Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index


Poms potholing in Waitomo, New Zealand

Waitomo gets quoted in about every other general caving book, its claim to fame being the glow-worm grotto show caves. We had heard the name, naturally, and it was on our proposed itinerary.  On arrival in New Zealand we were made extremely welcome by cavers in Auckland and were pointed in the direction of Rangitoto Island, a recent volcanic scoria cone, like an enormous cinder heap.  Near the summit cone were some short but interesting lava tubes.  Having dispensed with these caves we were quickly ferried back to the city in search of caving boots - rare and expensive for we were being taxied to Waitomo in the evening.  We had managed basic SRT kit, helmets and Premier stinkies in our flight weight allowance and were banking on scrounging a few grots.

There is a lot more than just the glow worm caves in Waitomo.  It is one of the major caving areas of N.Z. and has a great variety of all grades of caves.  The limestone is younger than ours, softer and less strong, very thinly bedded and becoming almost gravelly at one horizon.  In many areas it is overlain by deep deposits of unconsolidated, unstable volcanic ash giving rise to plenty of yellowish mud underground.  Where the surface has not been cleared for pasture it is covered in dense temperate rain forest.  Apart from trees and shrubs there are tree ferns, liverworts, vines and tangled creepers, and every trunk and branch is festooned with mosses, lichens, orchids and other epiphytes.  Most caves have been found in open pasture, because of difficulties of exploring the bush.

Waitomo boasts two caving huts - ASG, Auckland Speleological Group at the top of the hill - and HTG, Hamilton Toms Group five miles away at the bottom of the hill, but nearer the village and the pub.  We reached the ASG hut in an ailing car (many N.Z. vehicles seem on their last legs) around midnight, to find all gone to bed.  A wet misty morning revealed several families staying at the hut, which was a farmhouse vacated for more modern premises.  The countryside around is lumpy with limestone cliffs and hills separated by deep dolines.

Everyone uses grots, particularly woolly underwear and boiler suits.  Very few people have purpose tailored caving clothes.  Carbide is universal, the majority of people using little Premiers while one or two have forked out on Petzl gobblers.  The carbide comes in big lumps and lots of time was spent smashing it into smaller pieces.  Once prepared, seven of us set off over the paddocks (fields), climbing several electric fences on route.  No flimsy strands of wire carrying a few volts these, but substantial stuff connected to the mains that quickly instils a healthy respect.

The entrance tomo (tomo - hole, pothole, aven, doline etc.) to St. Benedict’s was a narrow shelf surrounded by typical fence and a few trees, dropping into a 70ft rift.  Kiwi cavers shun the use of bolts and their expensive ropes are hard to come by and personally owned, so the pitch took an age to rig.  The pothole walls were beautiful; the fluting accentuated by the alternate dark and light lines of narrow bedding.  The confines of the shaft soon enlarged as we entered a large chamber, packed with beautiful big stal, creamy white and glistening.  It is unfortunate that access is so easy, for a muddy path is gradually spreading over the stal.  The formations easily rival Otter Hole but are only in the one chamber.  It is one end of an extensive series of sizable passages, nearly all walking, many tens of feet wide or high.  Half way along the series fluting in the floor becomes deep enough to require some careful traversing.  Passage character then changed to narrower, lower, sandy floored tubes.  At several points bat skeletons had been protected by a semi-circle of boulders. A wet and muddy side rift, negotiated by traversing, quickly led to a very high rift, 10-15ft wide and 50-60ft long. At the far end a passage could be dimly seen entering from another system.  Once again the rigging took an age - slightly awkward floor level take-off for a 70ft pitch after a 40ft climb down took us to the base of the rift, where we found the others prepared to go out.  However we discovered that the real bottom was only a further 20ft pitch away, and three of us had this rigged using three chocks and a flake, and the others were soon enthused into following us.  We had landed in a river, like DYO in flood.  Beyond a quick struggle upstream lay a deep, black sump pool, while a trickle from above came down a 300ft entrance shaft - by now it was dark so no daylight came through.  Downstream we could not go, for the river was too deep and the current too fast, so exit was made.  We emerged to mist, but fortunately one amongst us was the local farmer's son and he led us unerringly through the paddocks until his father appeared in a Landrover.  We missed the pub by over an hour.  Eight hours caving that should have been done in three.

Our second day on the hill had cleared a little, and a vast group of us assembled in the bottom of a steep sided doline at a small, revolting muddy entrance taking a little stream, Ringle- fall.  We tagged on to the end of the line, and followed down a slippery climb into a large chamber with mud covered stalactites. 

A wet hands and knees crawl took us into a little streamway, which soon dropped down a rift to the side. Ahead, dry passage continued, by zig-zagging, and despite our delaying tactics we soon caught up with the front of the party at a ladder pitch.  Clearly, a long wait was in the offing.  Was this what Kiwi caving was all about!  A small group of us went back a way and found an alternative to the ladder pitch, a tight climb down and a short rope descent via flying angel into the stream.  The passage reminded us of Longwood-August or Stoke Lane - low and aqueous with cobbles on the floor, but it eventually began to enlarge.  After a couple of kilometres the roof was invisible in the gloom of a high, narrow rift, though the streamway itself was fairly narrow.  An occasional undercut in the wall gave a low roof where we saw our first N.Z. glow-worms, a fly larva like a transparent worm whose bioluminescent end attracts prey into a trap of sticky hanging threads.  Without a close look, all you notice is a little blue dot. The stream finally disappeared down a narrow rift - a thirty foot climb then a fifty foot ladder pitch, but we had no ladder.  We therefore traversed on boulders, high above the stream to reach huge, long collapse chambers.  We missed the way on here but it is grovelly and narrow, so we were not disappointed. Its significance is that Ringlefall ends only a few metres short of St. Benedict’s, but there are so few trips to the far reaches that it has yet to be connected.

After the weekend, we moved down the hill to the HTG hut - nice and peaceful during the week, but full of kids at weekends as it doubles as a Youth Hostel.  Being nearer the village we took the opportunity to visit the show caves.  There are three around Waitomo but one has the famous glow-worm grotto.  The limestone is a warm creamy-white coarse grained rock with beautiful phreatic tubes.  At the lowest point in the show cave we climbed into a boat and were propelled slowly and silently along and around a wide, low, phreatic canal by the guide pulling on overhead ropes.  On the roof above us hung tens of thousands of glow-worms, their little blue lights resembling the Milky Way seen through a telescope.  Though we have since seen myriads of glow-worms elsewhere, both in the bush and underground, nothing has come close to matching the awe inspiring sight in Waitomo.

Gardener’s Gut is one of the longer systems of N.Z. and we made a couple of trips into the lower part of the cave.  Through trips are easily possible, but on both occasions we used a lower entrance or the resurgence.  Our first trip was with the Waitomo Adventure Caving.  Two Americans were paying and we just tagged along.  It was a very slow, careful journey underground, all easy caving, but under superb leadership.  The fragility and uniqueness of the cave environment was constantly stressed. Glow-worms, wetas (like crickets with enormous feelers) and crayfish were pointed out.  Like so many N.Z. caves, there is still much potential for further discoveries, and we noticed several possible leads.  Having entered the cave late at night via a concealed doline deep in the bush, we emerged from the resurgence by a river (Waitomo stream) still deep in the bush.  Home was down river past a 100m long natural arch, and out of the bush close to the two other show caves.

On the second trip into G.G. six of us entered the resurgence carrying some very substantial maypoles.  Although we discovered some new passages off high above the main stream, and re-found some that had not been recorded or widely published, the main find was at floor level.  A low phreatic arch was nearly blocked with thixotropic, sumpy mud, but passage could be seen beyond.  After much discussion the most stupid member of the party was inserted into the hole. A quick, complete muddy immersion, and then jubilant cries disappeared into the distance.  He was stopped by a 50 foot aven.  Such is the potential in a very well visited cave.

Millar’s Waterfall Cave was yet another 'cast of thousands' job - an introduction to the delights of caving for loads of young farmers.  The entrance series was very pretty and, although much good stal remains, a lot has been muddied or broken by heavy novice traffic.  A sixty foot entrance shaft is the only access obstacle, located in a doline at the top of the hill.  Less than half an hour's caving, mainly walking, but not in large passage, and we had descended to the stream.  Several passage had joined, mainly from one side, but the cave was now linear.  Passage size enlarged, the width generally being a comfortable six feet and the roof up to 60 feet above.  Occasionally the width became 20 or 30 feet.  A couple of hours of streamway and we climbed up a wide, muddy slope to emerge 50 feet above the resurgence, where the stream trickled away over flat meadows before disappearing into the bush.

Exploration in the Waitomo area seems to yield results surprisingly easily.  One find spring day four of us went to check out an unexplored region using aerial photographs.  Although our largest find was only a 50' shaft, there were many sites which deserve a little digging.  In a small area of five paddocks, there were so many dolines that we frequently lost sight and sound of each other for some time.  Unfortunately, lambing was taking place in one or two paddocks~ and we had to leave one section for another day.  The native bush has been cleared from here in the last few decades and some holes have had boulders rolled on top to prevent animals falling down.  One shaft could not be treated in this way.  The Lost World is 300 feet deep, and is so long and wide that trees grow in the bottom.  A herd of bullocks fell down it recently, but you don't see them unless you search especially.  Another shaft, over 200 feet deep and dropping into a streamway still being explored, had been covered and forgotten, but on certain winter mornings a column of steam would rise high into the air.  When local cavers started asking around the farming community, the site was unburied.

On another day of exploration, five significant new sites were looked at.  Although cavers knew nothing of these caves, all had been noted or even explored by the farming community.  By the end of the day we had notched up several hundred feet of "new" passage.

Undoubtedly, our best trip at Waitomo was The Mangowhitikan.  We were a party of four, and we two had borrowed wetsuits especially for this trip.  We entered via a 100 foot damp pitch where a small surface stream sank and made our way along narrow passages to a muddy area where we dropped into the river.  It was bigger than anything we have seen in Europe.  The current varied from difficult to impossible and we had to travel upstream.  There were rapids, deep pools with swift undercurrents, waterfalls and almost impassable canals.  We struggled along by traversing above the water, climbing one or other wall, jumping into the eddy of pools, swimming, pushing against the current and hauling each other.  The water was dangerous in the extreme and a slip could easily have been fatal.  Had the water been higher we could not have made the trip.  We had a half hour's respite when we left the river for a narrow sump bypass series, but further upstream the current seemed no less.  A twenty foot waterfall looked impossible, but we jumped the narrowest gap of raging torrent and climbed up beside the fall.  In places huge tree trunks were wedged across the passage, and flood debris and branches above our heads indicated the extraordinary flood levels. Gradually the passage enlarged from its two to six feet wide and ten to twenty feet high to become ten to twenty feet wide and sometimes forty to fifty feet high.  The stream slackened and the floor lost its potholes, becoming flat and sandy, or gravelly.  The heavy sculpturing disappeared, signs of flooding were less and stalagmite appeared on the walls.  Glow-worms, who prefer to live close above organically rich, slow flowing streams, became abundant.  Suddenly the stal was festooned with ferns, and the glow-worms were replaced by stars. A steep climb and we were out into green fields.  We both reckoned this was our most sporting trip ever.

We hope to be in the Mt. Arthur region for Christmas, where there will be the annual expedition, this time searching for a link between Nettlebed (the deepest down here) and the recently discovered Windrift.  Sometime in early 1986 we want to return to Waitomo. Amongst other caves, we intend to do The Lost World and the river at the bottom, known as Mangapu.  It is the same river as that in Mangowhitikan~ and is reckoned to be even more sporting.

the Bassetts.