Edited extracts from Sheffield University Speleological Society Journal, Vol 2, No 6 1978

 

EXPLORING CAVES IN THE SOUTH ISLAND - NEW ZEALAND

By Rob Kay

 

Summary

 

In the mid 1970's, the limestone ranges near Nelson and on the West Coast were the happiest hunting ground in the southern hemisphere for exploration minded cavers. These linked articles describe some of the discoveries and sporting trips during the period 1976-7.

 

 

 

 

AUSTRALIAN EXPEDITIONS

 

January and February saw two Australian expeditions to the Mt. Arthur range. The first, led by Julia James of Sydney Speleological Society explored several new shafts, but was hit by bad weather. I joined the Sydney University trip to Mt. Arthur in February. We camped just below the bushline at about 4,000 ft after an arduous march in with 70 lb. packs containing everything from giant cabbages and jumars to a guitar - this on Neil Montgomery's broad shoulders.

 

In the week available we managed to descend forty or fifty unexplored shafts and promising holes. Most were about 100ft. deep or so, ending in strongly draughting boulder chokes. Our area of exploration - the head of what eventually becomes the Pearce valley - has a potential for shafts of 2,500 – 3000 ft. before the resurgence level is met. However, the deepest "tomo” - or pothole - on Arthur is at present Blackbird Hole at around 1,000 ft. deep, discovered during one of Julia's previous trips.

On our second day, Keith Dekkers and Greg Pickford got down to about -400ft. in a pothole on the bushline near our camp, after an interesting 250ft. entrance pitch. Meanwhile, Randall King, Kitty Dunn, Geoff Innes and I, after several shafts plugged by snow, explored another exciting find, Guinevere’s Hole, with an entrance pitch of 80ft followed by a further pitch of 30ft. We explored some 800ft. of horizontal passage at the bottom before calling it a day, and we were guided back through the mist by whistles and calls from the campsite.

 

The following days saw Keith and Greg's hole christened "The Magic Roundabout" after a rather chastising push down a side passage led, after hours of scratchy effort, to the top of a rigged pitch: The sump was reached at around -550ft.

 

The end of the week saw another shaft - P12 bottomed by Neil and Keith at around -350ft. Running short of tucker, we decided to move on to another area - Takaka .Hill, in order to "do" Harwood's Hole, presently the deepest in New Zealand at -1400ft.

 

Harwood's has a gripping entrance pitch of 550ft, a slow-spinning eternal ride down a suddenly nerve-racking single strand of rope.

 

We complicated matters by having to cross a knot 100ft. above the floor. Five minutes of fumbling fingers and jamming jumars. As the last down, it was with some relief that I extracted myself at the bottom and followed the others down a boulder slope into the main streamway. A mile or so of pleasantly varied caving followed, mostly edging around travertine terraces beside purple-deep pools, and bum slides down ten foot flowstone dams that block the stream. In the final "Starlight" section of the cave, the stream is briefly sumped and a higher level dry passage, glittering with tiny crystals, is traversed. Immediately after this is a wade through the entrance lake – making it a through trip. Finding a way back up Gorge creek, through the dense bush, was no joke.

 

The following day saw us down the Green Link, one of the toughest sporting potholes in New Zealand. With eighteen pitches, in extremely cold waterfalls, it descends to a sump some 1,000 ft. deeper than the entrance.

 

Though it has no tight squeezes or boulder chokes to speak of, it bears comparison with any of Yorkshire's deepest pots. We were the third party to bottom the cave, and the first to do it within one day (a 12hr trip). One of the delights of this cave is the clean banded marble in which it is formed.

 

TEMPTIONS TO THE CAVER IN NEW ZEALAND

 

I spent January to April entirely on holiday in New Zealand, on lengthy tramping trips in the Fjiordland National Park, canoeing on the Buller River and generally having a whale of a time.

 

After our April 18th trip, Neil, Keith and I drove down to the West Coast, staying with Paul Caffyn in Greymouth and Van Watson in Bruce Bay. Continuing on to the Darren Mts., we climbed Mt. Hart and Mt. Talbot and traversed the razor peak of Mt. Sabre. Here, caught by a storm, we were forced to spend 2 nights in a rock bivvy at 7,000 ft. Back in Nelson, my money ran out and I was forced to seek work in a glove factory. However, by contacting local cavers, I managed to join a few trips, - to Nettlebed Cave, for example, where, after an arduous walk-in involving untold river crossings, we managed to explore lower level of pressure tubes where we had come, expecting a sump, with diving equipment.

 

At Easter I joined a larger, well-organised party on the flanks of Mt. Owen to investigate Turks Torrent. This cave is also difficult to get to - four hours walk up a steep limestone gorge involving tricky climbing and a chest-deep wade in icy rock pools with rucksack on head! This was rewarded when we reached our campsite; a widening of the gorge between dazzling white limestone walls is carpeted by green mosses and herbs, through which a tumbling and murmuring stream flows swiftly. Chris Pugsley – recently arrived from England to study glow-worms at Waitomo - and I pitched our tents in this paradise along with the others from all over New Zealand and talked about wet, windy old Derbyshire, boozy Spain, Morocco, New Guinea and Japan until sleep finally hit us.

 

On Easter Saturday and Sunday we explored the cave and attempted to bolt up the waterfall that had so far deterred further exploration. The cave was about three-quarters of a mile long, a large resurgence discovered by Van Watson a few years ago. A couple of deep icy pools have to be swum with the aid of tyre inner tubes, and beyond these are two pitches, which rise straight from the water. These were led free on the first occasion by Keith Dekkers - a brilliant piece of leading as they are slimy and holdless. At the final waterfall (over 500ft have been climbed), Warren Blundell spent a miserable two or three hours placing four bolts whilst being drenched from above. Over the following week we surveyed side-passages and watched the stream rise and the skies open. Warren, however, managed to push on but was stopped by what seems to be an impenetrable boulder choke, the present end to the cave.

 

On the Queen's Birthday weekend, I joined a N.S.G. meet to Padarau, on the West Coast. The local farmer. led us to a group of tomos on his property and one of these went. After an initial 90ft. shaft a descending streamway was met which gave some extremely sporting flat-out crawls in water. The cave then degenerated into a very tight vertical rift which caused considerable route-finding difficulties.

 

This rift continued at keyhole size for a considerable distance after a total of 2000ft of severe caving, my two companions – novices to the sport of caving - decided that they had had enough. Jubilee Pot is still going!

 

The next day we had yet more luck. Along with Mark and Arthur Freeman, on the basis of an interesting air photograph, we pushed into dense bush for two hours and. discovered a huge entrance with a stream flowing into it. We explored about half a mile of passage, most of it roomy, and found five more entrances to the system. This was named Lost Mile Cave and of interest was a pile of Moa bones (a huge extinct bird), in a dry corner.

 

Actually, the best prospect is yet to come. Max Reynolds tells me that he has found a hole on Mt. Owen which, "Probably goes all the way to the Craven Heifer" ( a pub in Yorkshire!) . More news will be forthcoming.

 

 

Rob Kay, (July 1977).

 

 

FURTHER DOWN, DOWN UNDER, MAYBE, AND OTHER INS AND OUTS

By Our Australasian Correspondent, Rob Kay.

 

Sept. 11th. 1977. I'm out of it, drowned in my sweaty pit. Six-thirty a.m. Knock on the door. Another hard knock and raucous laughter. Oh Christ: I crawl out of bed, go to open the door. "You whaa…?”. The stained remains of a pair of pyjamas slide down to my ankles.

 

Ten minutes later, crunching a bowl of dry bits of mouldy Vita-Brits and a sour apple, we're heading out of Nelson to Takaka Hill. A merry crew. Light the second cigarette of the day. Once past the freezing works the scenery improves, orchards, tobacco fields, blue sea, snow-capped mountains, real postcard New Zealand, Godzone. Car grinds up to three and a half thousand feet, and we turn off on the Canaan road, come to a halt on the Green Link carpark (an extra five feet of muddy verge to avoid the occasional thunderous logging truck.) Snow everywhere, like it's Christmas or something.

 

Now somewhere along the road I missed out a winter. I think it might have been last year I got two summers, no three summers in a row due to a geographical misunderstanding. So I chuck a few snowballs for fun at Mark and in no time there's a raging battle going on. The others arrive, and we head uphill, where there's a vague report of some shafts and as few cavers as there are in Nelson, one gets a bit blasé bout them, they always seem to end in chokes. We wander off through the woods. The sky is blue, and there is a thaw coming in, birds singing like they do in the movies, the odd rabbit.

 

We find a shaft.

 

I go down first. There's a landing at twenty feet, another at forty. It's still going. Need another ladder. Long delay whilst ladder is untangled from various rotten bits of vegetative garbage. Eventually reach bottom, at seventy-five feet. Usual mouse sized rift leads off. Up, and everybody else wants a go. Crazy idjits. So off to ladder a couple of other shafts in the wood. No go. Up to the ridge top, where we have lunch, and a furious snow-ball fight ensues. People lie dying in the snow, giggling uncontrollably.

 

I volunteer the first sensible suggestion of the day: "Hey, this valley looks quite good, anybody fancy sussing it out?" No way. They all want to do Middle Earth, a 700ft deep pothole near the Green Link, down as far as the bottom of the one-fifty. The bastards all wander off. I head on down valley. Three hundred yards down, a small stream sinks into a confused jumble of boulders and logs. Aha:

 

Ten minutes later and Coward's Crack Pot lies open. I'm squirming down the ten foot entrance rift, a steady shower of meltwater caressing my most intimate parts, boilersuit hung up on half a dozen sharp projections. A rending thrutch and I'm through to a small chamber. A crawly passage leads down to a pool, over which I manufacture a route to the next chamber to avoid the water. Slide down a few more drops, along a little canal section then down into a reasonably large chamber. The way on is again blocked by some fallen slabs, beyond is a tight streamway. Nasty yellow thoughts cross my mind. They win. I retreat. Walking back over the hill thinking about depth potential.. Would you believe 3,000 ft to the Riwaka source. Intriguing.

 

Sept. 25th. A large group heads off into the bush past Harwoods Hole and down into Gorge Creek Cave, one of the major resurgences, dye tested from. Ed's Cellar, a seven or eight hundred footer up on the Takaka Hill. It's a long and difficult bush-bash, over some pretty rough country - some of the toughest New Zealand has to offer. The cave is breathtaking - a mighty stream pounding over waterfalls and through turbulent pools. We do as much surveying as possible and then head on out.

 

NZSS A.G.M. at Nelson on 22nd-24th Oct. A fair number of people down from the North Island - Wellington, Hamilton, Auckland, and one or two from Greymouth and Christchurch in the South Island. Paul Caffyn and his Black Velvet Band provide the music at a packed Barn Dance style frolic, plus one joker on the bagpipes. Chris Pugsley, Lee Long and I take the opportunity to push Coward's Crack Pot, but it gets to tight by half, and we give up in disgust. That night there’s about 18 people sleeping on my lounge floor. I’m nearly asleep, but halfway through the night a lady friend comes in through the window looking for some fun, so we leave them to their slumbers and go for a long lazy stroll through the park!

 

All these winter/spring trips are not helped by high water levels, and so we looked forward to a busy summer. Having just survived a Christmas spent stuffed with goodies, and floating stoned out of our tiny minds on the great local grass, now in season, it wasn't 'til the second weekend in January that anything much happened.

 

Jan. 15th. 1978. Four of our Aussie friends over from Tasman together with Chris Pugsley, Bob Renshaw and I persuaded Keith Dekkers to have a go at the Green Link sump. So down we go again, a fast trip, only three hours to the sump at -950'. Very low water levels compared to the usual torrent, so we're not feeling too shattered or mindblown by the seriousness of the undertaking. Keith kits up and sets off into the crystal clear water, going quite deep and out of sight. At last he re-appears radiant with satisfaction.

 

"The first sump is about twenty feet long, ten feet deep. After that there's about four hundred foot. of streamway, then another sump of similar dimensions to the first. Then a ten foot cascade and a big pitch. Must be over a hundred feet deep and so wide across and up that I couldn't see the far wall or roof. I think both sumps are free-diveable at a push." And to prove it, he went back and free-dived the first one.

We returned to the surface some ten hours after leaving it, and within a few days the news got around the country. Now it so happened that a group of divers had been planning to have a crack at the resurgence, the source of the Riwaka river, for some time, in the first week of February. Before too long, a large number of cavers had found ways and means of taking the whole week off.

 

Feb. 4th. Ten divers passed through the entrance siphons of the Riwaka and began to ferry gear up through the boulder chokes to the third sump, the previous limit of exploration. Keith Dekkers and Warren Blundell were still warm and courageous enough to attempt the dive. They found themselves dropping steeply, and emerging in a vast reservoir of clear water at a depth of 70ft, with visibility of over a hundred feet. After three hundred feet there was still no sign of the passage going up so they returned to base. Total time spent underground was 12hrs.

 

Feb. 6th. Fourteen cavers gathered at the Green Link, in the hope of making as much progress as possible, in the direction of the Riwaka resurgence several miles away and 2,400ft lower. Seven were in the assault party, planning to go through the sumps, the rest were in support. We were well equipped, with weight belts, masks and electrics, and in readiness for a long trip bad a small stove and plenty of instant soup. Due to the likelihood of encountering more pitches, we had quite a bit of tackle to haul through the sumps in kitbags. We had even had several rehearsals above ground in deep river pools to straighten out signalling with rope tugs and other problems.

 

In the event, everything went perfectly. Three of the original seven decided not to dive, leaving a smaller, tighter team - Keith, Warren, Fred Kahl and myself. The first sump was an incredible experience, after so much psyching up. It was the first sump I'd ever dived using a good light and face mask, and the weight belt gave a tremendous feeling of freedom of movement underwater, enhanced by the perfect visibility. I pulled myself along the line enjoying the strangeness, noting every scallop on the blue-grey marble roof and walls. Reaching the other side, I tore off the mask and almost exploded with sheer joi de vivre. The others must have though I was mad - but then, they were feeling something very similar. We pushed on down to the second dive.

 

This was a bit nastier. Several ribs of rock projected from the roof and we all felt relieved to emerge. As we were pretty cold, we brewed up, while Keith carefully rigged the big pitch with fifty metres of good rope. It only just reached the bottom, but luckily hung free. The sheer size of the pitch was breathtaking, particularly as the upper part of the cave has no pitches over 18m. The lower part of the pitch was descended through a fine spray, which settled on our hair and beards like hoar-frost. We de-kitted and set off down the passage.

 

The passage turned sharply to the right, and continued for 350metres through three large boulder chokes involving some complex route finding. The passage cross-section at this point was 20'-40' wide and 70'high, with 6ft high gravel banks on either side. Some sections were wide enough for all four of us to walk abreast. A small inlet came in from the left - the Middle Earth stream perhaps? At the fourth boulder choke we came to a halt, all but tired out. There must be a way on, but it was not for us to continue that day. We surveyed back out past the sumps. Time underground, twenty hours.

 

The survey when drawn up, showed us to be one metre deeper than Harwood’s Hole, the present Australasian deepest, at 1,180'. Wry smiles all round. We're not fooling ourselves that easily. But we'll be back, just to clinch it. There's still over a thousand feet to drop. Trouble is, the seasons getting too late, so it'll have to wait. The entire system is virtually impassible nine months of the year, and getting a strong team together from all over the country isn't easy due to limited time and money.

 

I've moved up to Auckland in the North Island, working as a bit-part actor at the Mercury Theatre to raise some bread for the Atea'78 expedition to Papua New Guinea. Looks like Chris Pugsley and various other old friends are going to the show, so we should have a good trip.

 

Anyhow, I'll write and tell you how it goes. Every so often we get Descent (a British Caving magazine) out here and laugh ourselves silly reading about so-and-so's heroic fifty foot of new passage.

 

I almost forgot to tell you about a return trip to Jubilee Pot on the West Coast by Bob Renshaw and I, discovered on the Queen's birthday holiday weekend in 1977. We extended it another 1,000 ft by smashing through the stal-blocked upper level of the tight streamway, into some roomy passage. The cave is now about 3,000ft long, and 300ft deep. There's plenty left out here for those who want a crack at it, though at present getting work-permits and visas is a bit tough. But that's the breaks.

 

Good caving. (April 1978)

See also: Caving in Japan