Monday, November 1, 2010

Spelunking Down Under (Yes, that can be taken literally, ha ha).

A day full of adventure and new experiences! Any sadness I felt for not having a traditional Hallowe’en with pumpkins and morbid, creepy experiences was wiped out by the sheer fun of today’s activities.

This morning we left Karioi Lodge at 8am, dropped off one person and picked up a few more, then drove out for Waitomo, a region famous for its limestone caves. (Wai means “water”, and tomo means “sinkhole” or “entrance”; in this sense “cave”.) I chose to do Haggas Honking Holes, a four-hour spelunking adventure that the information pack warned involved getting very wet (“feel like Indiana Jones in a washing machine!”). They weren’t kidding! The cave is named (and of course I can’t remember the name) after the man who discovered it in 1906 by accidentally falling into one of its entrances after rolling down a grassy knoll and falling off a cliff (he broke his legs, but was found and recovered). The cave wasn’t fully explored until the 1960s, which is understandable once inside: there is a considerable amount of water, and many places where climbing and rappelling gear is necessary. The cave actually connects up to another called St. Benedict’s Caverns, about at 6km trek underground, that our guide Dion told us is done once a year by the tour guides, takes them about eight hours moving at a fair pace, and involves full submersion (essentially diving) in underground pools to get through.

In New Zealand, if you discover caves on your property, they are rightfully yours, as all New Zealand land owners own their property from the surface down to the centre of the earth. Consequently, the cave we were exploring with the tour company is privately owned by the owners of the farm above, which is why the tour is called “Haggas” (after the farm); the rest of the name comes from a Dr. Seuss book the tour company owner used to read to his children.

There were five of us doing this particular spelunking adventure (myself, Mike, Anne-Marie, Nina, and Celestina); the rest (wimps!) opted for a tame ride-in-a-raft-and-look-at-the-glowworms “Spellbound” underground tour. After being dropped off at the tour guide office, we drove for about 15 minutes up to the Haggas farm to the tour company shed, where we were outfitted in wetsuits, wetsuit vests, helmets, and gum boots. We were then given a short lesson in abseiling on a steep pasture side shared with sheep; here I quickly realised that abseiling is another term for rappelling, but with slightly different gear (instead of a knot system, we used a metal friction device). As such I was fairly comfortable, having rappelled down a seven-story rain-barrel at Horne Lake Caves on the island. The guides Sara and Dion quickly figured out that I had some experience spelunking and rappelling, and gave me the responsibility of looking out for and helping the other four several times in the cave. (Sara also told me one of her friends had worked in a cave in Canada, and it turned out it was Horne Lake Caves! Such a small world.)

The entrance to the cave was likely the scariest part for me: to get in we had to maneuver ourselves into a narrow opening with a steep drop-off, onto a metal ladder about six feet long. I went last, and had to coax Nina down ahead of me, even holding her hand at one point. What made it scary for me was a) not being used to trying to get a footing on slippery limestone in gum boots, and b) not having any sort of belay or safety rope system to catch me if I fell. Having been climbing on belay at Horne Lake Caves and slipping on the face of the cliff, I know first hand the rope system would catch me and keep me safe, and climbing without it made me very nervous. So unlike the rest of the group, who freaked out when we got to the seven-metre abseil down the waterfall, I had my biggest fear over and done with at the entrance to the cave. Whew!

The second abseil was quick to follow the first one, and involved getting very wet; we had to rappel right down a waterfall, and stop in the middle for Sara to take a picture of us (we weren’t allowed to take our cameras into the cave; likely too many accidents with damaged non-waterproof devices). Our gum boots rapidly filled with water, which wasn’t so bad, because the small amount of water warmed up to body temperature, keeping our feet reasonably comfortable. The wetsuits also kept our bodies fairly warm. What stayed quite cold were our hands, being constantly exposed to the running water.

For the third abseil, it was too narrow for us to climb down properly; instead, Sara had us put our hands on our helmets, and she turned off our lights and lowered us down in total darkness, about four meters, in a waterfall! Very cold, but very cool.

After the third abseil we had to walk through the waterfall we had just descended to the cavern on the other side, then crawl on our hands and knees through the flowing water into the next larger chamber. I figured if Celestina, who is quite a large man from Arizona (and quickly nicknamed “Captain America”) would fit through the openings, I wouldn’t have any problems.

In one of the bigger caverns we were given a brief geology lesson in cave formation: limestone, essentially ancient ocean seafloor consisting of sediment and algae compacted into rock, is worn away by the rushing water trying to find its lowest point. The quintessential cave features, stalactites and stalagmites, are comprised of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and start out as soda straws, hollow tubes that become clogged. Sara also pointed out formations that here in Canada are called cave bacon. I quickly realised they are far less concerned about conservation of the cave formations than at Horne Lake Caves; here it was explained that we should not touch the structures lest we deposit oil from our fingers and discolour and ruin them, but not with the seriousness and formality of back home in Canada. I had already told Nina and Captain America all this earlier in the cave, leading them to ask me if I was a scientist. Sigh, no, that’s just me being me...! Sara asked us how far we thought we had gone. Nina estimated two kilometers, and Captain America the same; I said three hundred metres. Guess who was correct. :-)

After another photo op of looking decidedly stuck in a watery hole, and passing by some fossilised oysters in the cave wall, we had another break in a large cavern where we got a snack of juice and a marshmallow chocolate bar, then we turned off our headlamps and Dion taught us all about the bioluminiscent glowworms. I won’t describe their fascinating life cycle; instead, you can read about it here: . Suffice it to say that after a few minutes of sitting in the darkness with just the glow worms for light, I started to be able to see their refelctions in the running water below, and even the faint shadows of our gum boots (they were white). It was as if the roof of the cave was the sky, covered with a hundred tiny blue-green stars.

By then we were starting to climb our way out of the cave; Dion took me up front and asked me to be a spotter at the bottom of one of the ladders, clipping the carabiner onto the person’s harness, making sure it was safe, and calling “climbing” to let Sara know at the top the person was starting up the ladder. I was sorry to be leaving the cave so soon; I wanted to stop and gaze for hours on all the fascinating structures, and climb and explore the caverns we passed by. Sigh. I need to do more spelunking.

Back on the surface, and after a warm shower in the tour barn, we headed back to Waitomo Adventure Centre headquarters, where I was able to purchase a CD with photos from our trip and general pictures of the cave. Then it was back on the Stray Bus, where we bragged to the other travellers about how amazing our afternoon was while we made our way to Maketu, a Māori town where we would have our unique “cultural experience”.

This blog entry is already becoming ridiculously long, so I will keep my summation of the cultural experience short. We are in a Māori marae (meeting house), had a traditional dinner (hangi), and had a concert where we interacted with the local Māori performers (Maketu residents, from a nine-year-old boy to a 40-something woman). I loved the intimacy of the setting; it felt warm and friendly, like a family. As the chief, named Uncle Boy told us, we are now part of his tribe (iwi), his extended family. We had to elect a chief of our own tribe (iwi Stray) and accepted the leaf offering on the ground when confronted by the Māori tribe’s haka (a dance; in this case, threatening). After making it known that we were there on peaceful terms, we performed the hongi, the sharing of life breath, by shaking hands and touching noses with the other tribe. We then sat in the marae and listened to a few musical numbers by the Māori, then the men left the room to go learn the haka (in this case, the war haka used by the All Blacks rugby team), while the women stayed in the marae and learned to use a poi (a ball on a string that one spins, that was originally used to train the men’s wrists for stanima and strength in using hand-to-hand combat weapons).

We the all performed for one another in the marae; we women got to keep our normal clothes on, but the men had to perform in just their underwear and traditional Māori skirts! If they were self-conscious about their bare chests, they were confident in covering it up. At the end of the concert, the Māori taught us the actions to a song, and we all sang and danced together, and posed for pictures. Afterward the chief, Uncle Boy, gave us a brief talk about the history of the Māori, how they got to New Zealand, and described the artefacts mounted on the wall. My brain is too full of information, and I can't hope to write it all here... I'll just have to put it in my personal memory box. :-)

The guys get ready to perform the haka.

Off to bed for me; we are all sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the marae, so it’s likely going to be a night of finding out who snores the loudest (my bet is on Captain America), and me trying not to cough every twenty seconds and annoy everyone around me. Off to Rotorua tomorrow for even more adventure!


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