strand, through Skills Active Aoteroa, the industry training organisation for outdoor recreation.

The guides lead a range of different tours that require different skills, Angus says.

The ‘Black Labyrinth’ tour involves cave tubing through a glow-worm-studded passageway and jumping off small waterfalls, he says. The tour takes three hours and has two staff leading 12 clients.

“The next tour we created is the ‘Black Abyss’ where a group of eight abseils into a 3-metre deep shaft, then they zipline through the dark, under glow-worms, and tube down a river. This takes five hours, and staff need to be trained in single rope technique to guide this tour.”

And the most recent tour, he adds, is the Ruakuri cave tour, which is a two-hour interpretive walk through the same cave system, and is wheelchair accessible. Staff need to have excellent group management skills as well as knowledge of entomology, geology, Māori culture and local history.

With the Skills Active qualification, Discover Waitomo is able to tailor the nationally-recognised training framework to match its own unique setting and needs. For them, this means a focus on kaitiakitanga (guardianship), manaakitanga (hospitality) and whānaungatanga (family), and a central philosophy of having fun.

“The beauty of an onsite training programme is that, through the Skills Active qualification, we can teach people all the hard skills, and lead them towards what is required as far as aptitude is concerned. But what we really look for is fun, outgoing people, who love people,” Angus says.

“That is the big thing, because they are with people day in, day out, they are always ‘onstage’, and they’ve got to love hanging out with people.”

Staff come out of their training with consistent and reliable skills, he adds, and fully equipped to provide visitors with safe, informative and super-fun adventures.

Using an industry training qualification also means that by the time staff have got their qualification, they are already fully inducted into the business and up-to-speed with all of its systems and processes – so they are productive right away.

For Angus, it’s definitely the people element that makes him love his job. It’s fun, and a privilege, he explains, to be there with people as they experience stepping out of their ordinary lives for a few hours.

“It is one of those crazy bonding experiences where you really feel like a team. When you’re a tourist you don’t often get that. Here, you get to interact with our guides, who are totally passionate about this environment. And you get to grow a little bit yourself as well.

“The cave environment is something different. It might be being in the dark or going underground. All sorts of little things that are so unusual in your everyday life. We strip you of everything you know at the beginning of the tour, put you into this weird outfit, and take you into a cave where you jump off waterfalls! it’s a very unusual and extremely fun experience.”