CHRIST ALIVE… STOP AND CONSIDER: I am doing the very thing that I strongly discourage students from doing. I have removed one cylinder and valve already, and now I’m pushing the other bottle and the reel in front of me as well.
I’ve never had to do this before, and in all probability I’ll never need to do it again. This is a one-off job, and it’s exciting stuff. With some form of breakthrough just metres ahead, this is the sort of project I love.
Here I am, alone in a cave on the other side of the world, making the very first exploration of a newly discovered system in the Takaka Valley. I’ve come to New Zealand, to the northern tip of South Island, to explore caves of which the world at large knows nothing.
We are not many miles from the infamous Pearce Resurgence, an isolated river that rises from depths yet to be fathomed.
That site, in 6°C water, is one of the most technical undertakings in the world. It is more than 200m straight down at the moment; evidently there’s one hell of a cave down there still waiting to be penetrated.
Rather closer is the equally well-known Riwaka Resurgence, another extensive network accessible only to cave-divers. This latter site is a popular spot with local scuba-divers taking advantage of a spacious tunnel, crystal water and a short dive to see what this cave-diving thing is all about – a fabulous dive-site.
That’s an hour’s drive away, just on the other side of the mountain I’m exploring at the moment.
What makes this trip so special is that the Spittal Springs Caves here in the Takaka Valley have been overlooked… until now. The network of caves in, around and below the Takaka Valley is presumed to be vast – it’s almost certainly the most extensive hydrological network in New Zealand, and extremely challenging.
Shortly after our arrival in the valley, my friend and host Rob Davies took us down to view the major outflow from this system, a short distance from the ocean.

WAIKOROPUPU SPRINGS, more commonly called Pupu Springs, is the largest spring in New Zealand and one of the largest in the world. It is the primary tourist attraction in the area.
And there our facts blur. We stood on the boardwalk peering down at an immense upwelling of crystal water. The flow rises through gravel over a wide area, and there is no route into the underworld at all.
I read later that the water has a flow-through time of three to four years – some network indeed!
Its flow is derived partly from a river-sink some eight miles away, but the geology suggests a catchment of at least double that figure.
Most importantly, and the reason I am here, is that until now no-one has been able to shed light on the mystery of the extensive cave that assuredly exists below the Takaka valley floor.
Where can one go these days to explore something new
Apart from outer space, the answer is clear… you can’t. The hard fact is that few mysteries remain.
My life has always centred on the underground realm, for the simple reason that here I can set foot in places wholly new, unimaginable and utterly exciting. When hours, or indeed days, from the surface I make that advance into uncharted territory, where before everything was conjecture, I feel alive; history is carved. At that moment I and I alone am the “first”.

MY FRIEND ROB is a fellow-Welshman who for the past few years has lived in New Zealand. He runs snow- and surf-forecasting websites, but is also fanatical about his caving.
Realising the immense potential for exploration in the area, Rob and his partner Michelle undertook detailed reconnaissance of the valley and “discovered” the Spittal Springs. These were a set of impenetrable stone-filled hollows and a single very short cave in the grounds of a run-down homestead.
Overlooked by other Kiwi explorers, here was an opportunity like no other.
And when the homestead came up for sale, the lure of the possibilities proved irresistible.
Rob bought the place. Yes, it was a fabulous setting but it was the underground prospects that drove the pair forward. Within a few months a couple of caves that terminated in sumps had been entered.
So I was invited over to explore. Week after week Rob posted me caving updates: a new cave opened here; another discovered there – and so it went on.
Rob is nothing if not enthusiastic, but he is not a diver, which is where I came into the picture. Rob had set up the perfect opportunity, amassed equipment and arranged the portering manpower required – and he had theories. Not for many years have I been in such a right place at the right time.
By the time I arrived, a major system was in the making. Not only did the caves discharge huge volumes of water in time of flood, but in drought they dried up. The normal water draining out from the mountain disappeared into the vast unknown complex below the Takaka valley floor – into the Pupu Springs conduit.
In simple terms, the Spittal Springs system was an overflow outlet from a brimful Pupu Springs system.

THE OBSTACLE THAT HAS confronted me for the past half-hour has been a shallow underwater stal barrier, something like a stone portcullis.
The passage at this point is less than a couple of feet high, and I have literally hammered my way through to an open space.
Above water such desecration of the environment rarely takes place, but in this instance I have knocked out a hole just large enough to pass through.
I push aside some debris and wriggle carefully forward. Just ahead of me, just beyond the first cylinder, I can see that magical silvery surface, the tell-tale sign of air and, I hope, wide-open passage.
The water is clear, and such is the flow towards me that I have no risk of silting the passage.
I inch my body forward a bit more.
I attempt to push the reel into the side again, but the flow is determined to repel my efforts. The line is drifting around my head; not a pretty sight. It’s a bit of a cluster****, but I feel safe.
I chortle to myself, thinking that the lads on the surface would never believe all this palaver. But they will tonight, because every movement I am making is being recorded on the GoPro.

I’VE NEVER USED one of these small head-mounted cameras before this trip, but one was thrust at me on day one, together with a bold new lighting system, and every night we’ve sat and watched, reliving the exploratory events and, more importantly, giving the others some idea of the dry cave, places that they have not visited yet and, for all we know, may never see.
To my knowledge this is a first, and we have vastly improved on our filming techniques on successive operations.
Given that I’m a one-man band and the priority is exploration, our success rate is proving pretty good.
Over the past week we have directed our attentions to Old Cottage Cave, some 250m distant. The hobbit-sized entrance lies in a grassy paddock and the sump is reached 300m or so inside.
The first operation passed some 170m of shallow sump to yield an enormous streamway leading for more than 150m to a further flooded section.
A couple of days later this, in turn, was passed and another 1.15km added to the length of the system. Walking along a large tunnel I reached yet another sump, my route heading straight into the mountain but not rising more than a few feet in height from my initial point of entry to the water at Sump 1.
It was slightly spooky, considering that virtually every part of the mile-long cave floods to the roof – not a place in which to be when rain is forecast.
My cave today – Convenient Cave – must surely be connected in some way with the other caves, all of which run straight back into the mountain.
This cave is seemingly the primary active flow of all the Spittal Springs, and it is located in between all the others.
Perhaps this is the one that will yield that direct connection down into the Pupu drainage conduit. At the very least there is a link-up to be achieved, thereby increasing the overall length of Rob’s cave system.
My head breaks surface, I scrabble out of the water and, yes, the cave goes on. With dive-gear parked, I crawl forward into the unknown. This is my third operation in this particular cave, and just about everything I have encountered has been a challenge.
It is totally different in character to the neighbouring caves to the left and right, and definitely misnamed. There is more airspace now than of late, but in places I still need to use the hammer to move forward. This is proving one of the most unusual operations with which a diver could ever be involved.
Eventually, after a lot of hard physical effort, I reach a more substantial impasse. The camera is thrust forward into the small submerged opening… it can see what I cannot.
Only later that night do we all get to see that terminal section, which reveals another teasing stretch of possibly negotiable airspace just metres in front!
On the way out, I explore a set of upper galleries and discover some beautiful grottoes. Using a Suunto compass and dive slate, everything is surveyed. Only by doing this do we know where to concentrate efforts on subsequent missions.

BACK AT BASE and with survey drawn, a link-up between Convenient Cave and Woolshed Cave becomes glaringly obvious – something for a future date.
Time, weather, manpower and basic fatigue eventually conspire against us. The Spittal Springs caves total more than 2.6km, with exciting wide-open possibilities extending both up- and downstream in two of the main caves.
We have video footage of the action and have established the springs as one of the major speleological sites in New Zealand. We may not have discovered direct access to the main Pupu Springs conduit (yet) but there is little doubt that it must be there for the finding.
That’s the thing with caving and cave-diving: you make an advance or discovery, and more often than not another tantalising mystery is thrown up.