Hobbitland Adventures Part 1: Black Sabbath and Adfrenchures
Friday, 24 July 2015 – Sunday, 26 July 2015
Interislander ferry was boarded at 1400 hours with the primary objective of finding someone to bum a lift off to Nelson. Everyone I met was, unfortunately, heading down state highway 1 to Christchurch, sheep and happiness (Kiwi dream). I met some quality characters though, including a Maori guy called Brett from Kaikoura (where the whales live) who serenaded me with Saxophone jams for a good 40 minutes, including an awesome jazzy rendition of Dirty Old Town. Views were sweeping and spectacular, and the sunset was one of the best. Once landed I boarded a bus for Nelson, getting there at around 2030 hours. I was met by Bruce Mutton, a typical caving engineer who felt it necessary to ask me if the water for my tea was boiled enough. His partner Jane was somewhat less of an engineer. They had an amazing house with lots of awesome souvenirs from years spent living in Bhutan. Bruce told me of a possible 1000m pull-through trip in a cave called Nettlebed, which is 1200m deep after some Australian divers got to -200m in the terminal sump. What the fuck.
I was awoken at 0620 hours next morning when Benoit, extremely French caver, swung by to give me a lift to the cave (he would be joining me underground). He was quite tired as he had been talking to other French people with beer last night. The dawn as we headed round the bay to Motueka was quite spectacular. We were at the residence of Michael Brewer, trip mastermind, before 0800 hours, and were soon changed and on our way up Takaka Hill. As James (extremely enthusiastic and intense English caver) was late, we could stop off at Harwood Lookout on the way. Michael pointed out where the resurgence was and where the main cave system (Greenlink/Middle Earth) was. We saw a Kia (alpine parrot). We headed on to the cave entrance, which is conveniently close to the track (prospecting in the bush would be a challenge). We were underground before 0900 hours, something I have never done before in my life.
Within the first ten minutes of entering the cave, a number of things became clear.
1. The cave had seen few visits, loose shitty choss was everywhere and my oversuit was going to get even more ripped to shreds.
2. Despite the presence of aforementioned shitty choss/cheese rock, few bolts were to be encountered and 20 year old slings (at youngest) would be predominantly used for rigging.
3. Rub points were not to be avoided, but embraced as part of the caving experience.
4. Michael was a fucking nutter, Bruce was even more of a nutter and Benoit was very French. And a bit of a nutter.
5. James loves talking very enthusiastically about everything and really wanted to make the connection today.
When James arrived at the entrance, he threw down about 500m of badly coiled brand new 9mm and left to get changed. Michael started rigging with an old rope as Benoit was worried about the 9mm being cored by the many rub points on the first pitch. I started to untangle and pack the 9mm as Michael was rigging. It took me about 10 minutes to do this, and I sustained a quite big rope burn on my neck from packing the rope (unbeknown to me until we got out of the cave). Once I reached Michael, he informed me that the 9mm was only needed for 2 more short pitches as the rest of the cave was rigged. Communication was, at times, very minimal on this trip. The next bit was SRTkits off and into an annoying thrutching rift/squeeze. Tackle was passed through bit by bit, and I found what they had referred to as extremely tight quite roomy. I could tell that all the rest of the caves I would do in New Zealand would be much nicer than Black Sabbath. At the next pitchhead, which had a pretty awkward tight take-off, the first bolt of the cave was present. In total, for 190m of descent, 3 bolts were used. Michael and Bruce dont like using bolts to rig. I didnt have a hammer to hit any of the naturals they were using with, but there were none that on visual inspection I would give a confidence rating of more than 70% to. One of the naturals in a y hang (no back-up, these rarely existed in Black Sabbath) was a stal which gave an extremely hollow intonation when I rapped on it with my knuckle. Joy.
Soon we were at the pushing front, where there were 2 options: go to the bottom and cap there, or bolt round to an inlet on the other side of an aven and see what was there. I did the latter with Michael, while James and Benoit headed on to the bottom. Michaels bolting/aid climbing techniques were the opposite of what I would call safe. We had no skyhooks, but he was able to reach round and put a couple of bolts in with Benoits drill. I cant remember what bolts he was using, but they (apparently) didnt require setting. The quality of the rock was also not very well assessed, as we had only 1 hammer between the 2 of us and James insisted on having it, so we used a rock to have a bash and see what it was like. Not promising. After Michael had got 3 runners (a sling on a not amazing looking natural and 2 bolts) I put him on belay and he climbed 2m or so up into the inlet. I was belaying him on a static rope that was over 20 years old, and although the climb looked easy I was very glad when he was up in the inlet. He then needed the drill (which he gave me before the climb) to put some bolts in on the other side. This required me to abseil down, unclip the runners, go back up and then lower him round the drill. Whilst I was unclipping the runners, I couldnt help but notice that the bolt hangars moved. A lot. Michael told me that was because he couldnt tighten them any more with the small spanner he had (he had dropped the bigger spanner earlier). The bolts used in NZ are 10mm diameter rather than 8mm, so the nuts are 17mm (most cavers carry an adjustable spanner). His assessment of the promise of the lead was Im 70% sure this is the connection. All the Denshamesque madness had at least been for something. Maybe. I found some consolation in the fact that the rock was actually quite good: most of Black Sabbath, beneath the choss, is formed of a really cool blue coloured meta-limestone, with really nice mineral banding. The choss is, I think, mainly the result of flood events, something the cave clearly suffered from quite badly: there was a lot of wood washed in at the entrance, and on the lower pitches there were lots of pockmarks on the pitch walls from rocks striking them as they were washed down at great speeds. Not the place to be in the rain.
We needed the good spanner and the hammer then, both at the bottom of the pitch. This meant I had to find a rope to get down from somewhere. The way to get one was to derig a pitch above, downclimb it and then use that rope. The climb wasnt the hardest I have ever done, but considering the quality of some of the rock and the situation (getting out through the tighter sections above with anything broken would be incredibly difficult) it was really not the thing to be doing. Not dead yet; hope it continues to stay that way. I then headed down to the bottom of the cave through a slightly awkward rift where James and Benoit had made some small progress with a very persistent and thick quartz vein which was causing a constriction. James was ecstatic at the prospect of connecting to Black Sabbath: we are witnessing a piece of history today! Middle Earth will become the 3rd longest in New Zealand again! We are now 3 of only 5 people to have ever come down here! This is amazing! I headed back up with the hammer and the spanner, then Michael went back round to the inlet to start bashing away at the restricted access to the passage beyond. Soon he decided he would need to cap it, so we sent the drill and some caps round. Over the next hour or so he set off about 6 or 7 caps, and the bang was extremely loud. Some were double bangs with 2 caps in the hole, which were quite scarily loud. During that time, I was getting cold so I rerigged the pitch I had to climb earlier. There was quite bad damage to one bit of the rope (rub special) so I tied it out. In total there were 3 knot passes to negotiate on the trip. I was told of Bruces recent(ish) capping exploits when he managed to cap a bit of roof which then fell on him and broke his collar bone, pretty minimal damage for a 1 tonne bit of rock. Bruce then self-rescued to the surface from 200m deep and 5 hours from the surface, stopping overnight at the camp in Middle Earth. Bruce is fucking hard. James had to be out for 5 to go to a house warming party for a sheep shearing shed he had been doing up, so he and Benoit left before me and Michael. They also left us with lots of the kit to carry and the entrance series to derig. About an hour after that, Michael concluded that bigger bang was needed to remove 1m2 of wall that was blocking progress. We then exited the cave. I was a bit tired after having done no caving in 2 months and only eating a bowl of porridge and an apple all day. I prussiked gently on the pitches, not wanting to cut the rope or pull the anchors off the wall. Michael asked me if I was tired and wanted him to carry the bag, then laughed when I said I was concerned about the naturals. All the Europeans are like this at first, he told me.
We were out of the cave at 1800 hours. On the entrance series, I managed to dislodge a massive lump of choss when I was above Michael and the rope. Luckily I caught it and managed to manoeuvre it into an alcove. Scary times. Caves in New Zealand are generally quite warm (average 12 apparently which is nice) and outside it was freezing. Michael went 180Ã‚Â° the wrong way exiting the cave and was surprised when I pointed out that it was where the lights were. For once, my navigational ability was better than someone elses, a true rarity. We then went back to Michaels and had coffee and apple shortbread his wife, Sarah, had made. Yum yum. Overall, a very fun (yet often scary) and eye-opening introduction to caving in New Zealand. I hope there will be many more adventures with these very friendly, kind and crazy cavers.
Benoit and I then drove back to Nelson with the aim of a rendezvous with the French girls he had met the night before. I expected my French to be put to the test in some bar. However, there was a change of plan and we headed to Clements new house for a residency party. I was then to discover that Nelson is where all the French speakers in New Zealand live. There were about 30 people there, all of whom were French, Swiss-French or related/in a relationship with someone who was. It was one of the most French gatherings I have ever been to: there was a whole roast chicken, a massive loaf of really tasty bread, a huge cheeseboard and a drinks selection of almost exclusively red wine and pastis. Many people sported berets, trilbys and other exciting hats. Despite it being a house party, no one was ever really inside and instead was outside chain-smoking roll-ups. The music selection was mainly electro-swing and exciting and odd French/Spanish hip-hop, folk and jazz all rolled into one. It was a great party with lots of really fun people. We headed back to Benoits car at about 0300 hours and proceeded to crash in the back (very comfy as it was a pretty big people carrier-cum-hatchback and so you could fold the seats back and lie down easily). We woke up at 0900 hours and went to a French coffee bar for breakfast. I was pretty tired, so 4 long blacks and pastries were very welcome. I then headed back to Bruces place and helped him and Jane design steampunk costumes before boarding the bus back to Picton for the Sunday night ferry. It was raining, as forecast (this was why we hadnt gone bolt climbing in Harwood Hole). Awesome weekend. Big thanks to Bruce, Benoit, Michael and James and especially to Bruce and Jane for letting me stay and feeding me.