Harwoods Hole. The 170 Meter Abseil & Starlight Cave
I’m all too aware of the drop next to me. Close to 200 meters of air awaits a foot away down a black void darker than tar. I concentrate on the rigging again and check over the ropes. Double checking is already second nature to me in the world of vertical roped sports. But today, I will be triple checking. Making a mistake is not an option.
We had arrived at the Harwoods hole carpark the afternoon before. The sunny weather had us in a great mood and we had just come from the canyoning festival in St Arnaud. We didn't waste any time and set about organising our 200 meter rope. Weighing in at 22.73Kg, the bright orange rope was our lifeline to the adventure of a lifetime. A couple of knots mid-rope kept it interesting as we organised the length into 3 coils for easy handling.
(Click photos to enlarge)
Andrew and Jacinda, along with Elias who would arrive later, and myself, would make up the team of adventurers tackling New Zealand’s deepest vertical shaft. A sink hole of epic proportions and a serious undertaking.
The name had me excited for weeks prior to arriving in New Zealand. Rumoured to be one of the BEST adventure day trips in the world, Harwoods Hole provided a perfect balance of sporty caving in a straightforward cave system. Plus I’ve wanted to do the trip for many years. Waiting and hard work pay off eventually, right?
Located in the Takaka hills near Nelson in the south island of New Zealand, this marble cave was once the endpoint for a stream cascading from Mt Evans 5 Kilometres to the East. Over time, the slightly acidic waters dissolved new paths underground and Harwoods hole became dry with new caves transporting the water away and deeper down until it reappears in the Riuwaka resurgence.
There is a hiking path open to everyone that goes right to the lip of the large sink hole, but the bottom is obscured from view by a rock slab 30 or so meters down. Unless you abseil down, you will never get to see into its dark depths.
But today we would!
DESCENDING IN STYLE
Our plan was to descend the hole and cave ‘canyoning style’. Unlike normal caving trips, where overalls are worn and water generally avoided when possible, we would wear wetsuits and get in the water, swimming and abseiling through the waterfalls in true canyoning fashion. Donning our still damp wetsuits from the day before, we all had a few butterflies looking over the edge to plan our rigging and descent.
The excitement was building and the mood was lighthearted, helped along by the incident of one of our group (not naming names) being quite literally molested by a Weka bird while mid toilet break. Weka’s will often go quite close to people and are not afraid, and in this case it was a little too close for comfort. No harm done, a few pecks on the butt cheek never hurt anyone, physically... The real adventure for the rest of us awaits below!
We had a topo map of the cave which gave the anchor locations and other useful bits of information about the cave. This made our job much easier by taking much of the route finding out of the equation, allowing us to properly enjoy the cave and its wonders.
Setting up a small abseil on a 30 meter rope from a solid tree off to one side, Elias was ready to go to the first anchor station, the main one, followed by myself after a few minutes as I traverse a small ledge to clip in my ‘safety’ to the bolts.
The heart definitely beat a little faster seeing the drop, which I had avoided looking at while doing the airy traverse. Cool air brushed my face and I let out a shiver. And it wasn't because of the cold. The whole place, even without seeing the bottom yet, is just incredible. Like the throat to the centre of the earth, ready to swallow you forever should you stumble in.
Andrew and Jacinda wait above, having fixed one end of the rope to the top while I construct the main anchor.
Dropping the rope was not an option here!
Working as a team, they lowered the rope from above to Elias and myself, and while Elias worked out the coils of rope, I lowered the rope carefully letting it run through my leather clad gloved hands.
Everything had to be perfect. A single twist or knot would mean a very uncomfortable experience for the first person down. Working out a knot in free hang was not something you want to do over a hundred meters off the deck!
From the main anchor, you still can’t see the bottom, or the rope end, so we keep lowering away making sure it all looks good on top. It takes 10 minutes to lower the rope until it goes tight on our anchor.
The 200 meter rope is ready. Elias asks the now obvious question. Who would go first?
The only way to decide was (obviously) a quick game of scissors, paper and rock. One round to decide. We draw on the first, then Elias wins the second. I am relieved momentarily, but with mixed feelings, also wish I was first down.
But going first also carries the most risk. Provided everything is set up correctly and the rope is flawless, the only thing that can potentially go wrong is a loss of control on the abseil. All of us had wondered what the friction would be like. You don't do 200 meter abseils every day, after all. Towards the bottom of any drop the stretch and tension of the rope usually makes the abseil descender run faster.
The key is managing the speed and keeping in control. A full descent of Harwoods hole at normal, safe speeds will take roughly 10 to 15 minutes per person. Unlike Hollywood movies, flying down the rope will heat the descender to the point it can potentially melt the rope sheath. Not ideal.
Elias attaches himself onto the rope. The friction at the top, unlike the bottom, is massive and you quite literally have to pull yourself down for the first bit until it lessens. I watch him slowly go down the rocky slab to the true lip of the hole 30 meters below. He lets out a whoop as he looks into the remaining 150 meter drop.
With one last smile up towards me he disappears.
Minutes go by. I occupy my mind with triple checking everything. Between each person on the rope, we would wait before sending someone else down the short 30 meter line to the main anchor point. Rockfall is a very real danger. Even a small rock the size of a large coin can generate enough velocity and energy to kill. We had placed a sign just before the hole as a reminder to hikers and tourists not to throw rocks down the hole. Having experienced this first hand during rock climbing sessions at popular spots, the general public has landed rocks on me on 3 different occasions! And the place was littered with rocks around here!
I snap to attention as Elias taps some stones together to give the signal. Two large cracks echo from below. ‘Off rope’.
We had agreed beforehand that whoever went first would set up a fireman's belay for the others. This is a technique that would allow an out of control descent to be stopped by pulling on the rope which would increase friction. The rest of us could have a cruisy abseil down.
I attach my rack, my abseiling device, to the rope and begin. My rack had more bars than everyone else which meant it had a ton of friction. I can almost say ‘ton’ literally, as it was an extreme effort to pull myself down. I get to the edge of the slab and get my first view down to the bottom.
What a drop! To anyone not used to heights, this would induce a vicious vertigo feeling, probably mixed with dread. The exposure is unreal! When climbing in the mountains, the heights are open and you feel small. Here, you feel even smaller as your vision is channelled by the rock walls to the tiny pale patch below. The single beam of light hits the grey floor at the bottom indicating your long abseil path.
Spot the person on the rope?
I focus on the abseiling. In a free hang now after passing the lip, I am still pulling my way down due to the huge amount of friction. At least there’s no way I can descend too quickly!
Mist swirls around me as I progress slowly down. Pinch me now, this is unreal! I feel a sense of calm as I take in the beauty of it all. The world is an amazing place, and right now I am feeling it in its entirety.
As I near the bottom, I see the small speck that is Elias, out of a rockfall path to one side. We excitedly chat, even before my feet touch the ground.
How freaking cool is this!
Words just don’t describe what we just did. I think expletives made up most of the conversation. No poetry could explain the feeling, just as no photo can do it justice. There are only a handful of places on earth you could get an experience like this. And Harwoods Hole in New Zealand is one of them.
This is a great 360° video of the abseil by Kieran McKay. Click and hold your mouse to look around, and if viewing on your mobile phone, use your finger. No VR headset is required but is pretty amazing if you have one. I highly recommend Kierans Youtube channel, there's ton's of interesting stuff!
THE CAVE BEGINS
Jacinda is next followed lastly by Andrew. Andrew didn’t have to rig the re-belay as another group had arrived and would follow on our rope. The re-belay is needed to secure a second anchor at the lip of the slab to avoid a rub point that could potentially damage the rope. If anything should go wrong in the cave or water levels are too high, we would have to ascend the full 180 meters out of the cave on the 200 meter rope that would stay in place and be de-rigged once we finish the cave, regardless of which way we exit. Water levels could be checked further down in the cave before committing to the additional abseils. Like canyoning, once you pull your rope, there’s only one way out.
We had been given the information from a group that had done the cave the day before that all the handlines and abseils in the cave were fixed. That is, ropes were in there permanently. Or at least until rain floods the cave and destroys them of course! We decided to still take a thin rope as backup, just in case.
We carefully picked our way down the steep scree slope to the small opening of the cave. Like a giant funnel, the huge chamber of grey rock narrows until the real cave begins.
We pass the memorial of Peter Lambert who was killed in 1960 by falling rocks while being winched out of the hole. It’s a reminder that both natural and man made rockfall is a very real danger while doing the abseil.
Continuing on, just as we were getting used to the high ceilings of the chamber, it suddenly closes in and the real cave trip begins. The cave ceiling almost never comes right down, which is good for those who feel claustrophobic easily. We marvel at the calcified surroundings, everything glimmering as our headlamps light up areas. The stream follows the main passageway, and is the easiest way to navigate the cave. Just follow the water!
Our heads swivel from side to side, not knowing where to look. Caves are beautiful in their simplicity. Knowing the eon it takes for the features to form is humbling.
We encounter the first abseil.
As expected, the lines are still fixed saving us time and effort. But our emergency rope was there if we needed it. Unlike canyoning or climbing, abseiling in caves is a different experience. Looking into the black depths, you see only what your light illuminates. There could be a massive drop right next to you and you wouldn’t even know unless you look. Trusting yourself, the team, and the gear is crucial.
We carefully make our way down. Around each corner and at the bottom of each downclimb are turquoise pools with crystal clear water. The deeper pools are dark blue extending into black as the light ceases to go further. What a place! We come across a waterfall spouting out of the rock. As if someone had connected a hose, the water gushes without revealing its source.
Coming across one of the first squeezes, we take our packs off to make the task easier. Contorting this way and that, we push and will our bodies through spaces that water effortlessly flows. A reminder that we are guests in this world below. It was amazing to have the air rush past us in the small openings. Shouting becomes the norm just to hear each other.
Harwoods is quite a sporty cave as I mentioned. Plenty of downclimbing and bridging across pools and small drops, it is a vertical adventurers dream. It never gets narrow or tight for long, and always changes its challenges leaving you constantly impressed that so many cool features could all fit in one cave.
As the cave progresses it starts presenting a few climbs. Nothing more than scrambles, but it is a nice addition to the down climbs and abseils. In the lower sections we notice the foam smeared on the walls and ceiling. When it rains heavily, these sections flood and risk of drowning is very real. Checking the weather forecast is a must before starting the trip, especially in New Zealand with its variable weather. I shudder a little at the thought of being trapped in there. Thankfully, we had good weather for days and it would be the least of our worries.
Having so much fun, I am a little disappointed when we see the exit climb ahead. And when I say exit, I mean exit into another cave system which eventually goes to the real exit! I was in for a surprise!
At the base of the climb up to starlight cave, there is a arrow pointing the way. With plenty of people having missed the exit in the past requiring rescuing, the arrows have been put in place to guide people in the right direction. But don’t rely on them! If the cave floods, which it often does after heavy rain, they may well disappear!
The climb is exposed but a fixed line, again as expected, was in place making it easy to do. Without the arrow or fixed line, this would be a difficult place to exit for anyone inexperienced. They do say to always send your best climber first!
Once in starlight cave, the character completely changes. No longer as wet as Harwoods, the drier cave is a true spectacle of glittering wonder. Its a magical place, and Stalactites and Stalagmites abound wherever you look. I don't want this adventure to end!
Alas it all eventually does come to a finish. The glow of sunlight appears and we soon feel the cool temperatures of the cave decrease. We can see the exit into the light world again.
INTO THE SUN
Getting out of the cave after close to five hours from when we abseiled, the warm sun was nice and we stopped for some snacks, lounging in the sun. The group who had come behind us had caught up and went ahead to de-rig the rope, a nice gesture as thanks for letting them use our rope.
What goes down has to come up, and in this case the exit track was a steep slog up a few hundred vertical meters back to the main track. Crossing a massive boulder strewn slope, it weaves in and out of the thick vegetation. Plenty of stinging nettles lie in wait for a careless hand to accidentally grab, so we pick our paths carefully.
After a long hour and a bit, we finally make it back to the main track. Elias had gone ahead, fitter than me no doubt, and was on his way back carrying the 200 meter rope with the other group. Everything had gone without a hitch and we were still all smiles and a little in awe at what we had just done.
There is nothing like what we had just experienced.
Harwoods hole is a serious endeavour, even for experienced cavers. There is extreme pressure not to stuff things up. And rightly so. Rescue requires a lot of manpower and resources and the incidents in the past had reinforced its reputation as a difficult place to access. Any injury underground is often serious, even a twisted ankle will be disastrous.
Harwoods hole, for the moment and I suspect for a long time to come, will remain one of the most amazing experiences in my life. There is no doubt is has to be the best caving day trip in the world!
If you would like to do the 45 minute hike there, see the page from DOC HERE.
IMPORTANT: Anyone wishing to do the trip independently, like us, needs to source their own 200 meter rope, have rack descenders, have proper chest and hand ascenders, be competent at SRT (single rope technique) and caving. It is not a trip for casual climbers or those new to roped sports. PLB’s do not work in caves and a helicopter can’t go down there if you mess it up. Please consider all this and what it means before even thinking about organising your own trip!
Any cave condition related questions should be asked of local cavers.
You can check the following websites for more information and guidelines in doing a trip:
I would like to thank my team mates, Andrew, Jacinda and Elias for sharing the awesome day and also the QUT Cliffhangers club for the supply of the rope! Thank you!
Happy adventures and stay safe!