Spelunking in New Zealand

New Zealand is an incredible place. If it’s not the other-worldly beauty that speaks to you, then it may well be the adventuresome spirit that lives here. In fact, bungee jumping and the jet-packs were said to be invented here. Although we never made it to bungee jumping, we did have a couple cases of trying new and slightly frightening adventures while there. One time in particular took us completely out of our wheelhouse and into the side of a mountain in total darkness.

Haley having some fun in an ice cave - one of the more fun caves on our journey.

Haley having some fun in an ice cave - one of the more fun caves on our journey.

After riding in a helicopter and playing around on Fox Glacier one morning, we packed into our rental car to drive from the west coast to the east where we were stopping in Christchurch for a few days. One of the best decisions we made on the trip was renting a car and learning to drive on the wrong side of the road. After some nerve-racking miles of driving, we realized it gave us so much more freedom to do and see the things we wanted. So along the way to Christchurch we found plenty of signs telling of little treasures just off the highway, and every one of them was well worth the stop. As we were probably only about an hour west of Christchurch, we stopped at one place in particular to find this sign:

Our only guide...

Our only guide...

Now, the most misleading part of the sign, as we later decided, were the apparent small children in the middle picture that look like they’re going to have a fun and easy time caving! However, having never caved before, New Zealand convinced us that we should find some wet-suits to rent and come back for a nice morning excursion.

We woke up in Christchurch the next morning with a few places we were going to try and track down rental wet-suits and thankfully were lucky to hit on our first stop. We got a little bit of information from the kind folks at Dive HQ about what to expect with the hike, but we were pretty led to believe this would be an easy enough 45-minute or so trek. After gathering our suits and buying some headlamps (a real lifesaver), we got back on the road back towards our mountain!

Here, we suited up feeling like real superheroes about to explore worlds yet to be seen!

Suited up and ready to go!

Suited up and ready to go!

We hiked down the path to the mouth of the cave where we looked in the day before and plunged into the ice-cold stream water. Note: we visited NZ during their spring as much of the snow is melting off of the mountaintops – thus all of the rivers, streams and waterfalls we visited were, as we later noticed the sign mentioning, “bitterly cold.” This first turn is probably where those kids in the picture either turned around or walked in over their heads and still are exploring the cave – we’re not sure. But the first turn brought the water up to our chests and immediately became pitch black.

We switched on our headlamps and decided to hold hands for most of the journey just to make sure if one of us slipped, we could either catch the other or just both go down. Either way, trust the buddy system!

The cave was really incredible. Even just thinking about the fact that we were hiking through the heart of a mountain in Middle Earth was pretty exciting. The cave had been smoothed out by the stream pretty well, and thankfully we didn’t see another living creature while in there. I’m sure had we encountered bats or something brushing our legs, we would have attempted to run as fast as possible through the turns and switchbacks to get free. After about 45 minutes or so at what seemed to be a steady, solid pace, we began to expect some spot of light around every corner. Then 45 minutes became an hour which became an hour and a half. It was about here that we started to wonder if we entered the wrong cave. Of course, if this was the right one, we couldn’t turn around at this point because surely we were closer to the exit than hiking back to the entrance.

Taking a small break in the middle-ish of the cave.

Taking a small break in the middle-ish of the cave.

We tried to keep our spirits up by figuring at least we were with each other if we were to die in this mountain. However, things became especially tricky when we came to a rather tight waterfall that was literally gushing with water. Since all of the surfaces in the cave were pretty well smoothed over by the water, it was incredibly tricky to wedge myself against the sides of the waterfall while fighting the flow of water. Somehow, I managed to slide around the backside of one edge and was up. Now I had to figure out how to get Haley up. She tried the same method I had done, but being quite a bit smaller, the water just wasn’t having any of it. After a few attempts of me finding some footing to give a helping hand, we were still stuck. We had to seriously consider this as the end of the line and face the hour and a half back the other direction. In one last dire attempt, Haley managed to get her elbow up and around the side of the rock enough to give leverage in pulling herself up!

After knowing and being with Haley for over 8 years, there were plenty of moments in life that made me realize how strong of a person she is, both physically and mentally. However, seeing her persevere and whoop that waterfall made the top 10 list and made me extremely proud of her. It was just another great reminder that I had found a truly awesome companion.

 We trudged on for about another 20 minutes before I thought I had imaged a spot of light above. Thankfully, Haley said she saw it, too! We had reached the final pool and discovered the ladder that would save us from the belly of the beast. We climbed up and out, completely exhausted… but also accomplished. We picked an adventure where we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, had no experience, and were pushed to our real physical limits. But here we were, at the end. We felt like real bad asses.

At the top of the ladder that saved us from becoming Smeagol and Gollum in this cave.

At the top of the ladder that saved us from becoming Smeagol and Gollum in this cave.

 

And there’s no way those kids from the picture made it to the end.

Matthew Smith