Hobbitland Adventures Part 2 – a Week on Takaka Hill
Friday, 21 August 2015 – Tuesday, 1 September 2015

It was half 5 in the morning when I awoke to arrive at Xanie, Luke, Adam and Elliott’s halls of residence for a 7am start for the ferry south. We stumbled across an awesome radio station which was playing pretty hard d’n’b at 7:45am, with tracks interjected by appraisals such as ‘fan-fucking-tastic’ from the dj. Supreme start. A scone trolley with an excellent offensive bell did the rounds. Soon we were in Picton and then on the road down to Blenheim, where I was dropped off as our routes parted ways. I walked along the highway for about 10 minutes before being picked up by a wheelchair mechanic called Hedley (he was driving a massive people carrier with 5 wheelchairs in the back, pretty bizarre). He dropped me just outside Renwick at a layby popular with trucks, very kind of him as it wasn’t on his way. 30 seconds after getting out of the wheelchair wagon, I was picked up by a couple of loggers called Matt and Zane. Matt had previously worked in rope access for pylon companies, building pylons all around NZ and Australia. I was introduced to the concept of mussel pies, apparently very tasty. I arrived in Nelson before 3pm. Catching a lift in this country is almost ridiculously easy, it’s great.
After exploring the town a bit, I met Benoit at the cafe where he works. I was treated to an amazing free apricot muffin, and then we went for a beer at the pub across the road. Then we headed back to Benoits house, where I was again amazingly well looked after by Rose, who he lives with at the moment. I was informed of the start time tomorrow: 5am. I have finished caving at 5am before, but never started. There’s a first for everything.

5am came around fast. I was knackered, but bacon sandwiches sorted me out a bit. I live so much more comfortably in other people’s houses than my own: real bed, eating meat, working washing machine and heating… luxury. We arrived at the cave by 7am. The plan was to head into Harwoods Hole and see what was doing with a couple of bolt climbing projects Ben had started in there. Harwoods Hole is the Gaping Ghyll of New Zealand, both in nature and status. The initial abseil is just shy of 200m. Most kiwis do it as one straight abseil from the top: most people here use racks. The rope they use most of the time, called donaghues, is quite thick and akin to the rope used in the USA for indestructible rope technique. It is almost always done as a through trip to avoid the prussik back up. Benoit is French, however, and so we would be using exclusively snapgates, dyneema and 8mm rope. To break up the ascent, he also installed an extra rebelay 40m from the bottom and another 30m from the top. There was also a deviation for full French effect.

At the top, I was extremely tired and preoccupied with not falling down the hole. When I got to the top, it seemed like a long way. Normally I don’t care about big drops like that, but I was tired and the only companion to one of the most experienced alpine cavers I’ve met (so not wanting to piss about) which made me feel jumpy. Another thing which made me nervous was that I knew my descender bobbins were pretty worn (read: needed changing very soon), and I was carrying a bag with 100m of rope in it and rigging gear down a 200m drop. It was going to be fast: hopefully I could hang on.
Soon I was at the bottom. I say soon: the rope got insanely tangled after Benoit installed the bottom rebelay, so I had to down prussik about 10m of rope and untangle it as I went because the rope wouldn’t easily uncoil going through my descender. Descending, I had to use a second braking carabiner for the first time ever. After a bit of a slippery climb above a massive boulder slope and a 30m drop, we reached the foot of the rope leading to where we would climb. It involved a traverse across some very slippery boulders and flowstone above a big hole. The boulders were also really loose: apparently several big ones fell off last time. Soon we got to a nice alcove for belaying from. Benoit put 2 more bolts in to get round the corner and look up the climb before proclaiming in annoyance: ‘shit, there is nothing to climb here.’ Apparently even scurions can be deceiving about the promise of leads. It was down to me to derig the traverse. It was pretty technical and definitely woke me up a bit. To derig the last drop I rigged it up as a pull through: pulling through when at the bottom was surprisingly easy considering the rope was threaded through 2 raumer hangars. It would also appear that the 8mm bolts can easily hold 2 people as for one really slippy downclimb Benoit put me on belay, probably a good thing as I slipped off and swung round to just under Benoit. Feeling woken up somewhat, we had lunch: fancy French bread, salami and cheese made by Francis the cheesemaker. Yum.

Then Benoit announced he would try and get onto the ledge just above the last rebelay and have a look there. It was all quite complicated as the shaft is about 20m wide, so I would have to swing him from the bottom onto the other side. He also had to take out the last rebelay, meaning a very bouncy prussic for me at the bottom. Our efforts proved futile and I did not manage to swing him. The final prussik, with almost double the rope we took down initially, took me about 40 minutes, and the first 50m were the worst I have ever prussiked: the bounce was quite ridiculous, around a 3m oscillation up and down from the central position. We then had to haul 200m of rope, pack it, and get back to the car. The time was half 4 when we got back to the car, leaving all evening and the night to get pissed. Once back in Nelson, we headed to Marions house for drinks before hitting the town. I met an English barman who had left the UK to get a job in New Zealand because the fucking Poles had stolen his job. We ended up in some bar playing pool in teams of 2. Good night all round. Next day was washing gear and practising midrope rescues at Benoits house. I also learnt how to make carabiners out of dyneema: one of the niftiest things Ive seen for a while.

On Monday morning I was picked up by Kieran Mckay, extremely keen caver and massive nutjob, from Roses house. I had been warned that this guy was prone to being a bit cocky and getting himself into the shit from taking silly risks by a number of cavers I had met out here: he had a rescue in Bulmer where he broke his jaw and fractured his leg because he abseiled off a single anchor which failed, causing him to freefall 15m. So I was quite wary about going into Bulmer with him for a week, and wanted to do some other caving with him first. After all the negative press, I didnt know what to expect, but I really liked Kieran: he was really friendly, cared about his mates, and despite being really crazy (he is basically the only cave diver in NZ and in one year did well over 50 exploratory dives, quite incredible commitment to exploration) he clearly understood how to cave safely and wasnt going to piss about. He reminded me of a caving Dean Potter, in looks as well as in attitude. We went up to the caving hut on Takaka Hill (really cosy and in an awesome location in the forest), discussing awesome UK caving trips and what caving there was to do in NZ en route, then headed off to a cave called Snail Cavern to survey the cave. This cave had been rediscovered after initial exploration in the 80s, and was now being blasted at the bottom. A number of the caves on Takaka Hill reach a depth of 200m and then stop developing or get very tight, presumably due to a much harder stratigraphy, and this one was getting the cap treatment. Despite the cave being short, we surveyed the cave in a ridiculously short time: 1.5 hours from start to finish. Im not really sure what the point of the survey was, as it was so inaccurate that we might as well have just guessed some of it. No survey stations were marked on, not even the start and end, and despite using a distox3 Kieran only wrote down compass and clino to the nearest integer degree, effectively making the survey about grade 2 BCRA if that (no backsights obviously). His drawing featured no scale and no orientation arrow, and there were no cross sections and no elevation (that I saw). Surveying in New Zealand is really not about pretty surveys and maps like it is in the UK: surveys are done mainly to see where the exploration should continue, and to give a rough guide of the cave layout. Also, surveys of a cave are rarely good as a guide of the cave unless you already know a bit about where youre going, so to get a feel for a cave you really have to go there and explore it a lot yourself. The reason for this is that a lot of the caves are really complex (Bulmer, for example, has about 75km of passage in a 4x4x0.75km cube) and the surveys are not drawn well enough to show how the passages relate in terms of different levels. Still, the trip was really fun and I got to see where Kieran had nearly blown his face off a month back by drilling a hole in which someone had left an unexploded cap the time before (lucky to still have his eyes). We caved out really really fast: Kieran is basically a full time caver (works in outdoor instruction) and despite not using a pantin is a crazy fast prussiker. Back at the hut, we met Travis Cross (another caving hero and all round legend) and got the fire going.

Next day, after a leisurely start, we set off to finish off surveying a few loose ends in another Takaka hill cave called Corkscrew. Kieran has a bolt climb going on in this cave (now 72m high  yes, he is that crazy) which is interesting because from the climb site the air is drafting into the cave, which is not observed in any other caves in the area. The caves on Takaka hill are very similar to Yorkshire potholes, with some squeezy bits and lots of short pitches. With this surveying done, we were out in about 3 hours. Kieran headed off to Nelson Lakes to do some work observing a school alpine instruction course, and me and Travis headed down the hill to Rich Bramley aka Kiwi Richs house to do some ropework in his trees. En route, we picked up a couple of young guys called Tyla and Leo who Travis had met at Paynes Ford (NZs sport climbing mecca) in summer. After rigging up a quick rope swing in a tree (great fun), we headed down in time to practice hauling a stretcher using a series of counterbalances, amongst other things. Then back up the hill to await the arrival of Morgan and Tristan, two members of the Vic Uni Tramping Club who wanted to give caving a go. After waiting up til 3am with a box of wine, I gave up and went to bed.

They arrived at 9am the next day, having got amazingly lost en route to the hut (it is a bit out of the way). After spending the morning teaching them the basics of SRT on the very handy tower the NSG have at the hut, we set off for Hobbit Hole, a nice beginner friendly cave with lots of pretties located on Takaka hill. They were a bit unhappy with the crawly, thrutchy start (by New Zealand standards, it is quite tight) but soon we were out in big stompy passage and able to enjoy one of the finest caves I have been in for some time. Very little SRT (good job as we only had 2 sets of ascending gear between the 3 of us and I had a makeshift sling harness, which I was actually quite pleased with, sporting an Italian hitch descender and cowstails) sporting climbs, fun traverses, and some of the finest and most varied passage and formations Ive seen in some time. We went through a big section with a lot of formations into a short section of meandering stream canyon, then into big passage again with a huge pristine white flowstone. The main way on after this is to the right, but we found another passage on, a sandy crawl under a boulder. The other side of this was truly spectacular: a big gour lake with some of the biggest and most impressive formations Ive seen anywhere. This place is called Pickfords Pissing Paradise Pool. We then headed on until we reached a massive hole in the floor. A short peowwwww call echoed for a good 8 seconds. There were very impressive formations here too. This was the start of a 110m pitch series, the Lighthouse series. It was here that we turned around and headed out. Good 5 hour bimble in one of the most beautiful caves I have ever visited! And I was told later by Benoit and Mike Brewer that there are 2 other even more amazing chambers in the entrance series that I didnt even visit. Plenty to return for then. Hoping to do a weekends camping down there in a couple of weeks so that should be good.

The next day was a rest day before we set off for a weekends tramping in the snow (Morgan and Tristan only had 4 hours sleep before the caving trip, which is a pretty good effort). We went to have a look at the Harwoods Hole entrance, and Morgan is keen to go back and do the through trip: recruitment success! There was then an incident which was deeply annoying but also tragically funny: we got back to the hut gate, which I had locked, and I discovered I did not have the key we were borrowing from Travis, who had gone away for a few days. Thinking I had lost it at HH, we headed back there and had a good hours search in the dark before admitting defeat and driving half an hour down the hill to see if Mike Brewer had a key. We arrived to discover he was caving, so we went and got tea. After an hour, he was home, so we called in. He had lost his key too, so we drove another 20 minutes to collect a key from Andrew Smith, who left his spare one for us in a welly behind a traffic cone outside his house (by now it was 10pm and he had work early so was in bed when we arrived). We got back to the hut at 11pm. I unlocked the gate, we drove up to the hut, and found Travis key sitting safely in the hut door. Fuck.

The weekend passed, and the weather for the next week went from bad to worse: snow, sleet, rain, gale force winds, the lot. This put off mine and Kierans planned trip down Bulmer to camp for another time, so I went back to Roses house in Richmond for a night then got the ferry back to Wellington the next day. Great holiday, looking forward to more caving and some success on the alpine front soon (planning an assault of Mt Taranaki via East Ridge and Sharks Tooth soon  mountains have good adventures on top as well as underneath it turns out). Thanks to all who hosted and put up with me, it was grand.