Thursday, December 16, 2010

Manapouri Power Station Road

Road cut deep into Fiordland, crossing by dozens of avalanche paths, looking down on one of the world's biggest landslides (forming the valley floor in bottom picture)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Clifden Caves

Glowworms in the Clifden CavesAfter Hump Ridge I left Tuatapere for the Clifden Caves. I was reading Beyond the Deep - about scientist/inventor/explorer Bill Stone’s 1960’s- 1990’s efforts to bottom the Rio Augustin Cave (mbe a mile deep) in Mexico’s Huatla Plateau. The Huatla Plateau is a big area of limestone highlands standing above the surrounding desert. It’s high enough to attract most of the seasonal rain in the area, which tends to sink into underground rivers. The place is a caver mecca, akin to Florida’s watery cave system. The bottom of the San Augustin cave is one of the remotest places in the world, due to the technical nature of the descent and the frequent long sumps blocking its tunnels. Bill Stone spent 40 years chasing the world depth record in this cave. Over the course of the book there are many near misses (his girlfriend catches her hair in a rack while descending... a teammate threads a rack backwards in the dark when his carbide light fails and when the pins flip out he is only saved from falling to his death by his own immense strength... a newer teammate, exhausted and burnt-out, makes mistakes and almost drowns in a waterfall twice... a couple divers dive a complex new rebreather unit without changing a CO2 scrubber that’s low and become hypoxic…).
And there are several deaths - one very experienced team member is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Alone in the rebreather beyond the last sump, he suffers a hypoglycemic episode and tragically drowns in a big chamber, not far from land. In a separate cave, a renowned older diver fails to resurface after attempting to set a record by diving to 1000’ feet in a cenote. His body pops to the surface days later, its tissues and the encapsulating wetsuit ruptured by expanding gases. Another friend dies in a silt-out in a Florda cave (divers on open-circuit systems have only about 20-80 min air, depending on their depth. They depend on waterproof electric lights, and even when following best practice by taking 2 backups, total failures do happen. Many underwater cave tunnels are coated in fine, flour-like silt that is easily stirred up, reducing visibility to nothing. Divers tend to reel out a thin line behind them as they go, but if they lose this line or pull on it too hard so that its cut by a sharp rock edge, odds of getting out in time in a silt-out are low.)
In the end, the initially large team is so disheartened by the work, conditions, and these tragedies, that only Bill, his girlfriend Barbara, and one dedicated doctor friend remain deep in the cave. If anything goes wrong, it will be very serious. With the flooding of the wet season imminent, Bill and Barbara dive the long sump which had blocked further progress until Bill designed his own rebreathers. They then spend a week following various dry abandoned under ground river beds, and renew the cave’s status as the deepest in the Americas. They also tie it in to other parts of the Huatla system. They are finally defeated by ‘the mother of all sumps’. I believe the cave has still not been bottomed. All this really makes me want to go into more caves!
So anyway, off to the Clifden caves. All there was to mark them was a sign on the side of the highway and a small gravel parking area. I opened a page of a book I was reading and wrote a note to leave in my windshield ‘entered caves at 1230pm’. Haha, hopefully if I didn’t come out someone would eventually notice. The DOC warns (and I do tend to take their warnings very seriously, tempting as it is to try going against them) not to go into the cave if there is any water at all flowing in to it. It’s subject to flash flooding. Inside, I found grass deposited along the walls up to 4’ high from floodwaters- yikes! I grabbed my 3 lights (flashlight, keychain light, and camera flash- what? I'm poor and have to carry all my stuff when I travel…) and wandered down to the mouth. It was very dark and the thought of going alone was creepy (and recommended against by DOC).
Fortunately just as I was forcing my self in alone, a couple Frenchies rolled up and joined me. The girl chickened out and left at the first squeeze. The cave was really great. In Te Anua I took an $80 cruise to see glowworms, but there were tons more of them here. I could take pictures and look up close at the animals and their array of threads. We'd been told in Te Anau that they were super-sensitive to light, but these ones kept on glowing merrily after the flash went off. It was incredibly beautiful, and we took 2.5 hrs to get through, stopping often with lights off to look at the unexpectedly brilliant green-blue dots of light. I wondered if they would actually cast enough light to navigate by, once one’s eyes had adjusted for a long time. There were signatures on the cave walls dating back to the 1880’s. Near the end of the cave were some fun bits that required chimneying and careful balance on a narrow ledge with awkward rock projections around a deep, cold pool.
cave was every bit as cool as Cave Stream, in its own special way.