Gosh, what a week. The decision to abandon our Mt Owen plans left spirits low but paradoxically steeled our resolve to find new cave. Our new objective, the Canaan Downs in the Takaka Hills. With a good prospecting location and a settled camp for 10 or 11 days all we needed was a break in the constant drizzle. Lo and behold, a week of glorious sunshine rewarding us for or endurance.
Our new campsite is not quite the karstic mountain refuge we had all prepared for. Instead we are in the remains of a biannual music festival called Luminate. The location is still remote (and indeed it is hard to imagine the claimed 3000 festival goers making their way down the unsealed, potholed track that leads here) but we are surrounded by strange bamboo pole structures that only hint at there former occupation as speaker housings and communal spaces. The centrepiece to this is a large stage, and unlike the other structures it is still clad in its original tarps and netting. We have coopted this as our own, rather grand, cooking and communal area. So it is in the remnants of this hippie civilisation that we make our home.
The good weather has been perfect for surface bashing (looking for new caves above ground). Sensing our limited time we started working in pairs, with three pairs off in the wilderness and the remainder tending to camp, attempting to gather radioed information, and ensuring we have rescue capability. Our prospecting began in the woodland surrounding the camp. The terrain makes it difficult to survey more than 10 metres in any direction but the the ground is lousy with shake holes. Our days were filled with soil and dirt, much like the majority of the caves we found. Few went more than a body length or two. Occasionally some would drop ten or twenty metres below the surface before becoming an unsociabley unanthropic size.
Our first big (ish) break came in the form of a deep rift, a rocky gash in the forest. Descending, Alex and James were 40 metres below before finding the bottom. Unfortunately it seems that a rabbit had also found the bottom, at speed, and was now slowly dissolving. Spurred on by the decay, a large colony of weta (cave crickets) had moved in and covered every available surface. Put off by this, and happy with their find they returned to camp. The second pushing team, unperturbed by mammal or insect, decaying or otherwise, penetrated further. A series of wet filled crawls led them to a streamway which unfortunately quickly sumped. A hundred metres of passage was surveyed and later that day, drawn by hand. The cave was named "Weta Than Ever".
Another surface lead comes from the plains and fields to the East of our camp. The story is similar, a lot of very small caves pushed to their grim and unsatisfactory end. The major accomplishment in this area was a cave named "Black Helix". The name is a give away, as it consists of nearly 50 metres of passage helically twisting downwards. The rock is a particularly fine example of the black marble that this area is mostly comprised of.
Our latest discovery, found incidentally as a team returned for lunch via a dry stream bed, is "Red Dog". The entrance is located in a cliff face. A large chamber, almost open to the air, quickly devolves into crawling and climbing between huge boulders. Another entrance ("Dead Rogue") was discovered on the other side of the hill and quickly linked up. The large cold draughts that could be felt throughout the cave spurred hope that something bigger was below, driving the air. Certainly the stream sank quite nearby. Following the draft proved to be a Sisyphean venture though, as they spiralled inexorably toward the ceiling and one just ended up back at one of the entrances. Likely their was once a large passage straight through the hillside that has since collapsed and the strange topology just forms vexing currents within.
The aforementioned steam sink is also interesting. It was followed to a depth of maybe twenty metres, where the water, dripping from cracks all over the ceiling becomes too thick to see through. This was named "Sinking Ship Sink". A dam ("Gosh Dam") has now been constructed to divert the water into a different sink in the hope that this can be followed further. The dam has just today sealed itself with silt and against all expectations it seems to work. A party will return later.
Despite these successes we feel that we have exhausted the surface leads in the immediate area. Venturing further brings you up against quite impenetrable bush (almost jungle) and it can take hours to traverse a few hundred metres (from first hand experience). We originally thought it was a joke when we were informed that all Kiwi caves are close to the road, but now we can see that it is probably true.
So two parties are back in Ed's Cellar today continuing our lead from more than a week ago, hoping for a quick last minute fix of untrod passage.
Spirits are high, the food is good, the weather clear and warm, and the country side beautiful.