Pleasure and Pain in Spittal Springs
THE EXPLETIVES FLOWED and I was forced to sit down, my back against a boulder. I knew what the problem was and I also knew that it didn’t bode well.
For the first time in many years the thought went through my head – perhaps my luck had run out this time.
Hmm… It was a recurrence of my back problem, an issue that had plagued me like a nagging toothache for some 25 years.
I’d been free of acute problems for at least seven years but this place – the furthest extremity of Old Cottage Cave, in South Island, New Zealand – was definitely not the place for it to go down!
The minutes ticked by and the spasm began to wane. My harness, lead and cylinders lay on the rocky beach in front of me, and sooner or later I would have to bend over and start putting the stuff on again. I had no pain-killers, so it was clear that the next few hours were not something to look forward to.
I had just passed two sumps beyond the 2013 limit, six in total, and found another 400m of new cave.
But the new ground was increasingly remote; the combination of distance, time and weight of equipment had taken its toll.
The entrance was 3km distant and, as is normal on this type of undertaking, I was on my own. No one would be at all concerned until tomorrow.
This was the way I wanted it and, until a few minutes ago this was undoubtedly the way it should be.
I MUSED ABOUT HOW quickly a situation could change. Hmm… how many times had problems arisen over the years?
I had sustained minor injuries quite a few times in my 50-plus years of cave-exploring; I had seen and escaped some close calls and tragically witnessed at close quarters the ultimate events.
It all flooded through my head in a ridiculous haphazard way, and each and every memory was instantly squashed.
Whatever was about to unfold, I knew I had to deal with it. Caving, diving, exploration – this was my life and, despite the pain, I still loved doing it all.
This was my third consecutive trip to Spittal Springs, a group of at least five caves issuing water from a common source deep beneath the 750m-high Takaka Hill.
On each of the previous undertakings I had managed a good mile of dive-related cave discoveries. Last year had been especially spectacular when, on my first underground venture to Totara Cave, I found the place I quickly named Avalon.
Very few people have ever been so privileged. An easy, short sump had been passed and eventually, by checking out all the open leads, I scrambled up into one of the most beautiful caverns in the world.
Stalactites, stalagmites and other flowstone formations adorned the walls in all directions – utterly breathtaking and inclined to make me feel reverential.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime event and I subsequently returned, again solo, and spent five hours in this one chamber, photographing and taking video footage.
People often ask why these activities are done alone, and I well understand the reason for asking.
The answer is simple. I feel that the exploratory element is always best undertaken solo because that way you are totally focused on the job in hand and not allowing your thoughts to be distracted.
But when you take a remote area such as that in New Zealand into account, a very basic consideration comes to the fore.
On the first two trips I had been the only cave-diver on South Island. Try as I might, I had failed to find anyone able to assist with the photographic trip into Avalon. In such remote areas, you learn to be totally self-reliant or you don’t do it.
THE TWO-MONTH 2014/15 trip was again planned to take advantage of summer conditions and push the Old Cottage and Totara Caves further.
Inevitably with every progressive mission greater preparation is required. There was now another diver and keen activist based in the area, but at the outset we didn’t have the manpower available to porter all the gear for two divers to the Old Cottage dive base.
I believe I always build in “margins” to allow for the unexpected, and the resolve was steadfast – I would get myself out.
There followed a pathetic trek back to the entrance, leaving most of my equipment at the dive base. The upshot of that day was for me to spend the best part of three weeks unable to go underground at all, quietly endeavouring to regain mobility with the help of pain-killers and anti-inflammatories.
A few days before Christmas, I set off on a surface prospecting walk up the isolated valley Gorge Creek. I needed to assess the exploration possibilities in this dramatic and strategically important area.
Several kilometres from the nearest road there were known to be major sinks in the river-bed, sinks that presumably fed Old Cottage Cave, projected to lie somewhere 80m below the valley floor.
Imagine my amazement when, about two hours into the trek, I was checking out a shadowy recess in the rocky canyon side when I located a hitherto-unknown cave. It wasn’t a stream sink – quite the opposite. Fewer than 6m from the entrance, a fine crystal-clear sump was issuing a stream.
TWO DAYS LATER, on 24 December, a small team carried dive-gear to the site and a superb new cave was revealed.
Two sumps were passed and one very happy explorer felt that Christmas had come early.
Further progress at Delightful Cave was made on Boxing Day when another two sumps were passed. The length of the system rose to 500m, and I left the cave ongoing when I reached a flat-out crawl.
Happy to have regained my fitness, the tantalising subject of Old Cottage Cave raised its head once more. This place had a fascinating hydrology, and it seemed destined to continue a long way.
The further I penetrated the larger the river became, and I had stopped in early December at what appeared to be a further short dive.
Normally, as with the analogy of a tree, the further you travelled upstream in a cave the smaller the main passage and side branches became. Here, the main passage got larger and, paradoxically, there was more flowing water.
I knew I could continue further if I modified my equipment and had some help in carrying bottles through the first half of the cave. Kiwi enthusiast Kieran McKay took no persuasion; he was living locally and keen to get involved.
Luckily the water levels in the cave had now fallen to the lowest I had experienced in the three years I had been visiting. Progress through the cave was much easier than hitherto.
KIERAN IS RENOWNED as a hard man in NZ circles, and seeing him nimbly striding over boulders after Sump 3, carrying his own cylinders and two small 3-litre bottles for me, was impressive.
In such a way I was able to set off into Sump 4, the limit of the first year’s exploration, with three full bottles. Without video or any other superfluous bits and pieces I was soon at the “end”.
The river mushroomed from a tumultuous sump to the right, but with the updated survey it was evident that the cave was most likely to continue via a static muddy pool off to the left.
This was indeed the case. Sump 7 was 40m long, while Sump 8 was only 13m, and both were only 3m deep.
I was thankful that yet again the cave was being kind, presenting flooded tunnels that were easily tackled using lightweight open-circuit equipment.
I emerged onto dry ground, dekitted and set off into the unknown. The passage here was not the spacious tunnel I had been expecting, but it was at least 3m wide by 2m high, and clearly an overflow for the main river.
Virgin exploration has always fired my imagination, and especially the lure of open “dry” passage beyond flooded cave. Maintaining a minimal gradient the dramatically sculpted, finely decorated cave led on in an easterly direction.
The passage then split into two, and the route to the left led eventually to a gushing spout of water, cascading from a restricted opening in the roof above.
The other tunnel was to lead to Sump 9, which seemed to issue about half of the main river, last seen prior to Sump 7.
With time now a consideration, and given the importance of making an elemental survey, I slowly made my way out.
After a couple of hours I rejoined Kieran, who had undertaken valuable exploration of his own. He confirmed ongoing prospects in one tunnel and re-affirmed that the main river disappeared off downstream in Llyn Glas, Sump 4.
Despite the low flow, the suction into this tunnel was such that Kieran dared to venture only a few metres. Quite where this water goes is currently uncertain.
Old Cottage Cave now extends almost directly beneath Gorge Creek. Whether it penetrates into the mountainside on the other side of the valley remains to be established. And, every bit as exciting, as I packed to head back to the UK, Kieran set his sights on the furthest reaches of Totara Cave.
After two visits he had added well over a kilometre in the downstream sector of Spittal Springs – taking the system as a whole to more than 7km in length. To everyone’s amazement, Kieran was to discover that the water level here had fallen more than 20m since my 2014 trip!
What is certain is that much, much more remains to be found here. This is a golden era of cave exploration in New Zealand, and we’ll be hearing a lot more in coming years.
My thanks to Rob Davies, Michelle Allison, Tony Salmon, Peter Glanvill and Kieran McKay for carrying gear!
Martyn Farr conducts cave-dive courses in South Wales, www.farrworld.co.uk