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Caving in North-West Nelson and Buller, New Zealand

There are so few cavers in New Zealand - about 200 in the NZSS - that most can claim they virtually know everyone else in the society.  However, they make up for lack of numbers with quality of caves and are especially with their hospitality.  Before going to N.Z. we had written to a few cavers and when we arrived everyone seemed to know we were around and looking for trips.  Not only did we get carted about the country, but we were invited to join caving trips, even having some specially arranged for our benefit; we were invited to dinners, barbeques and parties, and welcomed to stay in peoples homes; we were lent all manner of caving gear, without which many caving trips would have been expensive or impossible.  Half the cavers here are not original Kiwis at all - we have met ones from Yorkshire, South Wales and even Mendips. John Hobson (remember Hobson’s choice in Dow Cave) is still active." Mark and Alison Russell (SMCC) might go caving again yet.  Greg Pickford ( Wessex) is finding caverns measureless in the Nelson Marble Mountains.  But whether Kiwis, ex-pats or foreigners, we are grateful to them all.

A quick phone call to Chris and Pam Pugsley in Greymouth gave us shelter from the rain and our first caving in Buller.

The west coast of South Island is one of the wettest, most rugged areas of New Zealand.  Whereas Fiordland, in the south, is accessible largely only by boat, plane or on foot, the northern part has road or track hugging most of the coast. Around Greymouth and Westport there are bands of young limestone, much of it covered in primary bush, dense and uncharted.  Access from the road is often along rivers or forest tracks, and hundreds of sites are already known, with more being found constantly as the bush is penetrated and explored.

The first cave that we looked at in the region was Fox River cave.  It happened to be raining, very hard, as we began the walk in along the riverside.  Crossing a dry gravel-bedded flood oxbow, then wading a short distance along the river itself, we spent the next hour gently climbing along the scree/boulder slopes of the river gorge.  There was an obvious path, as several trampers come this way, some to visit the caves.  The rain poured and the tree ferns and tangled creepers dripped heavily on us. After the hour we reached a more open mass of scree up which we climbed, carefully avoiding the numerous nettle trees, whose long, sharp spines give a sting far more vicious than anything in Britain.  At the top of the scree a large rectangular arch opened into high cliffs of the gorge edge. We were glad of the shelter from the deluge, streaming down like an enormous veil a few feet away across the cave mouth.  Small trees and bushes grew well inside, where two obvious passages led off. Straight ahead was the route that most visitors seemed to take - a level, walking sized passage, heading fairly directly into the hill.  There was a lot of stal, much of it rather muddied, sadly, although in some alcoves it looked better preserved.  At the end of the passage, after less than 100m, was a gravel choke, but the sound of a big stream could be dimly heard from beyond.  Back at the entrance we looked at the other route: down a slope of big boulders leading into a long, high chamber, rectangular in section. Making our way over the boulder floor, we came to a series of deep pits in the rocks.  I managed to climb the wall above one of these to reach clean washed, heavily sculpted passage and the sound of roaring water.  A climb down and a short way through a clear pool brought me to the edge of a deep wide rift, with a rope angling away across the abyss. In the void below, my dim head torch just picked out the raging stream, clearly in flood.

Outside the cave we scrambled down the river's edge, where the cave stream resurged beneath enormous blocks.  The rain had finally ceased and as we stood at the edge of the river we toyed with the idea of crossing it, to walk back on the far side (Kiwis have a serendipity attitude to river crossings, developed through their vast numbers of streams and their relative lack of bridges).  Within minutes, however, the river changed to a swirling brown, rapidly increasing in depth and speed.  Needless to say, we stuck to the bank we were already on for the return.  At the “dry” oxbow we watched the river overflow, and were quietly thankful that we were not underground.  Fox River Cave floods rapidly and severely and, with West Coast weather, frequently.  Many of the caves in this area are similarly dangerous.

North-east of Karamea we grossly maltreated our overloaded Fiat 127 taking it over rough, steep, winding forest tracks to reach the Oparara Arch.  At one place we wisely waited in a side track while several tonnes of forest hurtled by on a truck at some ludicrous speed.  The Oparara River runs over a sizable patch of limestone and both it and its tributaries have carved out caves, tunnels and arches.  Unfortunately the most interesting system of all, over 10km long and with more than 60 entrances, Honeycomb Hill, has very limited access. It contains large numbers of bones, particularly of the extinct moa, and therefore special permission must be obtained to enter.  A little downstream from the system is Oparara Arch, a huge tunnel through which it is possible to walk, on a boulder and earth ledge above the stream.  The limestone rests on granite and the stream is cutting through the granite at the inlet end.

Much lower down the river we walked along an old gold mining track, traversing high above the water on a narrow ledge cut into the precipitous cliffs, to reach Cave Creek. Here, half hidden up in the bush and silver beech forest are a number of short caves, including two through trips. One of these, in a damp gully, carries a deep, dark, slow-flowing stream.  The other has a more lively series of trickling cascades under many stalactites and glow-worms.  A third cave dropped rapidly from its sizable entrance, over boulders to suddenly diminish to a grovel.

All of these caves we had done in ordinary walking gear.  For our next trip we needed full caving kit, plus SRT gear.  Our introduction was a beekeeper (Owen Dennis) in Waimangaroa, near Westport.  He was delighted to have us stay in his earthquake damaged house (a common phenomenon) and soon dragged us off exploring in virgin territory.  Having driven out along a forest track we set off into primary bush (the land has never been cleared).  The ground was rather like tropical cone karst - not surprising since this was sub-tropical rain forest.  There was no path.  We followed a route of paint marks on the trees, forcing our way through a dense tangle of undergrowth until we reached a prominent ridge.  It is often easier to follow ridges in the bush as the trees there tend to be larger and the vegetation more open.  A couple of hundred feet below us, to one side, we glimpsed a stream which disappeared underneath our ridge, in the green depths. On either side were huge hollows, dolines full of ferns, mosses lichens, creepers and epiphytes.  Most sites had never been looked at - there are so many likely sites and so few cavers.  After an hour, we descended a particularly large depression, "The Pentagon", where there five deep shafts to be explored.  We lowered ourselves down the steep edge of the depression using the thick, supple vegetation, to reach the edge of three of the shafts.  These turned out to be joined together. Belaying the rope to a convenient tree (one that had not fallen down the shafts) we descended and explored the middle one.  To one side a much higher shaft joined in via a narrow rift, in which several tree trunks had jammed.  Below the boulder floor, 15m down, the rift continued a further 10m to a choke. Across the boulder floor, under a rock arch it connected with the third shaft.  Below this a larger rift dropped away.  Again it was half-filled with rotting trees and again it choked.

These three shafts were really a diversion, an attempt to avoid a huge, dangerously and loosely poised boulder in the fourth shaft., to which we now turned our attention.  Using the same tree belay we abseiled down to a deeper part of the doline, and then down into a shaft, 10m in earth, rotting leaves and loose  blocks, then a steep slippery 10m mud slope brought us to the floor, a wide expanse of gravel and cobbles.  To one side a window looked into a daylight shaft blowing a cool draught from the confined depths, at least another 5m below our floor.  A larger window in the opposite wall of the main shaft looked into another passage.  Yet a third passage, this with a good cool outwards draught, led straight ahead. About 20m along here, clambering amongst earthy, loose boulders, we descended to a trickle of a stream. Unfortunately further boulders made the route impenetrable at this level.  Up and down, over and around the boulders brought us after 50m to the 'Henry' apparently, supported on a pin-point of rock and little else.  Not wishing to go near it I looked carefully at all the other ridiculous possibilities of reaching the obvious passage above the boulder, but nothing went.  Eventually, someone, perhaps less experienced than me in the art of self-preservation, kicked the offending boulder's only support.  Not a breath, not a sound, not a heart beat.  The 'Henry' withstood another kick and another. Safe as houses - indeed, safer than some!  Squeezing between the 'Henry' and the wall I succeeded at the second attempt, after much thrutching and no technique, in safely reaching the top.  The ideal 'eyehole', in which I rigged a tape for the others and for my return journey, broke immediately when I put a strain on it, so I was left to explore on my own,

A 10m long chamber, whose boulder floor was layered with an earthy veneer, had two ways on.  One seemed to head back towards the entrance doline complex, while the other, a walking sized rift, carried the draught and headed into the hill.  After a few easily crossed hollows in the earthy floor I reached a pitch requiring tackle.  My carbide began to fade at this moment too - a suitable point to return.

Out of the cave, and the doline de-tackled, dusk was fast approaching, so we rushed back through the bush in record time, in spite of briefly losing our way in the gloom a couple of times.  We reached the cars in the dark, to the sound of owls starting their nightly chorus.

So, although a crucial bit of a cave had been pushed and overcome, we only had a few tens of metres to our credit.  With so few cavers in Buller, with the cave regions away from the centres of population, and with cave sites being guarded by so many miles of dense bush, detailed knowledge of cave systems, development and hydrology will take decades.

Graham Wilton-Jones