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This article was first published in SumpThink in April 2006

First New Zealand caving experiences

Trip Date
Rick Gould, ASG

Actually, my first “experience” was at the Auckland Speleo Group’s meeting at the Mount Eden Quarry in Auckland a couple weeks ago. Met some nice people, ate some good fish’n'chips, tried to remember how my vertical gear gets set up after a couple years, and got to rappel (or abseil, as it’s known here) down the rock face. One person had the latest NSS News from the States, and it featured caving in New Zealand! Perhaps we’ll see a surge in interest from American cavers in coming down? (I emailed my previous group to see if I could tempt anyone.)

My actual first trip was not with the Auckland group, but with the Wellington Caving Group. (When I had flown down back in May to scope out this whole New Zealand idea, I had met and stayed with Bob and Pru Wellington of the WCG. They had very graciously kept in touch, and invited me to join their trip.)

So, last weekend I hitched a ride down to Waitoru Station with John Robson, another WCG member currently living in Auckland, where we joined the others who had travelled up from Wellington. Waitoru Station is a giant sheep and cattle station, just south of Piopio, with rolling hills over endless karst (ancient limestone) full of caves carved by flowing water.

The short version is that I spent a couple days in an absolutely beautiful location on a weekend with stunning weather, a sunset that made the sky look like it was on fire, a dark night sky showing the stars clearer than I’ve seen in years (and my first clear view of the Southern Cross), meeting some great people, and oh yes, crawling around underground! Saturday we scouted a couple caves, finding Mondays, and possibly Meinhohl, then walked through the enormous ancient Manawhara Cavern. Sunday was my first true wet caving experience, when we did thru-trips of Nirvana and Maui. Lots of “pretties” - straws, stalagmites, stalactites, and draperies - especially in Maui.

Here’s my full story:

Left Auckland Friday evening after work, driving ~2-1/2 hours to the Waitomo area with John Robson. Got to Waitoru Station ~10:30 p.m. Staying in the sheep shearing shed - large open space, kitchenette, and bugs hopping on your head. Went out to star-watch for awhile - stunning! Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion.

In attendance Bob and Pru Wellington, Michael Wood, Brian Bowell (from the Hamilton group), Gavin Holden, Michael Coburn, Jennifer Roberts, Barry Cullen, Robert Sowerbutts, John Robson, Rick Gould.

Eventually got going the next day: Michael W. driving, Bob and Pru, Gavin, me. Incredible property - roads winding up and down, sheep and cattle and karst. The rest of the group went mountain biking to scope out a route for the New Zealand Speleological Society’s Annual General Meeting in October which the WCG is hosting.

Looked for the entrance to Mondays cave - think we found it. Crawled along a bit, then narrow slot down low going on with water - I went along to check it out - a couple 90-degree turns and it narrowed down more. Bob checked it out as well, and we decided to head back out. (Perhaps a petite caver could go further?!) Looking at the map later, there was apparently a passage on from where the slot branched off, but hiding behind or above a block perhaps.

Notable - cave wetas, big black spiders (spawn of Shelob!) with super strong sticky webs!

Looked around the valley a bit looking for the entrance to Trespassers cave. Found one possibility, but it was overgrown with blackberries and had wire tossed in it as well. In the meantime, Pru found another cave entrance, and she and I went in a bit. Crawling passage with a stream seemed to keep going. After a lunch break, we all went in, Bob in the lead, but found the passage narrowed down to nearly impassable. (Again, we need that petite caver!) Later looking at an area map, there was an unmapped cave in the area called “Meinhohl”, which might have been it.

So, two caves, each one possibly going on, given that elusive petite caver!

We drove on to Manawhara Cavern (and walked across a gully, around some rocks, down to the entrance) - A giant cavern, part of an old cave system. Giant breakdown at one end and in the middle. Stunningly huge (like on the order of 30 meters high, 30 meters wide, and 100 meters long???). Michael W. worked on his photographs. Pru and I looked around the far end - I went on until it hooked around and back down below the breakdown - could possibly go on, with - guess what? - a petite caver! I did see a few glowworms on the ceiling though!

Made our way back out and up. Drove back, and Michael W. and I went down for a swim in the river - felt great! I videoed Michael jumping in with his caving overalls on for him.

Got stuff washed up, BBQ for dinner. The guys who manage the station joined us for drinks. I went out for a walk at sunset - absolutely fantastic, beautiful, stunning - the sky was on fire for awhile! Very calm being out there in the growing night - fields, sheep, crickets, karst, and a stream flowing by. Fantastic.

The next day, while Bob and Pru took the station crew through Nirvana and Maui and Michael worked on his photography at the lower end of Nirvana, the rest of us got started ahead of them for thru-trips of Nirvana and Maui as well.

John, Michael C., Brian, Gavin, Jen, Barry, Robert, and I caravanned in three cars to the ridge above Nirvana. We followed the sheep down to what turned out to be the middle entrance of Nirvana. Several of us headed through to the upper entrance, enjoying the pretties along the way, including a spectacular arched drapery, and a ceiling full of straws and small stalagtites. We all went up and out the upper entrance to take a look, then Jen, Michael and I went back down through the cave, while the others went overland back to the middle entrance. We met Bob and Pru and company back at the pretties on our way back through. We joined our group at the junction, and carried on.

Towards the lower end, we met up with Michael W., who had come in through the lower entrance to do some photography.

After coming out, took a break for lunch, dried out our feet for a bit, then up to the road and back to the cars.

We drove on to the ridge above Maui. Walked up, around, and down the track, and down into a “bowl” to the entrance. I went in and waited on a bit of “beach” around the corner to let my eyes adjust (and enjoy just “being” in a cave for a few moments). Actually had some time waiting, as someone was having carbide problems.

First went up into the “Hook of Maui” - over some large breakdown and up a steep mud slope with footholds cut in (by a person with _long_ legs…). Beautiful little room, one end solid with straws and stalagmites and stalactites.

Coming back out, we crossed paths at the junction with Bob and Pru and company just arriving there. We carried on, while they went up the “Hook”.

Here was where we first descended into the water, which was most of the rest of the cave - from foot-high to neckhigh water - following the stream on down. Occasional spots with a bit of beach where (for some unknown reason) people would empty their gum boots - before plunging back in around the corner! My first “wet” cave - I was comfortable - until my first neck-high cold water with ceiling just above my head! At one point, the water had cut a narrow slot, which grew deeper and wider beneath our feet, requiring a bit of chimney climb down at the end, back into the water.

One long stretch had flow stone and stalactites along the side.

We had been told about the “swim” at the end, and brought flotation to use accordingly (wine bladder, dry bag…). Never got to “inflate” my flotation, as we had plunged right ahead as a group without realizing it was the swim at the end! It was deep, where I had to swim for a few meters, but OK. Jen told me later the trick is to float on your back, gum boots out in front.

Out the bottom, short break, then straight up, over the (electrified) fence, back to the cars. Washed-up, dinner, then John and I headed back north to Auckland. Others were staying until the next day, before making the trek back south to Wellington.

My thanks to Bob and Pru for inviting me, to John for letting me share the ride, and to Gavin for being patient while stuck behind me while I dug out my camera so many times! (I suppose Bob gave you instructions to tail me, to keep an eye on this newbie American caver?!)

Party members
(leader and scribe).