First the bad news. Since we got to New Zealand I have been getting progressively more clumsy... I've been walking into doors, getting hit in the face by branches on trees and catching my fingers in anything that might hurt me. But today really took the biscuit. We got up early to get to our adventure trip for 10am and as I was getting back into the campervan I stood up too soon and hit the top of my head on the doorway. It knocked me back and I ended up sitting on the floor clutching my head and seeing stars. For a few minutes I thought I'd done myself some serious damage, but after a while I calmed down and realised I was okay. My head and neck were hurting like hell for a while after, but I was detirmined to do our next trip so I took some painkillers and had a cup of tea and was feeling better after a while
. Then later on in the day I was putting some things away in the campervan and I stood up and hit the back of my head again with some force. I couldn't believe it! My head and neck were really hurting this time and I sat and had a good cry for the next few minutes. Feeling quite delicate, I spent the rest of the evening feeling like a real invalid... but don't worry I'm fine now and my head and neck don't hurt at all anymore.
Now for the good news... we did the cave adventure and it was amazing!! It's quite a long story so bear with me! We got to the reception of the adventure company at about 9:30am in time for our trip at 10am. The guy on the reception told us to take a seat and our trip would be called out 10 minutes before departure. So we sat and waited as other people's trips were called but by 10:10am ours still hadn't been called. So we went up to the desk to have a word but the guy in charge told us that our trip wasn't running today as there was no-one booked on it. After a little hissy fit and lots of to-ing and fro-ing we found out that the girl who had booked our trip yesterday hadn't actually put us in their system and so they had told the guides to go home because there was no-one to go on the trip. The guy in charge was really apologetic and he arranged for two guides to come and take us to the cave in 5 minutes. Well we didn't actually leave until about 10:50am by which time they had rounded up 3 other people to come on the trip with us, but to say sorry they offered to give us some free photos, which we were chuffed about because they cost about £25!
So we headed out. Our guides were called Sarah and Louis and they took us (in the crappest mini-bus known to man!) to a local farm where they had a big cattle shed, which is where we got changed into our kit. We had overalls, rain coats, wellies, an abseiling harness and a hard-hat with a head lamp on
. Then we had our abseiling lesson and a little practice at loading and unloading our ropes. Then we went out again in the mini-bus to a set of hills on the other side of the farm. We then had to walk about half way down the hill to get to a small grid in the floor. Because of all the rain over the last few days the hill was very slippery and we were all struggling to walk down it without falling over. Everyone was doing really well but suddenly I started slidding down the mud, my feet were still but I was going faster than everyone down the hill. I was shouting out for someone to help me (Tom went in the opposite direction to protect himself from falling in the cow poo) but one of the other guys on the trip caught me just before I fell over. I was so thankful and he told me (in a lovely french accent) to slow down "we haven't even started yet". About mid way down the hill was a small metal grate with some trees around it, we stepped down onto it and found out that over the edge of the grid was the place which we would be abseiling from!
The only way I can descibe it is to say that there was black hole in the floor, just big enough to fit a person in, and a metal platform that covered half of it. One of our guides fitted his harness to the platform and before we knew it he had disappeared down the hole. The guides had told us that out of the 5 of us whoever went first would be at the bottom of the 2nd abseil shaft by themselves and we should decided who was going to do this. We all went very quiet and as he was already at the front of the line, Tom had to go first. He went down onto the platform and started loading all his ropes (we had to do our own ropes, including our safety line, and the guides would check them for us). Next the guide told him to turn with his back to the hole, put his heels onto the edge of the platform and lift one leg at a time off the platform. I wish I could have had my camera at the moment he lifted his first foot off, he did not look happy
! As he lifted his second foot he dropped down into his harness and swang for a few moments above the hole...again, he didn't look best pleased. Then the guide told him to start to abseiling... and he did!! After a couple of feet, she told him to stop, took her camera out to get a photo of him and off he went again. A few minutes later he got to the bottom of the first abseil and then it was my turn. I was shaking like a leaf. I stepped onto the platform and loaded all my ropes. I stepped to the edge of the platform with my back to the hole and slowly lifted my foot, I could feel myself lowering into my harness. Then I lifted my second foot and dangled above the hole for a moment. "Okay, off you go", she said and I slowly started to abseil. I couldn't believe I was actually doing it!! In your left hand you hold your safety line and your metal rack which has all your ropes in it and in your right hand you hold your abseiling line. To descend you put your right hand out to your right hip and slowly thread the rope through your hand and to stop to pull your right hand around so that it is behind your bum. The shaft that we were abseiling down was quite thin and the shape of an hour-glass so it got very very snug about half way through and you had to wiggle about a bit to get through. It took about 4-5 minutes to do the first abseil and when you got to the bottom you were meet by the guide and were stood on a small rock ledge. The shaft that takes you to the bottom is is two sections and so I got ready to go down the second section. All roped up I set off down the second shaft. This one was a lot longer than the first (about 8-9 minutes) and I started to get a bit tired about half way down... but then I saw some pretty big spiders sitting on the wall about 15 inches from my face and I started moving again quite sharpish. I got to the bottom and Tom was sitting on a rock all on his lonesome. I couldn't believe that I had just abseiled 60 meters into a cave! After I had unloaded all my ropes and clipped in my safety ropes I realised that we were in a small entry cave
. Once everyone else had abseiled down and the guide was with us we climbed over a small log that had been used as a bridge across a big hole. The first thing that hit me was how difficult this was going to be. We had no lights apart from our head lamps, there were no paths, huge craters and boulders were everywhere and we weren't allowed to touch anything to help get our balance in case we broke any of the rock formations. I can't really descibe how hard it was other than to say that it took all my energy and strenth to get through it. We were climbing, crawling, clambering and hoisting ourselves up over the huge mountains of rock. At one point we reached a section of rock and it really did look like a hill underground, I wondered how we were ever going to get over it. At the top of the hill was a section called Lucipher's Quarry. We switched our lights out and experienced 'absolute darkness'. You really had no where to look and there was nothing to focus your eyes on, it was really strange. We headed over the ridge of the 'quarry' and met back up with the other guide Sarah. They had bought us along some juice and chocolate, which they made us eat in the pitch darkness while they told us a story about the first person who ever explored this cave. At then end of the story they said: "The explorers were getting worried that they might not find any interesting or beautiful rock formations in this cave. And then they came over this ridge and saw this..." The guides then put their big torches on and from the blackness we saw St Benedict's Cavern laid out in front of us. All the walking and climbing through the entry caves had brought us to the cavern and it was breathtaking. Like a huge cinema screen the cavern was lit up by the glow of their torches with hundreds of crystal stalagmites and stalagtites growing from the ceiling and floor. None of us could quite believe it. On the other side of the cavern was a short walk to get us to the exit but because the cavern has such delicate rock formations no-one is allowed to wak through it, so we had to zip-line through the middle of it instead!
! As your ziplining everyone has to turn their handlamps off so that when you get to the other side the guides can put a little light on and you can get a view of the cavern coming out of the darkness. It was amazing! Once we were all through we had another 10 minute hike through the cave to get to the exit. On the way I got my foot stuck in a hole of water and my welly filled up with water... lovely! Once we got to the end of the cave there were some old wooden steps what led up to a door. Inside the door was tiny hobbit hole, like a wooden tube just big enough for the 7 of us to crouch down into. We all got in and a few moments later the other doors was opened and we clambered out into the farm again. It was such a strange experience, one minute your ziplining through an underground cavern, the next your standing in a field of cows!
We got back to the shed, got changed and headed back to the main building. Before we knew it we were back in the normal world and back on the road heading to our next destination. We had only been underground for a few hours but it felt like all day and was one of the hardest but most inspiring things I've ever done!! I felt so proud of myself for having done it despite being so nervous about the abseil... it made me feel like a real explorer!
Later that evening as we were driving, we were coming through the Wanganui National Park and I saw one of the most incredible views of my entire life. The mountains of the park rolled out in layers across the landscape and in the blue dusk light they just looked beautiful. At that moment I knew that all the sacrifices I had made to get here had been worth it. It was worth coming all this way just to see that sight with my own eyes. I'd never felt so lucky in all my life.
Wow! What a day!! We have done so much today, so I'm sorry this entry is so long, but I've written it all down because I don't want to forget any of the details.