WIO in the Shadows……

by Nettie Stow

Earlier this year two of our Whenua Iti staff (Pip Rees and Kieran McKay) spent 6 and 12 days underground on an expedition to try to extend the known length of the 76km long Bulmer Cavern, NZs longest cave.

Kieran made a 36 minute movie about this expedition entitled ‘Once Again Beneath the Mountains’ It was well received at the Wanaka Mountain Film festival and has now been released on YouTube.

The following is a short account of their exploits, as told by Pip:

Day 5: Chelsea, Keith and I are sitting beside a cold pool of water, waiting.
We have just watched Kieran and Gary kit up with scuba diving gear and disappear off into this subterranean waterway. We are 600m below the surface and about 6km from the entrance. It has taken 15 of us two and a half days to get down to the back end of this cave, dragging 600kg of food, ropes, diving gear and climbing equipment in 30 packs. We have been camping underground, sleeping on a dirt floor, cooking on gas cookers. It actually pretty amazing camping underground. It’s quiet, peaceful, there’s no need to set up a tent with a roof already over your head and with all the people in this little alcove the temperature rises from its usual 3 deg C to a comfortable 5 deg C.

Right now things feel a little colder as we sit and wait. There’s a bit of a sense of foreboding being down he re at the sump. The walls are darker and at the back of everyone’s mind is the knowledge the we are 30-40m below the flood zone ‘high tide’ mark in this section. It’s been a huge effort getting to this point, but the strong team that has formed from the trials thus far is definitely worth it. Working together to shove packs and people up climbs, down abseils, across traverse lines, over rifts and through tight squeezes is definitely character building and makes for a close family feel amongst the group. Along the way we’ve seen amazingly beautiful formations and travelled through passages millions of years old, formed before mankind existed on the planet. We are pretty lucky to be here.

And the reason we are here is to try to extend the known length of this cave beyond its current 76km. The easy ways on have all been found a long time ago. We are now spending this expedition climbing, digging and diving trying to find the way on in this system. A dye trace done in 2014 shows that the water here in this sump flows not out the southern side of the mountain like the rest of the streams in Bulmer, but out to the northern side of Mt Own, reappearing at the Blue Creek Resurgence. The cave has potential to be 200km in length. We just have to find our way on.

Kieran and Gary eventually emerge from their diving to report a find of 120m of underwater passage before they were turned around by a gravel choke and air restrictions. Not quite what we were hoping for. Chelsea who has hot water ready to warm the guys up, pours it down their wetsuits and once they have recovered we make our way back to camp.

The next few days the team focuses on a dig, a couple of climbing projects and another dive in a different part of the cave.

For me, it’s now day 6 and time to head out to meet up with family.
A ten hour trip out of the cave, we get out just before dark. Kieran and three others have come out of the cave with me. We are all pretty tired by the end. It’s all so overwhelming. The sensory overload of the colour green is very intense, I can’t look at it for too long. The morning light the next day at base camp is also hard to deal with. It makes me want to head back underground to our caving family. I struggle with this all the way back down the track as I walk off the mountain. On the plus side, after so many days caving, being able to walk unimpeded on flat ground feels ridiculously easy. Dealing with the real world over the next few days is pretty funny. It feels strange sitting at a table to eat.

I look forward to hearing from Kieran once the expedition is over. All up roughly 1km of new passage is found and the climbing project is still going. The team climbs to a height of 110m and their powerful cave lights still don’t reach the roof. This aven must be at least 150m high, possibly the largest underground shaft in NZ.

We may seem crazy but we love it! And the promise of beauty and adventure in this underground world will continue to draw us back.

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