ADVENTURE CAVING IN WAITOMO
WHY? AND WHAT? A PHILOSOPHICAL RAMBLE
I have a friend Don who is a "committed" caver, although one should use such a term with serious reservations as cavers have traditionally been seen as operating on the rim of insanity - perhaps dedicated would be more in keeping. Don is also President of the largest caving group in New Zealand, the Hamilton Tomo Group. He cut his teeth on hard caving; caves and systems won through a fair amount of grunt and that special blend of determination, raw skill and camaraderie that shrouds dedicated caving folk. Don has a feel for the subterranean and a real concern about caves as recreational resources.
He regards them rightly, as one of the most fragile environments on earth; where Nature builds with infinite care and patience, fine crystal filigrees, labyrinths of dark mysterious passages - time vaults for past climates, vegetation and animal habitations and the haunt of unique isolated mini ecosystems. To him, Mountains, Rivers and Forests heal, given time, while caves wound easily.
Don knows that there are places where his worn Vibram boot print will be preserved, who knows, for centuries at least and maybe even a millennium or two. He's perched on dark ledges beside roaring cataracts with his light frantically searching through mist and gloom, knowing well that a false move and broken bones could not be soothed by the comfort of whirring rotor blades and soft antiseptic hands. He has gazed in stunned silence at the wreckage left by the "buzz" seekers - crushed formation, litter dumps and banner waving, graffiti smoked, or sprayed on rock walls.
Don has formed his personal philosophy about caves. One ventures underground with reverence and a strong feeling of dedication; of meeting challenges as they arise - not creating challenges for the hell of it; of questing for knowledge - Where? How? Why? and a sense of being able to move with a minimum of impact and intrusion.
Why didn't someone in a more serious vein remark that "people climb mountains because they are there while cavers slink underground because it might be there;" and haven't we all seen those mud encrusted helmets bearing little stickers which extol:
"Break nothing but Silence
Take nothing but Photos
Leave nothing except Footprints."
To Don, caves are strictly for the dedicated cavers and are not to be regarded as underground adventure playgrounds.
We share Don's reverence and respect for caves and their extremely fragile nature. However our philosophy tends to side with Thoreau when he remarks;
"We need the tonic of wildness ... to be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigour, vast and titanic features ..." (Thoreau, Walden)
We all need to be taken close to Nature, to savour and to come away humble but inspired and fulfilled.
To many, a cave visit is along clean washed concrete paths caressed by a comforting incandescent glow and safe within the jostling throng - this satisfies their sense of being "close to wildness". Others follow a strong urge to quit the clamour and crowds to confront caves on their own terms - or to twist the Outward Bound axiom,
"to seek, to strive, and not to yield."
These folk are, or tend to become "dedicated" cavers.
Somewhere in between lies another group who don't wish to be lumped in with the tourist throng or have their outdoor experiences "gift wrapped" but who, for many reasons are unable to dedicate themselves to becoming true mountaineers or spelunkers. "Adventure Caving" based in the Waitomo Caves Village is an attempt to meet these people's need: to educate them about caves and caving and impress upon them that the resource is extremely vulnerable and essentially non-renewable.
WHERE? HOW? AND WHEN? THE REALITIES
The choice of cave for such a venture needs to be considered carefully with respect to the following aspects.
- Environmental and ecological stability.
- Safety - degree of difficulty/ease of evacuation.
- Access - to the cave system and entry to the cave.
- Use by recreational cavers.
- Proximity to base.
We began by selecting a section of Gardners Gut Cave - a system which happens to be the longest in the North Island at 11-12km in length. The particular section of cave used is perhaps the fifth most visited piece of cave in New Zealand. It has seen heavy use over the last 25 years and has probably almost reached a plateau as far as damage goes. (see Wood, 1983).
Conservation measures have been carried out within the cave by the New Zealand Speleological Society since 1960. These include:
- the blasting of a natural rock bridge at one entrance so as to restrict access to bona fide cavers.
- placing a "please remove boot" sign and a boot removal area at the base of a particularly vulnerable flowstone.
- installing protective pipe railings around two areas susceptible to damage.
- installing carbide dumps (which are being removed).
- placing some areas off limits, on an honesty basis, to all but dedicated photographers.
- designating a Scientific Reference passage where a valuable subfossil site was discovered in 1982.
The route chosen passes down through three levels, from quite nicely decorated dry passage down to a robust stream passage. Damage to formation over the last five years has been minimal. Most impact has been restricted to cave floor and substrate change; the tracking of mud from one site to another; channeling in silt and mud deposits and the breaking up of calcified scree deposits. Some change could be termed "positive" in the sense that it improves the cave's character. An example would be the breaking up and washing away of silt and mud veneers to expose flowstone floor.
There are three main obvious biological facets:
- cave wetas in and around entrances.
- fresh water crayfish or koura in the streamway.
- small colonies of glowworms in stream passage alcoves.
As yet little is known about the behaviour/whims of the organisms within this system and no real base-line data has been established. Detailed study of wetas and koura would be breaking new ground and at present is beyond our capabilities.
For the present then, this system continues to receive heavy use and, indeed, some cavers are beginning to refer to it in terms of being a "sacrificial cave" although to folk conscious of the resource the term is somewhat distasteful.
Any cave evacuation usually involves a large number of people and considerable expenditure of energy (the limitations of extracting stretchers from caves when compared with bush and mountain rescues are obvious). Gardners Gut is no exception. To date there have been three major rescues from other areas within the system. However, it is sited close to roads and dwellings and within 5-6km of the Hamilton Tomo Group Hut where the Rescue Cupboard is located, and the Waitomo Caves Village.
(c) - (d) Access/Ownership
The section of cave used lies in and under the Ruakuri Bush Reserve and is governed by the Reserves Act (1977). This Act allows for free access for the general public while at the same time imposing protective conservation elements concerning flora, fauna and natural features. In this manner the cave was already subject to conservation restraints and tours could not become "elitist" as there are no means of banning recreational cavers from the area. At present the Tourist Hotel Corporation is responsible for administering the management policy for this reserve.
(e) Recreational Use
It is imperative for any venture of this nature to maintain an open co-operative relationship with recreational and most importantly, "dedicated" cavers. Access to this system is unlimited and it is usually a simple matter to liaise with club caving groups so that tour times are organised around parties not meeting underground thus maintaining that "wilderness" aspect. To date communication with and support from clubs has been excellent.
(f) Proximity to Base
We have already noted that the system lies close to rescue facilities and the Waitomo Caves village. This allows for a minimum of travel time and a maximum of cave time.
Trip aesthetics are very important and necessitate a combination of gaining a feeling for the participants' frame of reference and relating it to the parameters of the tour. The choice of Gardners Gut allows for:
- mingling with "regular" tourists at the Ruakuri Cave carpark (at Mammoth Cave National Park, USA "wild" cave tours exist beside less strenuous tours and play an important role in conjuring up an air of mystique - "where are they going?").
- a 20 minute bush walk to and from the entrances, past and through other cave features.
- basic rope and ladder work descending through three distinct levels.
- spectacular but not overbearing formation.
- a combination of wet and dry caving with a little optional squeezing.
- areas where folk can explore with relative impunity; and
- what we call "black holes" or "question marks".
In the last year we have begun to use another system called "Footwhistle", different in character, probably less prone to impact, but offering an equivalent experience. This is our "wet weather cave" in that parties can be underground within five minutes of leaving the van. It is on private property and this factor is stressed to party members. Both Footwhistle and Gardners Gut offer a through trip so that you are never going over old ground.
The How? and When? of the exercise revolve around
- Party organisation and management
- Relationship to existing facilities; and
Monitoring is perhaps the most important facet. If you have no means on gauging how the enterprise affects the resource, or how it relates to existing visitor patterns/activities then the exercise must become one of exploitation and ultimately futility.
The most effective method of protecting known caves is to gate them: no access - no damage. Simple, unless of course visitors resort to chemical persuasion (we note that the most effective method of protecting caves is either never to discover them or to lose them immediately after discovery).
Gates are to be discouraged, if at all possible, which leaves us with a monitoring system which involves regular visits and the keeping of a detailed diary or log. Frequent visits enables one to keep a good read on other cave users, albeit caving club members, casual public or buzz-seeking idiots, while a detailed dairy or log really fine tune one to change within a definite time frame. It is usual for caving clubs to keep log books and much valuable information can be gleaned from these coffee and beer stained documents.
Change, however, is often very gradual and subtle. "Has it changed? well ... yes I think so ... but how? and when?" Photomonitoring on a regular basis is the main means of answering these questions. In 1983 we combined with Malcolm Wood, a student of Parks and Recreation from Lincoln College, to establish a photomonitoring baseline for our tours. This resulted in Malcolm including the data as part of dissertation entitled:
"Cave Wilderness The Reconciliation of Conservation and Use." (Wood, 1983, unpublished)
Since then the system has evolved but is still not fully implemented.
We now shoot colour transparencies instead of print film as this enables the comparison of photos using a dual projector system with dissolve/superimpose capabilities, as well as allowing print production for field use.
Bearings and elevations have been disposed with as it has been found that, by using fixed photo points, subject distance, camera height and a centre-frame system, photos can be duplicated quite accurately. Slide mounts also allow a degree of latitude in masking so that framing in the field becomes slightly less critical.
Lighting: a crucial factor in that the slightest shift of flash orientation can dramatically alter photo detail, texture, tone and colour has been restricted to a single "off camera" flash. The unit is attached to a bar fastened to the tripod and at a fixed distance (usually 10-20cm) from the lens. With flash orientation directed to centre-frame this seems to provide sufficient depth/texture in the final photo.
Floor and substrate erosion is handled by laying out coloured tape at one metre intervals from the photopoint and normal to the median line (camera - subject/frame centre) in essence building up a contour diagram.
Our advice for any photomonitoring system would be - use something that works, is simple and that you feel comfortable with. To date change/damage that has been able to be measured on a sporadic annual basis has been restricted to formation breakage, formation soiling, floor and substrate erosion and litter plus a little graffiti.
Superlative guides are a must. The best seem to be competent cavers (not necessarily experts) who have well developed people-people skills and who can vividly remember and enthuse about their first ever caving trip. They should still be active cavers. It is imperative that the guides are able to emphathise with party members at all times, to weigh personalities with predicaments and react in a manner that keeps things casual and "bubbling along'. There is no room for heroes.
When all is said and done, the guide is the "packager" whose task it is to transform the trip into a highly personalised experience for each member of the party. Competent packaging can turn even the most mundane cave into a real adventure.
The equipment used is basic following the recipe of "keep it simple". Helmets, lights, technical gear and "cavers snacks" are all provided while participants are responsible for their own warm clothing (we carry emergency sweaters with us) and footwear - either boots or sneakers. The latter have proved to be adequate provided that the wearer is cautioned about their limitations in certain situations. They are not recommended for serious caving.
Carbide lamps are used for lighting. Although, once again, there are certain precautions that go with use, they have proved to be utterly reliable (provided they are cleaned properly). They give a soft, warm (hot if too close) personal light that enhances the caves mystique. Electric's tend to encourage conditions reminiscent of the blitz.
Personal harnesses and waistloops are not used as tying in or on is simple, safe (in most instances) and provides an opportunity for personal commitment
First Aid kits are basic and aimed at:
- assisting a hypothermic victim (foam pads, rescue blankets, plastic survival tubes.)
- treating breaks (wire and wooden splints - no air splints) and bad lacerations (elastic bandages and wound dressings). Individual emergency kits of whistles, matches and candle or cyalume stick are not issued.
Along with good guides, this forms the crux of a successful tour. Party size (excluding guides) should never be more than ten, ideally be eight and usually (for reasons of safety and economics) greater than three or four.
Our motto is that "tours are only as good as the people on them" and in general participants are only as good as their briefing, their expectations and their ability to communicate and interact. We attempt to "listen" to our clients carefully by involving them in group exercises prior to the trip. These activities focus on key words: Communication, Compassion, Confidence, Control, Care and Conservation.
Communication/Compassion: Activity - an initiative test such as the "Human Knot.
Stress - you must always be able to communicate with the rest of the party at all times. If you are in contact with those in front and not behind (or vice versa) then something is wrong (or else you're at the front or the tail.) Be aware of others weaknesses and limitations. Don't assume that everyone is OK - you are each others keepers. There are no heroes - we move as fast as the slowest member and if someone feels ill at ease we turn back.
Confidence/Control: Activity - a "Trust Fall"
This is an excellent exercise to build on the interaction of the Human Knot. It allows guides to assess participants before the trip so that they are aware of who might need the most encouragement or support.
Trust yourself. Relax. You must feel in control at all times - not then let the guides know.
Cave/Conservation/Control: Activity - an "any way you like" climb over or around a limestone boulder.
Once again an excellent time to observe but also the chance to use the group for examples of things done well.
Climbers advocate the "three point of contact" climbing rule; we introduce the 'as many as you can" cavers rule.
Stop don't jump.
There's also what we call the "Slip, shit! Sit and Soft-body" rule. Everyone can expect to slip at some stage; the expletive is natural, then sit or adopt a sliding position, look for something (or someone?) to grab and if in doubt always land on something or someone that is soft.
All rocks are to be regarded as loose.
The key words also apply to the cave as well as people. With the cave, "Conservation" is numero uno. Therefore:
Single file in most of the cave;
No touching formation or dropping of litter;
Carry in, carry out;
Watch your head and shoulders especially when emerging from low crawlways, ascending, descending or changing direction;
Briefings on the use of ropes and ladders are held underground as parties are definitely more attentive when poised on the brink of - "Hell, down there."
The underground tour is run in stages which enables guides to more effectively monitor individual feelings/reactions. In essence it consists of two parts.
- Familiarisation - sights, sounds, feelings, formation, a guided tour (in a sense passive).
- Here you are now (where ever here is) - find your own way out (very active, often stressful and one of the reasons we can never tell people how long the trips take - "3-8 hours?")
Relationships to Existing Facilities:
"Symbiosis" is the term - diverse enterprise existing side by side for mutual benefit.
Participants are encouraged to stay overnight especially when we become "lost" and emerge into darkness. This utilises local accommodation which consists of:
- budget - the Hamilton Tomo Group Caving hut;
- budget/ethnic - the local marae (for groups of 10 or more);
- almost budget - the campground and cabins;
- class - Waitomo Caves Hotel run by the Tourist Hotel Corporation.
The village lacks medium range accommodation, the closest motel being 10km away. As stated previously, the Reserve which contains the portion of Gardners Gut we use is managed by the Tourist Hotel Corporation which also manages and runs the three tourist caves. We have a responsibility to make annual figures available to them. Most clients who elect to do a "wild" cave have visited one or all three of the regular tourist caves. We therefore regard our operation as a step in a continuum rather than direct competition. The Glowworm Cave, which still has the finest glowworm display in New Zealand, is always recommended as a must.
Tours have been focused on the Museum in that it:
- does an excellent job of providing in-depth information about caves and
- is a community inspired and operated facility.
We would hope that at some stage "wild" cave tours become accepted as an active facet/component of the museum the natural practical extension of the displays and audiovisual show(s).
How big? How successful? Any commercial operation that is undeveloped or "wild" caves is bound to have an effect on the caving scene with respect to clubs and cave use by non-club members. It was decided at the outset that if this effect was seen to be detrimental and if cavers in general did not support the concept of such a use, then the enterprise would cease. This stems from a respect for the resource, for New Zealand cavers and a recognition that when the crud hits the fan you'd be calling on local rescue teams.
The service has grown, therefore, quietly and slowly. It has tended to evolve rather than be driven. Our strict adherence to small party sizes has turned away tour company offers of groups of thirty for quick two hour trips. Parties this large belong in regular tourist caves.
How to spread the word? We began with expensive multicolour, handcrafted brochures which made a couple of thousand nice souvenirs all for a couple of clients. We then used cheaper, hand-drawn, tone coloured posters which were collected for their anatomical affinities. It's now down to cheap fliers and word of mouth - the world's greatest distribution service.
Charges vary depending on the exhuberance of the group, the number of free beers afterward, how many members of the family come and our inept ability to negotiate. At present it would vary between $l0-20 for a four-five hour trip. Profits are minimal but so far it's still good fun.
Tours are run on the weekends during the school year (mainly for organised groups) and more frequently during the months of January/February to coincide with the tourist/holiday season.
THE FUTURE - PROBLEMS AND CONCERNS
Outdoor recreation is a growth area and 'Adventure Caving' is obviously part of the scene. We recognise that it will be too late and too bad when land owners/managers start denying access to caves and systems begin to be gated. The thinking and planning must be done now.
Adventure Caving has a future if and only if:
- it maintains its communication with and respect for dedicated cavers and the club/societies that they belong to.
- cave use for such a purpose can be restricted to selected systems; and
- clients leave tours with a deep found respect for the resource and a commitment to join a club if they intend to do any more caving.
Good guides are difficult to come by. We have been fortunate in that the Museum has been able to employ a number of cavers on research schemes and that these folk have been able to help out. A couple of local lads are competent cavers and have excellent people-people skills but unfortunately very often have other commitments. We feel sure, however. that something will eventuate either as the service becomes more established or perhaps through approaching caving clubs.
Monitoring the cave could become a mammoth task. Gardners Gut is changing and will continue to change. Does this matter? What change is important? Is some change for the better? How much should a cave be altered to prevent change? We have mentioned the term "sacrificial cave". Is that what we're headed for or for that matter even mean when we consider that developing a resource is very often the next best way to preserving it other than closing it up (or losing it).
We believe that Adventure Caving is a sensible use of Gardners Gut Cave and is an enterprise that complements the Waitomo Caves Village and surrounding environs. We feel strongly that it should not be seen as exploitation and have begun to extract levies to support the local school, the Museum's education service and the local Rescue Cupboard. In turn, we sense local support.
There remains, however, a great need for the development of a long-term integrated management plan with regard to the active use of outdoor recreational resources especially of a karst nature, in and around the Waitomo Caves area for,
".. in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind ..." (Walden)
Ruakuri Bush Scenic Reserve Management Plan. Tourist Hotel Corporation, 1981.
Scenic Reserves of the Waitomo Area. Draft Management Plan. Department of Lands and Survey, 1982.
Thoreau H.D. "Walden".
Wilde, K.A., Worthy. T., Cody, A.; A Basis for New Zealand Cave and Karst Management New Zealand Speleological Bulletin 7(24):92-94, 1982.
Wood, M. Cave Wilderness. The Reconciliation of Cave Conservation and Use. Unpublished dissertation, Lincoln College, 1983.