Striking it Luckie

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23/03/08
No, that’s not a typo in my title. I mean to spell it like that. Why? Well, because I spent the better part of today in the Luckie Strike cave system on a caving expedition being led mostly by me! Of course, if you’ve been following along in my stories, you were already aware that I had planned on caving today, so this will come as no surprise to you. If you haven’t been following along, well then shame on you 🙂 After a good night of sleep at the Kiwitown Holiday Park, I was picked up my Emma from Absolute Adventures and whisked off to their cave system for a day of fun. From there, it was back to the train station for the final leg of my journey back to Auckland, and where I started my grand bike tour over three months ago. It was a bittersweet moment, and had some sense of finality to it. To read more about the caving and the final trip to Auckland, read on. Sorry, no maps of course, as the GPS remains dead. [No blog picture until I convert the pics from CD to my USB key, probably not till I get home]

Before even starting this day, I should report that I got to do a little bit of Kiwi spotting the night before. After Bill had shown me where to go see the Kiwi at night, I decided to head back there under the cover of darkness to see if I could see them firsthand. I’m happy to say that I did indeed get to see them! At least two different ones were trudging around in the area of the manmade burrow. They were funny to watch for a while. They just sort of shuffle around on the ground, looking for food I suppose. They apparently heard or noticed me, as several times, they would stick their long beaks through the slats in the fence and sniff around me. It was all rather comical, but also really cool to see these nearly-extinct birds going about their daily stuff live. It made my night, and I was happy to head off to my tent for some shut-eye in anticipation of the big caving day.

Things didn’t go perfectly smoothly to start off in the morning. I was supposed to get picked up by 8:45am, but at 8:55, there was still no sign. I gave their office a call, and was told they should be there, and I double checked they had the right campground. I was at the Otorohanga Kiwitown Holiday Park, not the Otorohanga Holiday Park. Eventually I was picked up, and sure enough, Emma, my driver / guide had gone to the wrong park and waited there for 15 minutes for me before finding out I was at the other place. Oops. However, since I was the only client on the tour, I didn’t think it would matter, since we could dramatically shorten all the safety talks, and we’d probably move quite quickly through the cave system.

Once at the HQ, I was issued two sets of thermals to wear, along with a stylish set of green overalls to wear. On the feet, a pair of neoprene booties and gum rubber boots, and on my noggin, a flashy orange caving helmet with attached light. I certainly looked the part, that’s for sure. The trip we were going on was the ‘Expedition’ trip, which takes us to the far end of the cave system, and back again. Along the way, there is amazing scenery of stalactites, stalagmites, crystal pools, columns, curtain stalactites, waterfalls, lots of rocks, etc. etc. Normally, clients are in the caves for about four hours, to get to the end and back. The best part about these trips however is that the guide is empowered to make calls on what to do with the client. For example, for me, as I was very comfortable and familiar with all the gear, we forewent the safety lines on all the abseils, and there was no need to hand-hold on any of the rope sections. A lot of the passages you’re quite high up in the cave on the way through, so you have to use cowtails and be clipped in to guide ropes in case of a slip.

Also, due to the nature of this trip, clients are encouraged to lead the group, rather than just be told to stick close and follow. As such, I was often at the front, and we’d just banter back and forth as I picked my line through the caves and jumbles of rocks in some cases. Sometimes, I’d choose the easy, obvious route, other times, I’d decide to do some scrambling around stuff. A couple times, Emma would ask me ‘Where are you going?’, as there would be a visible rope in one spot, but I’d just go elsewhere and free-climb around obstacles for fun. It was great. That was the whole reason I chose to use Absolute Adventures in the first place. I knew that they were more of an adventure-minded company rather than tourist-driven company. Most of the other caving companies around Waitomo, although they also offer fun trips, you are really just doing what you are told, and following a set path. Boooring, right?

We got to the far end of the caves in pretty good time, where we stopped for tea and cookies in the cave. The other nice part about this trip? No other groups or people. It was just Emma and I, far in the depths of the cave, no other sounds or people. I asked what was in store for the return, and if there was extra stuff we could do, since the time wasn’t a factor, and I was having fun. She assured me we’d have some great squeezes to get through, forcing me to get really wet and out of my comfort zone. Sweet. However, as it was still early, she also gave me the option to go exploring further in the cave, out of the path that the tours are generally conducted. Sweet. She ditched some of her own gear, and just took one safety rope with her, and we went scrambling off above a waterfall and through many more passages of varying size. Only a couple other guided clients have gotten the chance to be down there, and for Emma, it was just as exciting as for me. Unfortunately, we did have to eventually turn back, without finding the end of the system. After all, I really couldn’t afford to miss the train.

We doubled back, admiring the amazing cave formations along the way, until emerging once again at the waterfall. It was now time for the return trek back through the caves, this time following the stream all the way to the exit. Once again, I was put in the lead, and at several points along the way, was prompted to try some squeezes, very tight passages not for the faint of heart. On one of them, the most challenging of the day, I was told to follow this little water-filled squeeze to the other side. There wasn’t even enough room for my helmet, so I had to take it off, float it in front of me, and wriggle on my belly in the water, with just enough room for my face out of the water to breathe, while navigating this little passage. I emerged to find that I had to keep going through another couple squeezes before finally emerging to the spot where Emma had gotten to via the ‘easy’ route. It was very cool, and I was very glad that I did it. I’m sure had I been alone, I would never have attempted anything like that, but with a guide assuring you it’s do-able, you just have to push yourself.

The best part of the trip? The guide carries a camera and snaps pictures of you the entire way, so you have lots of good photos of you doing this stuff. Well, good might be a stretch. Given the nature of caving, it’s hard to get good shots. It’s very steamy when you stop, and the moisture in the air often yields grainy pictures. However, they are pictures nonetheless, and once you are done the trip, they burn them onto a CD for you free of charge! How awesome is that? Well, for the fellow with the website and a photo fetish, it’s pretty awesome I can assure you 🙂

We finally emerged from the caves into brilliant sunshine. It was amazing how hot it was when we stepped out of the caves. You don’t really notice it when you’re down there, but it was pretty cool down there. The two layers of thermals certainly kept me warm enough, but once that sun hit, I was boiling. Before we even started the trek back to camp, I had to peel off the overalls. It had been a great trip, and I’m really glad that I managed to squeeze in this adventure on my way back to Auckland. Sure, it wasn’t the ‘world famous’ glow worm cave trips, or the ‘legendary’ black-water rafting (glorified tubing), but I got to see a remote part of a cave system that few have ever seen, and do it on my own basically. That’s exactly the type of adventure I had been looking for, and Absolute Adventures delivered it exactly as I wanted it. I discovered that I have the ability to do this sort of thing, and wasn’t too afraid of the confined spaces or dark, which I wasn’t sure of before this trip. I learned a few new tricks for my arsenal as well, which always helps.

After the caving, I got to take a nice hot shower at their camp, which was a good thing, since I reeked of caves and sweaty thermals, and was on my way to Easter dinner in Auckland at Kevn’s parents place. Yup, I scored myself another free meal, but not on purpose, it just worked out that way. I got a lift back to town from Emma, got my gear, and headed downtown to eat some food, as I really hadn’t eaten anything for most of the day apart from the Cookie Time cookies, a muesli bar and some tea. Needless to say, I was a wee bit starving. I found a cafe that was open, and had a steak and mushroom pie, and a slice of chocolate cake. Delicious. From there, it was off to the train station to wait for my train. I got there 30 minutes before the train, but it ended up being about 30 minutes late. You’d think that with only one train a day, they might be able to get there on time, but such is not the case.

By the time we pulled into Auckland, it was 45 minutes late. Looks like I’d be late for supper, as I still had to bike the 15+ km to St. Heliers’ Bay. Oops. Well, it was out of my control. This also meant that it was dark for my bike ride. Luckily, there is a bike path along the water all the way out there, and the weather was pretty warm, with only a bit of wind. In case you’re wondering about the train ride itself, there really isn’t all that much to say, the way was fairly flat with not much in the way of scenery. I just sat and watched it go by while listening to music. Oh yeah, and had a couple Speight’s Old Dark as well, seeing as they hadn’t charged me for the bike, it meant I had a spare 10 to spend 🙂

Arriving at Rick and Marg’s place, there was a great spread of food for me to fill up on, which I was extremely grateful for. They were already getting to desert, but insisted that I just help myself to the food and eat with them. I had a chance to recount some of my adventures from the road, and in doing so, realized just what an awesome trip I’ve had down here. I have no regrets, and can say that I’ve done a lot with my time here. Granted, I still have a few days left, but it feels like things are pretty much done. I was thinking I may spend a day on Waiheke Island tomorrow, as well as overnight there. It’s an island off the coast of Auckland which has great views and is a nice oasis away from the big city. I really don’t have much else to do in Auckland, so that might be my best option. Who knows. I’ll fill you all in once I decide. Till then, stay cool, and I’ll see you all very soon!

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