By Tom Crisp
Ahead of me the darkness looms, drawing me ever deeper into the watery void. My reel slowly spins in my hand as I let the line fall gently into position. Bubbles rush past my ears with each breath, a constant reminder that I only have a limited supply remaining. But what is around the corner? Does the passage keep going? I press on, delicately maneuvering over the clay bank that would surely lower my perfect visibility if disturbed.
T he passage appears to get bigger ahead. I pull out a rod from my tank bungee and gently thrust it into the clay floor before tying the guideline to it.
Suddenly a range of emotions and questions start to run through my head. Had I done a good job of putting the line in behind me? Would I be able to see anything when I turn around? What if I make a mistake? Can I fit back through the restriction in the entrance? I freeze. Butterflies suddenly appear in my stomach. Bubbles begin to rush past my ears at a faster pace. Think, Tom!
Calmly I gather my thoughts and reach for my pressure gauges, 180 bars in both tanks. Plenty of gas left to deal with any situation that may arise. Closing my eyes I focus on my breathing, slowing it to its usual relaxed pace. Sobering thoughts of rationality begin to kick back in. I have plenty of gas. The cave is opening up in front.
I kick, gliding further into the unknown as my torch cuts through the water like a laser. The dark void becomes wider and taller. Focusing on my movement, I kick again. With this wider passage I am free to move without disturbing the soft walls.
Excitedly I continue, still allowing the spool to slowly unwind.
I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. No one else in the world has ever seen this place. If I keep myself occupied with these thoughts maybe it will keep the butterflies away.
A ledge overhead creates a narrow opening to the passage beyond. As I creep under the ledge I do my best not to disturb the tree roots swaying in the breeze. I edge forwards into a small room and reach back for another rod to tie off to. Suddenly everything becomes black.
My eyes are open but I can’t see a thing. Darkness surrounds me, darkness like you could not imagine. If I lose my reel, I lose my only reference out of here. If I become momentarily complacent the one thing trying to save my life could turn on me and tangle me up in seconds. This is crunch time. Every bone in my body is screaming at me to freak out. Training kicks in once again. I take a deep breath, suppress the negative thoughts and focus on the good ones. I have the line, and it is taut. All I need is light but even that is not a necessity as I can just lock my reel and carefully follow the line back out, feeling my way through the darkness.
Clutching the spool I slowly reach for my backup light, making sure every minute movement is as deliberate as the last. Instantly everything comes into view again and a warm feeling rushes to my core. My eyes take a second to adjust and then focus. Everything seems to be in order. Time to quit while I am ahead.
I reach back for the rod and slide it out of my tank band. As it digs into the sediment it bottoms out on rock. Carefully I tie the line off, cut it and place a line marker to signal the end of this trip’s exploration. Peering into the darkness ahead I cherish the moment. The cave is still going strong and no one has ever seen what lies beyond. To keep going after a light failure would be irresponsible so I take one last glance before turning to head back to the cave’s entrance.
Visibility had reduced to half a meter! Still grasping the line, I try not to tug on it. It is only held in place by rods usually used to prop up tomato plants. As the line passes through my fingers it feels like it is taking an eternity to reach the next tie-off point.
More thoughts begin to creep in but are quickly drowned out by focusing on the task at hand. Eventually a tie-off point hits my hand where the line makes a sharp 90 degree turn to the left.
Continuing along in the same fashion, I pass tie off after tie off. The visibility is improving close to the entrance. I must be close now. The last obstacle between me and daylight is a tight restriction where both tanks need to be removed. A burst of light comes into view from the other side. Now for the final hurdle, the restriction. Removing tanks is not as easy as it sounds, especially in a confined environment. This is where knowing your equipment inside-out and back-to-front really comes in handy.
With one tank removed, I push it up through the narrows where a friendly face greets me, the resident long fin eel. Unfazed by my presence he hangs around while the second tank is removed before I contort myself through the oddly-shaped aperture. With both tanks in front I feel something pulling from behind. This cave is still doing its best to mess with me. The reel I had clipped off to my butt plate earlier has somehow twisted itself around the existing guideline, preventing my progress towards the exit. While reaching back to feel what is going on, the reel suddenly frees itself and the guideline snaps back into its original place. The surface is in sight now and I can already make out the shape of two people standing at the top of the sinkhole peering down. As my mask breaks the shimmering surface laughter begins erupting uncontrollably.
This dive had been years in the making and it was finally complete. What an awesome feeling. The next ten minutes were filled with questions from Karl Burt and Neil Thorpe, my surface support buddies. They were as excited as I was about the discoveries we had made today. Without their help and support this dive would not have been possible and for that I am eternally grateful. This was the first time I had ever laid eyes on virgin cave and I was particularly blessed to have such good conditions.
Since this trip, we have made several more to extend the cave a further 250 metres, map it and take specimen samples for NIWA. Probably the most productive trip was when a good friend, Ben Paterson came over from Australia to help out. We managed to more than double the length of the cave, take photos and survey it all.
The most exciting part of the project has been finding bones sticking out of the wall that are estimated to be 25–30 million years old! Next time we will be heading back to the bone location to take more pictures with a scale marker so we can hopefully document the remains.
Currently the end of the line is still wide open – wide being the operative word. We have hit a bedding plane, an extremely low but wide section of passage. To get past this is going to take a great deal of squeezing and scraping but it will be possible. Dates for the next trip are already in place.
Ben Paterson will once again be joining, along with veteran caver Kieran McKay as he was the one who initially put me onto this site in Otago, New Zealand, and is keen to return. The exploration continues…