Chris Fry, Chris Grimmett, Sheelagh Halsey, Helen Wray, Steve Wray
It started, as do many things, in a Welsh limestone quarry: I believe it was during the 1995 Cavers' Fair. "Are you going to New Zealand at Christmas," said Steve. "I'll think about it," I said. December 8th. arrived and with Steve and Helen as the advance party already staying in Auckland at relatives, Sheelagh and I landed at Heathrow from the Manchester shuttle. We crossed to Terminal 4 and accosted a bald gentlemen in the main departure area. "There's somebody over there just checked in with a kitchen sink," he said; the start of yet another bizarre trip.
The first flight to Los Angeles was delayed but with skilful manipulation of Sheelagh's silver card we managed to gain entry to the BA lounge and settled down to taste testing a number of cans of Stella. I set a personal record by managing to fart almost continuously across four time zones. Chris F had a major altercation with the immigration authorities before finally being admitted to the United States after admitting that he was not related to either Sheelagh or myself. We thought he might be there rather longer than expected as when his rucksack appeared on the carousel, a sniffer dog took a flying leap at it and wouldn't leave it alone. It turned out that Chris was not running drugs but had attached to his pack an extremely well used Karrimat bearing a selection of interesting stains and aromas dating back to Matienzo and further. When the hound had been forcibly removed by its handler, we started the travel process all over again by drinking in the lounge until take-off and flying for another 11 long hours.
Two days from the start. due to the international dateline, we arrived in Auckland and again had problems with the immigration authorities. Those who had not heeded my words about removing the mud from their boots, had them impounded and ritually cleansed before we were allowed in. Helen and her cousin turned up and took us to their house to recover; things were looking up now, the sun was out and for December, it seemed unusually warm.
Transport had been arranged but Steve managed to blow the cylinder head on the first vehicle and so alternative arrangements were made to pick up a car on our way to South Island. Meanwhile, we had a free trip into Auckland Zoo and made the first underground excursion through a series of concrete tubes installed more for the benefit of the public than the resident meerkats. Chris F developed a preoccupation with the buoyancy of hippopotami and had to be forced to hurry on before nightfall.
The following day we went down into Auckland, loaded our luggage onto the Cook Line coach from Auckland to Wellington and then unloaded it again when we looked at our tickets and found we were travelling with Newmans Coaches. On arrival in Wellington that evening we finally found our up-market car hire company at the end of a back street, dragged somebody away from his dinner, and took delivery of 'The Tank', a rather well used Toyota Corolla estate. By some miracle we just managed to pack everything in followed by ourselves and then made the discovery that we were sharing the minimal airspace inside with a residual puke lurking in the region of the rear seat. Still, it was cheap.
Morning dawned bright and fair and we had an excellent crossing via the Cook Strait to South Island; it is rather like sailing into Oban on the western coast of Scotland. After buying provisions, we drove some hours to Nelson where we met contacts in the Nelson Speleo Group, borrowed a copy of the Nettlebed Cave survey which at over 2 metres long was larger than most CCC digs, and then caused confusion in the local photocopy shop as we attempted to copy it.
On the following day we manoeuvred The Tank up a very rough track to the start of the walk up to Nettlebed. The cave lies at the head of several miles of bush walk and requires camping out there. As we set off, the rain set in and we soon became saturated. Further discomfort was assured by the multiple river crossings on the route; these got more interesting as we ascended and the river began to fill. At about the 3 hour mark we realised that we were now committed as the river was in flood and that the only way on now was up; the crossings were now goolie deep and considerable skill was needed not to go completely under. After the 16th. crossing we finally reached a patch of grass which was still several feet above water level and realised that we were at Nettlebed camp. We knew we were right because we were at the bottom of the dry river bed leading down from the cave entrance; dry that was, except for the torrent of foaming water coming down it.
A very wet night ensued with our tent leaking liberally and then just before dawn the rain stopped and the day broke with sunshine enabling us to dry out the soaking kit. The river level stabilised but nonetheless we began to limit rations slightly in case we had to stay up there longer than anticipated.
Later we advanced up the side river to the cave and noted some large bushy plants with leaves designed in hell with not only needles around the edge but with extra sets down the middle on the upper and lower sides. Showing off my botanical training I declared, "That's not a nettle" since the plant did not have a square section stem and clearly did not belong to the Labiatae. Shortly afterwards, this opinion was corrected - "Shit, the bastard got me" as I brushed against one and felt as if I had been simultaneously injected with several ice-cold hypodermics. We had found the nettles. They work in a strange way, hurting for only ten minutes before wearing off but with pain returning the next day and especially when the affected area of muscle is stretched. Soon, amidst huge nettle patches we found a classic cave entrance at the top of the old river - Nettlebed.
Inside the cave we split into two parties with Steve and Helen investigating as far as the Honking Holes and the others taking pictures. Relative to the total amount of cave in Nettlebed we probably only looked at about 1% although what we did see was very good. Some day, a return for the through trip from top to bottom looks very worthwhile.
That night the camp site was raided. A clattering of mess tins advertised the arrival of one of New Zealand's 21 million possums. These creatures are about the size of a very large cat, furry with bushy tails, and due to their habit of stripping trees have vermin status. As the next day broke we also met a weka, a large ground bird with a penchant for stealing loose items such as SRT gear etc. but that too we saw off before it got away with anything. The river had receded sufficiently far for us to walk down to the car again, this time in the dry, and returning via Nelson we drove out towards the Northern end of South Island to Takaka Hill, a very large lump of limestone indeed. Close to the summit of the hill we found the Nelson Speleo Group hut, built by the members entirely out of wood and which demonstrated that in a suitable climate and when properly put together, solar cells can work. Indeed, the lighting inside was superior to Godre Pentre despite being powered from batteries (cottage warden please note).
As darkness fell, the landscape of incredibly convoluted limestone was shown in relief as the shadows lengthened and later a torch would reveal pairs of glowing yellow eyes as the possums crept around at a distance waiting to see whether there would be any pickings. At 23-30 a vehicle drew up and much to our surprise in walked somebody who had come directly from a fancy dress party, done up as a bee-keeper. Actually, he was a bee-keeper (and member of the NSG) who was staying overnight on his way around maintaining various hives he had dotted all over the area.
On the following day and armed with the bee-keeper's directions we went up to look for Summit Tomo cave. Chris F had his first experience of driving an automatic; it was a pity we made him do it by reversing down a path that made the Alum Pot track look quite smooth. The New Zealand bush combined with the complicated limestone terrain plastered with holes and dolines made finding the cave very difficult indeed. After a number of false starts, we finally found it and three of us made a short trip into Summit Tomo. Chris F and Sheelagh had meanwhile wasted NZ$8 each in Ngarua show cave which was succinctly summed up as "a load of crap". They even met somebody there who had been down Swildons!
Day two on Takaka was a walk up to look at Harwood's Hole, one of the world's classic through trips if you can sort out a 600' abseil. It is not possible to look down the main hole from the edge unless you can fly, but the size of the hole is massive. Apparently only one or two people have ever died there, one having slipped whilst looking over and the other who precipitated themselves over the edge intentionally.
On day three, Steve, Helen and I had a more intensive attack on Summit Tomo with the other two bravely allowing me to take the cameras in. Parts of the cave were not unlike Lost Johns and we got as far as the very well decorated 'Boots Off'. Due to a lack of rope, the first pitch necessitated a rather unconventional takeoff on the return, comprising a run up across a rock and a pendulum as you tried to find something to clip onto. Drying off afterwards in the sunshine and waiting for the return of The Tank, a car stopped and turned out to contain some local cavers including somebody I had been told to look out for. They had somehow guessed we were English - I wonder how?
Later, we moved on North to Collingwood at the very Northern end of South Island and set up shop in the local motor camp for a couple of days. It was here that we discovered blue cod, which with chips is excellent and although more expensive than other NZ fish, is great value.
Down the coast we investigated an interesting area where some very convoluted limestone runs right down to the sea but could find only some small caves and those full of spiders anyway. Later, we joined in the quiz night at the local pub but lost out, especially since some of the answers were wrong.
Further down the coast at the Patarau river, we went up onto a farm which runs alongside the sea and which contains a large number of caves. The one we chose to visit was called Wetneck, appropriately enough it turned out as there is an inescapable entrance duck (see cover of Pelobates No. 70). Like many caves in the New Zealand bush, it took some finding but after about 45 minutes we convinced ourselves that we had found the right entrance.
The main attraction in Wetneck is supposedly a 3000 year old sea lion skeleton at the end of the main passage. After much searching, we finally found it although it looked more like a small heap of dark yellow lumps under a boulder; I suppose that after that period of time, none of us would be looking too good. On the way out, we took some more pictures, including several of a formation of great interest to the ladies in the party.
We had tea with the landowner on the way out and had a fascinating insight into farming New Zealand style with his 6000 volt electric fence system (best avoided) and a discussion on wild pigs, a matter of great interest to me. On his wall was the head of a 260 pound specimen that he had shot on the farm after it had been sheep worrying. Well, actually sheep killing. Promising to send back some pictures of Wetneck (which we did), we set off back to Collingwood; it was very different to find a farmer who was not only interested in the caves under his land but genuinely encouraged people to come and look at them.
The caving ended as we then drove South and into what was even by South Island standards, wet weather. The West coast down there has over 200 inches of rain per year and we saw several of these falling. The way on around the lower edges of the Mount Cook glaciers had suffered washouts and had been cut off for 5 days; we would have had to wait had we been travelling any earlier. We went inland, up and over the mountains, to escape the bad weather with The Tank leaking water through the roof, then down into the Lake Wanaka area where we set up for Christmas
In New Zealand this is a more subdued affair than here; they tend to celebrate more at the New Year. Letting down the British side magnificently, we prepared a mixed and highly carnivorous grill, sitting side by side with the Dutch who were roasting a sheep and the Germans who sat glumly eating their pasta, wondering what the fuss was. Shortly after Christmas, the two halves of the party split, with Helen and Steve setting off into the mountains for what turned out to be a disgustingly wet week of walking, whilst the three of us travelled on down to Queenstown. After a couple of days, (which is certainly more than enough in Queenstown), we dumped The Tank at the hire company and started the long journey home.