Office Assistant John, writes about his experience in Harwood’s Hole on the Abel Tasman Canyons STAFF party trip

‘Hey John, we’re having our staff party in a couple of weeks… you keen?’  Sure thing I thought.  Some drinks and tasty food, maybe some games and a good bit of banter.  Maybe we’d go and play Mini Golf?!  Sweet!  As a first year Abel Tasman Canyons office guy, my staff party expectations turned out to be pretty low as it turned out.  ‘We’re going to do the Harwood’s Hole mission, you’d be ok with that right?’  I smiled.  I nodded.  The non verbal contract had been signed.

Peering over the edge of Harwood’s Hole would fill the hearts of most casual visitors with amazement and utter dread.  Amazement because it is a ridiculously large hole that just appears at the end of a lovely scenic walking track; and utter dread because it truly is a ridiculously large hole that you cannot see the bottom of unless you happen to lean a wee bit too far.  Please don’t do that!  For me… utter dread was definitely the biggest feeling I was experiencing from the tips of my toes to the hair on my head, but mostly in my stomach… and a wee bit further down if I’m honest.  But at the same time as all that going on, I also had a true sense of awe and wonderment as I stared in to a hole that was so incredibly tapu (sacred), and full of tales of real adventure.  It was the awe and wonderment that meant that this was not a trip that I could miss.

I was joined at the edge of the hole by a group of true professionals.  They all looked like a kind of subterranean adventure gang in their wetsuits, helmets and harnesses as they grinned at one another over the prospect of what lay before us.  Somehow I had managed to find a way to look like a French mime with my stripey black and white polypro, black wetsuit long johns and lovely white gloves.

Everything began to feel decidedly real all of a sudden.  I was shortly going to be abseiling roughly 200mtr in to the abyss.  The grins started to turn in to steely focussed stares as we all checked and rechecked one another’s equipment for any possible defects.  We worked out the order in which we would descend in pairs and then we lined up to get the job done.

I was to descend with Pete.  I’d spent the drive from Motueka to the hole having a good old yarn with Pete about art and film making.  It was great… we’d bonded, we were mates!  However I was starting to feel that maybe I should have been asking him more about his abseiling history, if he felt he could hold a full grown man by one arm while dangling from a rope if he really had to, or giving him names and contact details of my loved ones should the worst happen.  As it turned out Pete was ace.  He saw my bunny in the headlights stare as I tried my best to become velcro with the cliff face, and he became the guide.  Before I knew it I was inching my way down a damp and slippery rock that would soon disappear to be replaced by the vast and empty interior of Harwood’s Hole.

Once we’d left the 30 or so metres of cliff at the top of the hole I was able to start getting a real impression of just how big Harwood’s Hole actually is.  It’s like… crikey how can I explain this?  Abseiling down a really big thing?  Nope.  Floating in outer space?  Maybe.  Grabbing life by the gonads and entering a dark, damp and eerie world where you might get eaten by an albino dinosaur or meet the cast of Fraggle Rock?  Pretty close.  As you can tell, I was pretty lost for words because this really was an experience unlike anything before.

After regrouping at the bottom of the hole we began to make our way further and deeper under Takaka Hill towards Starlight Cave.  The route we had to take featured numerous amazing abseils, jumps and slides.  It was like taking on our most popular Torrent River Canyon trip in the dark with millions of tonnes of rock hanging over your head!

The water was crystal clear as it splashed and burbled it’s way along our shared path.  The rock formations we encountered along the way appeared bizarre and eerie as our head torches cast their crazy shadows upon the walls.  I can remember feeling incredibly grateful for the dedicated teams who had spent so much time exploring this cave system and even given their life, so that I could gaze upon this astounding subterranean world in relative safety.

Aside from the enormous abseil at the beginning of our adventure, there were a few other features to this trip that got my adrenaline pumping.  The squeezes!  Now I’m not talking about cuddles with my fellow adventurers, even though hugging some of them would have required some extra adrenaline.  The squeezes I’m referring to required me to literally squeeze my body through narrow openings in the rock as water poured through the same space.  Imagine doing complicated yoga poses in the small space under your kitchen sink with the doors closed whilst experiencing the worst plumbing leak ever, and you’re close to how it felt.  My inner claustrophobe knew that it was time to just suck it up and get over it, because this was the only way I was going to get out and see the wonderful blue sky again.

As we neared the end of our adventure I will admit to feeling pretty relieved.  I had a strong sense of pride for what I had achieved in making it through, and I also felt hugely empowered to know that I could do it.  But this really was a trip that had taken me right out of my comfort zone.  To ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’ is a hugely popular metaphor.  When you experience it in its literal sense after hours relying on only a head torch, the daylight takes on an almost ethereal quality.  The dappled light entered the cave in silvery shafts to show the greens of moss and ferns like I’d never seen before.  All my senses were alive and it felt like I could taste the outside air as well as smell it.

Thank you to all those who completed the trip with me, and a huge thank you to Toine and Eva of Abel Tasman Canyons for making this unforgettable day possible in the first place!