If you’re anything like Yen and I, you should always have a sign around your neck that reads, “I am a hazard to myself.” You initially read spelunking and think “Oh, Harold and Yen must have gone caving.” In actuality, we disappeared into a dark hole on AirTran standby without really knowing if we’d actually get to the other end.
Embarking on a trek into the earth should not be taken lightly, but when you lack planning and a punctual grasp of danger you just seem to jump into things. It was only after I checked the list “52 Ways to Die in a Cave” that I now realize preparation is necessary before any caving exploration.
My planned weekend led Yen and I one and a half hours away from Christchurch to Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. The problem was that there wasn’t much planning involved at all. One torch (flashlight) per person, food, warm tops, change of clothes, and strong footware. These were the recommended items to bring along. From this list of items, Yen and I brought only a change of clothes.
Upon arriving, we met Jono, a traveling Californian guy who offered us PB & honey sandwiches and an invitation to join him on the trek. He only carried a single headlamp, which was more than Yen and I had combined. Regardless, these setbacks and lack of safety equipment did not deter three American travelers from conquering the depths of this reserve.
Our walk down the steep ravine to the cave entrance was anything but somber, and it gave us more than enough time to mentally prepare ourselves for what was to come. But how do you prepare yourself for something you’ve never done before? To get our palates wet, our first test was crossing a five foot wide stream. As we crossed, the water quickly reached our knees. Though the day itself felt near spring temperatures, the water was a mind numbing 8 degrees Celsius. The brisk chill of the water was cold enough to send our extremities howling into shock. Within seconds, toes and fingers were numb zombified flesh.
The entrance of the cave was like a cavity into an abyss. As we stood on the ledge peering into the dark hole, there was only an eerie sound of rushing ice water that slushed and streamed past us. One after another, we leapt into the waist deep frosty water with each of us letting out a cringing yelp that echoed into the aperture we were now in.
Even in this serene cave, every Ying still circled its Yang, and where we found bliss, fear was definitely not far behind. The scariest moment was when the three of us reached a ten foot waterfall. Jono and I tried to no avail to climb up the falls. As we gripped the slippery rock, the brute force of the cascading waters pushed us back creating an effect similar to jumping on an already running treadmill. In a debacle such as this, teamwork was definitely key. It took a little more than 10 difficult minutes for the three of us to lift and pull each other to a higher point.
While Jono and I moved about the rift, Yen was trying her best to secure her footing until it was her turn to be lifted. With all the light from Jono’s headlamp focused on he and I, we didn’t notice Yen nearly get washed away by the flow of the rushing water. Within a second of releasing her grip to wipe the water from her eyes, her legs were pushed out from underneath. Fiercely swimming against the current, her hands fluttered for something tangible to grab until she managed to scrape some wet rock. As Jono shined the light on me, I climbed up, called out to Yen and reached into the darkness for her hand. Through the faint light of the headlamp, her hand became visible and with my hand holding Jono’s and my other hand holding Yen’s, Jono and I pulled until we all were above the falls. There were other obstacles as we went on, but it was this first checkpoint that really put us to the test.
Our spelunking event spanned nearly two hours of climbing, dilating our pupils to the size of quarters and near hypothermic conditions. By the end, the light at the end of the tunnel was the most thrilling sight. Unprepared and beyond scared, it felt pretty awesome to make it out. We high-fived, laughed, cheered and took one last look back at the sarcophagus we had just climbed out of. With the notion of being open to everything at least once, this trip ending up being a joyous thrill achieved through random encounters and peanut butter fueled luck. If not for the sheer timing of it, we might have had a very different story, or worse, missed out on spelunking completely.
Oh, and to put the real cherry on top of this cake, I convinced Yen to go up closer to some lambs and take a picture of them. With neither of us realizing that the fence was electrified (as are all NZ fences), it took one loud jolt and a popped back for her to run back to the car smelling like bacon.