Caving In New Zealand

In his article in Pelobates No 71, Chris Grimmett gave a concise and unbiased description of the recent caving trip to New Zealand. The following account, taken from the official expedition diary, tells the true story!

It all started as a planned round-the-world trip about three years ago. Unfortunately, two change of jobs and one house move later, we decided we might have to limit our options slightly. However, we did manage to scrounge seven weeks off work over Christmas 1995, and so the great New Zealand caving trip was born.

Our plan was as follows: We would leave the UK at the end of November taking our own personal caving kit with us; we would arrive in New Zealand and stay with relatives where we would make contact with the local caving clubs and arrange access to carbide, ropes and caves; we would meet Chris Grimmett, Sheelagh Halsey and Chris Fry mid-December and travel down to the South island and go caving. Simple, eh? Now here's what really happened:

Saturday 25 November

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, so after checking in, headed for the bar. Chatted with a couple also on our flight and managed to wangle a beer out of them. Once on the flight we were cleared in about 30 minutes. We were seated next to the passengers from hell. They constantly ordered more drinks throughout the 11 hour flight. Mutton dressed as lamb was sat beside Helen. As the flight went on, her 'well proportioned' bottom gradually oozed through the seat until 'well proportioned' bottom was taking a 'well proportioned' part of Helen's seat too. Still, we got our own back as Helen got a massive nose bleed during the descent into Bangkok and managed to bleed all over her breakfast and clear the seat next to her. 'Blood phobia' is not without its advantages!

Tuesday 28 November

This was part two of the great trip. Bangkok to Singapore took about 7 hours next to Mr Elbows this time.

Wednesday 29 November

I'm not sure exactly when it became Wednesday, what with the flights and the time changes and all that. Anyway, Singapore to Sydney took about 2.5 hours, and Mr Elbows turned out to be Mr Polish War Hero. Sydney to Auckland was another 2.5 hours arriving in New Zealand about 5.30pm. We were worried that customs would turf all our caving and camping gear out to disinfect it, but in fact all they wanted to know was whether it had been used in Australia and whether it was clean. We went straight through to be met by the Relies.

Thursday 30 November

Today was a day for organising. First of all we phoned our main contact Murray Wilson of the Auckland Speleo Group at work. He seemed a bit surprised to hear from us, but arranged to meet at Galbraiths Bar at 7.30pm on Friday. Also asked about carbide and was given a name. He gave us several other names including Jim Henchman who actually keeps the club carbide. We also met Otto, a friendly travel agent who said he could arrange a hire car for us for when the others arrived, which he promptly did.

Friday 1 December

Lava Cave Rangito IslandA day trip to Rangitoto Island, just outside Auckland. We were dropped off at the ferry port for the 9.30am ferry. The ferry trip was short as the island wasn't far away. The island itself is basically a volcano, the last one to erupt in New Zealand, and appeared around 400 years ago. Flora and fauna are gradually moving in on the island, but much of it is still just bare volcanic rock. The time up to the top is meant to be about 1 to 1.5 hours. We decided to get up there as fast as possible before it got any hotter and then amble down. We were glad we did because the hot sun on the black lava stone soon turned the place into an oven.

As we were heading away from the jetty, another British bloke joined us. He was a fat git and made a few sexist comments, so Helen decided to give him a run for his money. We marched up the hill as he puffed and panted behind us. We got to the top in just over 30 minutes and he looked pretty dreadful but was really glad he'd done it. We hadn't really looked at him much under his hat and sunglasses but he then let slip that he had just retired from work!

A little way down from the summit were the lava caves. The path actually goes through a couple of the longest and widest caves, but being keen speleos, we investigated a couple of other tight holes with our Petzl Zooms. Lava caves are an interesting geological feature, but are dead boring speleologically speaking, so we headed back down and waited for the ferry.

Back in Auckland, we headed for Galbraiths to meet Murray. We walked for about 40 minutes uphill to get to the bar for 7.30pm. As we walked, we started to go by the sex shops and massage bars, and began to wonder if this was all a big joke. Anyway, eventually we arrived, went through the door, and we were back in England. It was like a Mr Ben story. The bar sold draught Boddingtons as well as some of their own brews. Murray is the president of the New Zealand Speleological Society, so we were expecting somebody in their forties with a beard. In fact he was unbearded, about 30, and an ex-Brit of six years. He arrived with his girlfriend Rhonda and some other friends. We chatted over food and beer and arranged to go caving with them in Waitomo at the weekend.

Saturday 2 December

We got up early in order to pack and get on the 8.45am coach from Auckland to Waitomo. We arrived at about 1pm to be collected by Murray for the 8km drive up the hill in his little car. The Auckland Speleo Group hut was set in beautiful hilly karst countryside. It was a lovely day and, in true caving tradition, most of the cavers were sitting outside lapping it up.

We pitched camp and got ourselves sorted out, and then sat and chatted to the others. We could have been at Godre Pentre. We met the hut warden and the tackle officer and bought our 2 tins of carbide. Several cavers were ex-poms and knew OFD, Alum Pot, GG, etc, etc. That evening was the ASG Christmas party, and no one really wanted to go caving, so we went for a walk to explore the karst. A lot of the area hasn't been properly explored yet and most of the caves haven't been pushed since there is so much open stuff. We stuck our noses down a few holes before heading back to the camp where festivities were just beginning. There then followed a barby, a small fireworks display, Santa Claus came and went, and then the usual loud music, and much drinking and dancing.

Sunday 3 December

Today would be our first day of proper caving in New Zealand. Got up at about 8.30am at the first signs of life from the hut. Had breakfast and then broke camp quickly so that we would be ready to make a quick getaway. Murray decided to take us down Virginia as a good introduction to New Zealand caves. He drove us about 15km back to Waitomo and then right back into the mountains. We turned off the track and up the hill through a sheep farm. The cave was a short walk across the fields in an obvious depression.

Virginia Cave WaitomoMurray began to rig while we changed. The entrance was a 40m pot into a streamway. Steve descended first, put in a deviation, and carried on down. About 20 feet from the bottom, the rope ran out! After much embarrassment, the pitch head was rerigged and we managed to get to the bottom. We continued upstream, through a squeeze, back to walking passage, and then a climb to the right. This was where the pretties started. We explored this upper level passage briefly. To the right we saw our first glow worm. To the left a squeeze through some flowstone and stal led to a straw filled chamber. Back to the climb up, and an awkward descent to a parallel passage led to a couple of climbs and drops, and then the real pretties - like the columns with crystal gour pools in front of them. A couple of small bosses in the pools had started to 'spread' outwards across the surface of the water and looked like fried eggs. The whole cave was absolutely beautiful and completely unspoilt. As one of the most visited caves in the area Murray reckoned that there was a maximum of six trips down it a year! At the moment the speleological society is trying to set up a system to monitor which caves are visited by whom and how often. We stayed and looked at the formations for a while and then retraced our steps.

Back at the pitch, Murray told us that downstream continued for about 500m, but was small and very muddy, so we headed out. When we got back to the hut, all the others had gone, so we sorted ourselves out, paid our hut fees, and got a lift back to Waitomo where we repitched our tent in a campsite. We decided we wanted to do some more caving before moving on so we went to the caving museum. It was shut! We wandered back to the campsite dejected, but noticed a Black Water Rafting minibus at the building opposite, so we went to investigate and hopefully blagg a trip!. We noticed someone with a Penine T-shirt on, so we introduced ourselves and asked if anyone wanted to go caving. We were invited to freeload the next Black Water Rafting trip at 8.15am the following morning. We jumped at the chance!

Monday 4 December

We woke early, packed up most of the gear, and wandered over to Black Water Rafting for 8.15am. There were only two others on the trip - a couple of Danish divers. We didn't tell them we were on a freeby! The trip often takes upto 12 at a time, so we were lucky. Our guide was called Steve. He was a bit of a joker and didn't like mornings. We got into our wetsuits, jumped into the bus, and drove up the hill for about 5 minutes to a car park. We picked up a large inflated inner tube each and then had to jump backwards off a small jetty into the river, one to prove that we could do it, and two to make us nice and cold before the 10 minute sweat uphill to the cave entrance.

A clamber over some boulders led into a largish chamber with old stal formations. Steve, our guide, pointed out one that looked like a penis. We let our eyes adjust and then went on into the cave. Steve let us wander around a bit and find our own way. We had to climb down a nasty drop which I don't think would usually be on the tourist trip. Then we came to a waterfall and Steve told us there were two ways across. One was to jump straight over the top. The other was to jump into the pool at the top, dive to the bottom and swim through a hole underwater. Steve demonstrated by getting us to switch our own lights off and watch his. Sure enough, his light disappeared underwater and reappeared on the other side. The Danish guy decided to have a go and follow him which of course he couldn't since there was no hole. Steve had simply turned his light off, come back up, hopped over and switched it back on again.

We all jumped over the waterfall and floated down stream on our inner tubes. Then we all joined together in a line, switched off our lights and floated downstream in the light of millions of green glow worms - beautiful! We floated under a pitch and, after a few more 'ups and downs' emerged to daylight. A few walkers were there to take photos of us as we came out. Finally we floated downstream for another 10 minutes back to the van. We were in the cave for about an hour.

We drove back to base and got changed. We were also served tomato soup and toast for free too! Bus loads of people were turning up to do the trip by now, but we just sat there eating and drinking and talking caving. Then we wandered up to the caving museum to reserve our bus out and managed to talk our way into a free trip around the museum as well!

Thursday 7 December

We had moved on to the Coromandel Peninsula in the north-east by now to do some walking. We started early at Broken Hills in the Coromandel Forest Park. Our plan was to climb Hihi (718 metres) via the Water Race Tunnels and Collins Drive, an abandoned gold mine, and then descend into the Kauaeranga Valley to camp. But first the relies wanted show us the Gem of the Boom Creek Walk. This short walk took in another small mine complete with wetters. Wetters are stick-insect like creatures that live in caves and mines. The roof was crawling with them, and some of them were over four inches long!

[Collins Drive Coromandel Peninsula] The walk up the Water Race Track was superb. We quickly disappeared into the bush - it was like a jungle. However, the path was well marked with reflective strips nailed to trees and red tape hung from branches. There were signposts at most of the big junctions too, and walkways and bridges over difficult bits. There was one river crossing which was a bit tricky, but we managed to get across by shinning down a fallen tree. Eventually we arrived at the Water Race Tunnels. A climb up a ladder led through a short tunnel to another track. This led to Collins Drive, a 500 metre long mine through the hillside. At a cross-roads in the middle, two side passages led off, but were blocked up. There were several glow worms along the way as well. We eventually emerged onto the Paton Stream Dam Track. After a while, a track down to the right led to Paton Stream Dam, an old Kauri tree logging dam, which was very impressive.

Back on the main track, we started the long hard slog up onto Hihi. The going was quite tough with two heavy packs and we had to keep stopping for water. Finally we made it. The top of Hihi continued flat and muddy for ages with dead trees dotted among the bracken and ferns. The mud continued for a good while and reminded us of Kinderscout. After ages we started to descend and eventually met another track and a signpost to the campsite. The final descent was quite steep although the path over Short Trestle, an old tramway, was easy going. Then, before we knew it, we were down by the river. We arrived at Trestle View Campground at 7pm - we had started walking at 11am!

Saturday 9 December

Got up really early (7am!) as we faced a long walk (about 20km) to the old mining town of Thames. We had been walking about 40 minutes when we picked up a hitch all the way there. Now we had to wait until 4.30pm before our bus back to Auckland, so we went to the information place to find out what there was to do. In true Speleo style, we decided to head for the old gold mines. Some of the tunnels are up to 1.2 miles long and huge amounts of gold were found in them. The first hole involved a scrabble through bush and, once inside, was filled with concrete a little way in. Spoil sports! The second mine was the official tourist trip, but was closed for three days. So we headed for the mining museum and school instead.

We got in for $1 each as students and an old boy showed us around. He used to weigh the gold in the days of bounty. The museum had all sorts of photos and other interesting things lying around that you could just pick up and look at, a shame really as they will probably deteriorate. Finally we got the bus back to Auckland in time to meet the others at the airport tomorrow.

Sunday 10 December

Got up at 6am and went to pick up Chris, Chris and Sheelagh from the airport. They were already waiting when we got there. We loaded up and headed back to the relies for lashings of tea and toast. Then we had to sort the hire car out. The one we had booked had blown a head gasket and the only other suitable vehicle was in Wellington. In the end we had to book a bus to Wellington to pick the car up there.

In the afternoon we went to the zoo. We managed to get in for free by saying that we were helping the relies (who worked there) with a stock take! We wanted to see the kiwis which we just about could through the half light of their nocturnal housing. We also saw some mere cats from mere tubes with little perspex domes. A very strange man with an umbrella was in the tubes who both Helen and Sheelagh had 'encounters' with. We headed for home at about 6pm, had an exceptionally large barby, and went to bed.

Monday 11 December

Got up early again - 7am today in order to get our bus to Wellington - a nightmare 12 hour coach journey. First of all, amongst much hilarity, we loaded all of our kit onto the wrong coach and had to unload it all again. Our coach driver said that he hoped we had hired a tank rather than a car in Wellington! The coach journey was pretty uneventful and we arrived at about 7pm. We got a taxi bus to the car hire company which, despite them knowing we were coming, was completely empty. We had to phone the manager who was having his tea. The car was a Mark II Toyota Corolla estate. It did indeed look like a tank - brown, enormous and old! We were told that we couldn't do much to it that hadn't been done already and to check the oil regularly. It was ideal for us - an absolute wreck!

Tuesday 12 December

Again got up at about 7am and piled into the car to get our ferry to Picton on the South Island. Got the distinct impression that people were laughing at our car. The ferry crossing was smooth and the scenery beautiful. We arrived at about 12.30pm and phoned our contacts in the South Island, Trevor and Cathy Worthing, who we arranged to meet at their house in Nelson. They were very helpful, giving us information and surveys, and allowing us to use their hut and borrow their ropes.

Wednesday 13 December

Entrance Nettlebed Cave NelsonToday was the start of a three day assault on Nettlebed Cave. The cave is at the top of the Pearce River with a long walk in. Predictably, it started raining. We set off over a footbridge in our wellies as we knew that there would be river crossings to do. For now the path was well marked and well walked. It skirted all around the hillside following the river. The first river crossing came about an hour into the walk. The river was quite fast, but also quite shallow. Chris managed to get across completely dry. The rest of us ended up with at least a wellie full of water, and Helen managed to fall over. From here the path degenerated a little.

We faced about ten river crossings and the river was getting faster by the minute with all the rain, but we didn't consider it dangerous just yet. By the final river crossing, however, we were starting to get worried, so we were very relieved to see the camp. We were aware that the cave might now be flooded, and we didn't know if we would be able to walk out until the water level had dropped, so we pitched our tents and waited to see what the morning would bring.

River crossings Nettlebed cave, NelsonThe rain continued. We had all agreed to keep our packs light for the walk in, so it was a pleasant surprise when five cans of beer and some southern comfort appeared. Chris Grimmett nursed his wounds from the nettles. They are an interesting variation on the British variety with a row of prickles down the middle. To quote Chris Grimmett: "No, they are definitely not nettles. Ouch! Bastard!"

The river was by now a raging torrent and the dry river resurgence was also gushing. Water was obviously backing up in the cave. It had taken over three hours to walk in and the only thing we could do was sit in the tents. We cooked some dinner and then the wildlife started to emerge. First of all a wekka, a great big brown bird like a chicken with a long beak, came poking around. Next came a possum followed by a mouse which spent the night chasing the Grimmetts around their tent.

Thursday 14 December

We woke up to beautiful blue sky and sunshine. However, the rivers were both still raging. We would have to wait before going caving. Our kit steamed, as did the grass, tents, etc. But it was very pleasant basking in the sun and drinking tea.

At about midday we decided that the river had dropped enough and that our kit was dry, so it was time to go caving. We walked up the dry river bed, which was now very wet, until we came to a large 'cave like' entrance which was lovely and cool. We got changed, stashed our rucksacks, and set off in.

First we found ourselves in a large chamber, shortly followed by the first of two climbs. The first one had a handline down it but was actually quite easy, the second didn't but was also easy. We had a survey with us, but missed the 6m climb up the first time, following a well decorated passage instead that looped back towards the entrance. It was old dry passageway with ancient formations and lots of flowstone. Towards the end, a climb up to the left led to a steep slope, "The Volcano", and a large chamber with a pillar in the centre, "Chinese Gongs".

By now we had realised our mistake and retraced our steps. On the way back we noticed some taped off bat skeletons - very interesting! We found the main route on the way back out, a climb up a steep flowstone ramp. An awkward traverse across and a further climb up led into the roof and an interesting draught from the "Hinkle Horn Honking Holes". As we approached the top we could hear the roar. The draught was immense. It blew our carbides out and dust in our eyes. There were three squeezes to get through. The wind rushing past was incredible - the noise changed as you went through - amazing!

Then we found ourselves in well decorated cave with white stal this time. We went past beautiful long straws where the water level had obviously changed some thousands of years ago. The walls were striped and there were false floors and strawberry shaped formations which must have formed under water. We crossed a deep pool and came to a short ladder climb, the "Up and Overs". We stopped just before the climb back down and turned around. We had scarcely scratched the surface of the cave, but time was against us, and it had been a good introduction.

We got back to the campsite at about 7pm and cooked dinner. We spent the evening around the campfire drinking southern comfort and looking at the stars. It was a really clear night and the sky was bright. The possum came out to see us again.

Friday 15 December

Got burnt out of the tents early, packed the rucksacks and set off. The walk out was much nicer in the sun. The daisies had all come out in the meadows after the river crossings. We arrived back at the car after about three hours and had a bit of lunch. Within seconds of driving off, there was a horrible noise. We thought something awful had happened, but it was just the spare wheel falling off!

We drove back to Nelson, met up with Cathy Worthing, and then headed for the Nelson Caving Club hut. We followed the highway to Motueka and Riwaka, carried on up a windy road to Ngarua Caves, past Canaan Road, and shortly (about 1km before the summit) a backwards left hand turn on the left led up a track with a locked gate to the hut. The hut was wonderful, built out of pine with a 'dunny' about 50 yards up the back set in karst landscape. There must be holes everywhere. The water was collected in tanks from the roof and the electricity used batteries powered by solar. Surprisingly, the lights were brighter than those in Godre Pentre! It was well equipped with gas burners, pots and pans, and bunks. We cooked dinner and went to bed.

Saturday 16 December

Chris Grimmett, Steve and Helen decided to go on a trip into Summit Tomo. Sheelagh and Chris Fry wanted to go walking and visit the show cave. After the statutory faffing around we set off to find the cave. It took over an hour to find as the place was littered with holes. We eventually found it in the lower of two tree lined dolines to the right of the track as it bears left at the top of the hill.

The entrance leads through a short tight crawl down a very steep loose muddy ramp to three climbs and then a pitch. New Zealand cavers always use natural belays which made the rigging a bit dodgy with two ropes tied together and only just long enough. Two wire tethers provided the main belays followed by a rebelay and a deviation. After much rerigging, Chris and Steve managed to reach the bottom, while Helen remained at the top, so decided to continue to the next pitch before retreating. Followed the passage to a short section of fine streamway before another pitch down and then back up. Turned back and exited the cave leaving the rope in place for a return trip.

Whilst we lay in the sun by the car waiting for Sheelagh and Chris Fry, another car pulled up and shouted across to us. It was one of our other contacts, Mike Brewer, who had heard that we were in the area! Chris and Sheelagh eventually turned up and we returned to the hut.

Sunday 17 December

Got in the car to go and look at Harwood's Hole which has a 200 metre entrance shaft. 11 kilometres up a dirt track and then 40 minutes walk through forest got us to the entrance. You couldn't actually get very near it to see it in its full glory without going into 200 metre freefall, but it looked very impressive from where we were.

Monday 18 December

Return trip to Summit Tomo. No problems finding the entrance this time. The 34 metre pitch was quite technical by now - the rebelays being traverse lines, a knot to pass, and a pendulum at the bottom to get off the rope - but we all passed it without great difficulty. Chris took a few photos and decided to take the gear into the cave. The streamway was really nice - meandering and full of pools. Chris Grimmett tried to kill Helen by dislodging a rock as he tried to take a photo from above.

The cave continued up an 11 metre pitch and then back down a lovely waterfall pitch the other side. We carried on into some older phreatic tubes and ended at "Boots Off Chamber". It took us a while to decide that the way on was in fact up a bit of a tricky exposed climb up some well decorated flowstone. "Boots Off" was lovely. We took our wellies off and padded around on pure white stal and flowstone. Chris Grimmett took a load of photos until our feet were freezing.

Then we headed out, taking a few photos again. By now we were getting a bit late for our time out, so we moved along at a reasonable pace. We were underground about 7.5 hours.

Wednesday 20 December

We had now moved on to Collingswood. Today we planned to go to the Paturau River to go caving down "Wet Neck". We only had limited amount of carbide left, so this would be our last cave of the trip. The land was owned by a guy called Terry Rose. Unfortunately, he wasn't in!

Being used to caving in Wales, we thought we had better get permission before going caving, so we went for a walk for an hour. When we came back he still wasn't in! However, we did speak to a chap who had come to shoe some horses. He said that he would leave a note for Terry and we should just go for it. We did.

We had an eight figure grid reference for the cave, so finding the entrance should have been no problem. Wrong! The place was littered with entrances. We went down several shafts before finding the correct one. Once located, it was typically obvious as it was much bigger than any other and drafting.

We climbed down the shaft into the cave and almost immediately had to get wet (to about chest level rather than neck level, but still very cold). The cave was enormous. We had to go through some 'hanging death' boulder chokes and then got to the 'dodgy climb with the 3000 year old sea lion skeleton below'. It took us a while to find this interesting attraction which turned out to be a pile of old bones which could have been absolutely anything!

The 'dodgy climb' was in fact a pitch and we had two jammers between us. We decided to photograph out. Chris Grimmett found a phallic trouser-sized stal to help to give his photos scale. Finally, on the last dregs of our carbide, we came out.

We changed in the sunshine and drove back to the farm. Terry and his wife were now back and invited us in for a cup of tea. They had never been down the cave, but were very interested to hear about it. We had quite a chat and promised to send them some of our photos.

Back at the camp, we monopolised all of the washing machines with our caving gear and rope before packing it all away for the last time. From here we drove the west coast to Wanaka where we stayed for Christmas.

Saturday 23 December

We spent the morning getting our Christmas shopping. In the afternoon we decided to decorate our new home at Wanaka Motor Camp. We had managed to book a 'chalet' for eight with just the five of us in it. In fact it looked more like a garden shed, but suited us fine. We put some toilet roll streamers up and got a bit of fern for a Christmas tree. It all looked very decorative by the time we had finished.

Sunday 24 December

Christmas Eve. We went to bed with our stockings hung up in anticipation of the following day.

Monday 25 December

Christmas Day. Father Christmas had been! We opened our stockings first and then the parcels - a miniature atlas of the world from Fry and a kangaroo scrotum from the Grimmetts! Then we set off for the world famous "Wanaka Puzzle Centre". We were the first in at 10am and almost the last to leave at 4pm. The centre was the first place of its kind in the world. It had a two level maze, a hologram hall and a tilted house as well as the actual puzzle centre. The maze took us between one and two hours to complete. Chris Grimmett was last and the rest of us had all had a cup of coffee and started on the puzzles by the time he emerged!

There were all sorts of puzzles. It was excellent. The owner and his daughters came around to show you how to do them when you got really stuck, but very often they did them so quickly it didn't actually help. The hologram hall was very interesting, and the tilted house made you want to vomit. We left laden with puzzles.

When we got home, we made a start on the Christmas feast. We had bought some crackers before the others arrived (they had remained hidden under the car seat for three weeks) so we pulled those and put on our party hats, much to the amusement of the other campers. A party of Dutch holiday makers were having a bit of a party next to us, but apart from them we were alone in our merry making. After dinner, out came the blue stilton and then the Glengoyne, and a few more of the Dutch joined us in a glass of Christmas cheer.

Tuesday 26 December

Today was really the end of the expedition. The others were to leave for Queenstown for a few days before catching a flight back to Auckland and then back home. We still had about a week of walking left to do before flying back to Auckland. However, we also had a week in Bali to look forward to before our return to the UK!

Steve and Helen Wray