Cook Islands Caving Adventure
By David Goldie
It all started in 1990 when I was shipwrecked on Atiu in a ship called the Edna. I was 19 and hitching my way across the Pacific, and it was all quite an adventure...
The crew stayed on the island for a week after the wreck, and the Atuians took us swimming one day in one of the limestone holes in the jungle. Having done a bit of caving as a kid, I realized that it was actually a karst window, and that it probably went deep, branched out, etc. I asked how deep it was, and all I got in reply was shrugs and laughter, ditto when I asked about scuba gear.
So the idea of a return expedition floated around in my head until 1995 when I realized that if I wanted to do it, all I had to do was start working towards it until it happened. It was one of those little revelations - stop dreaming and act! I started mentioning to people that I wanted to find an expedition partner, and eventually a mutual friend introduced me to Paul Tobin. Things couldn’t have gone better, Paul turned out to be the perfect cavediving partner; smart, level headed, strong as a horse, and just as determined to stick at what would become an 18 month project. It really was amazing, so many people would have been the wrong partner, but I happened to meet Paul. We’ve gone on to be workmates and very good friends.
Our plan was to read up on cavediving (neither of us was cave trained), buy all the gear, practise a bit in Sydney, and then ship it all over to the Cooks and just do it. Things turned out a little differently. Having bought a $3000 second hand compressor, it wasn’t long before we had met Andrew Robertson, the world’s best compressor mechanic and CDAA instructor. He was very helpful with the compressor, selling us parts, and encouraging us to do the work ourselves. He also quietly mentioned that we might like to do some CDAA training before we went. We politely refused, and (Andrew tells me now) he thought to himself ‘well there goes a couple of ex-Australians’.
So it’s quite likely that our lives were saved by Paul falling off his skateboard and breaking his leg. The trip was postponed a year and we ended up training in Mt Gambier, with Andrew Robertson, learning all the low-vis and line skills, and countless other things that would turn out to be absolutely crucial in the Cooks. We also learnt to set our gear up right, got into drysuits, and ironed out some bugs with the compressor, which we’d converted to petrol-driven.
The 300 kg box that we shipped to Rarotonga the following year ended up having about half a dive-shop in it. We kept chucking gear in: six bottles, video, camera, strobes, lights, batteries, weights, wetsuits, drysuits, compressor, spares for everything, tools, oils, reels, etc. We built heaps of gear ourselves, torches, batterypacks, reels, slates, I even invented and built wide angle parabaloid masks.
The first month in the Cooks was spent flying around the Nga-pu-toru group, finding as many holes as possible and snorkelling in them to see if it was worth coming back with scuba gear. We relied heavily on local knowledge, and many hours were spent and much kava drunk in the process. Often, the very old members of the community were the only ones who could remember the location of the old drinking holes, as modern water supplies had caused some of these to be lost. All the caves were in the Makatea, a crazy jumbled type of landscapes of razor-sharp limestone and dense jungle, the very last place that you’d want to carry scuba gear. Many days were spent sweating and tearing through the Makateas of Atiu and Mauke, following guides to sometimes unbelievably obscure holes.
We snorkelled in countless holes, most of which we fully explored by breathhold (in hindsight, easily the most dangerous part of the trip), a few showed promise but were too remote to bring scuba to, so we concentrated on a handful: four on Atiu and three on Mauke.
The highlight was undoubtedly in Vai Tango on Mauke, which is a popular swimming and washing pool with a gaping black hole on one side of it. We followed the hole to a depth of 80m (on air!), laying about 160m of line. At 50m it opens into a cavern about 50m long and 25m high, completely covered in ancient stalagmites and stalactites, some of which were five metres tall, formed during the last ice age when the cave was dry.
Vai Tango presented us with a dilemma: we’d always said that we’d have a 40m depth limit, but we hadn’t counted on just how seductive a widening tunnel stretching into the darkness can be ... so 40 became 50, then 60, etc. Looking back, both Paul and I think that the risk was justified, given that we took it slowly, familiarizing ourselves over several dives, and that we were warm (in drysuits) and well hydrated ( with piss-valves and plenty of water during the dive), and because we had heaps of air and did really conservative decos.
On Atiu, we laid about 350m of line in Vai Nurau, enlisting the help of some burly Atuians to help us lug the compressor through the Makatea to the entrance. From there all we had to do was drag bottles 15 minutes each way down into the cave to the diving lake. This cave was pretty convoluted, there were a couple of three-way line junctions, and tight, one restriction was a full body squeeze-and-wriggle affair (in zero-viz if you were second through!).
A consistent challenge on every dive was raining roof debris, as our bubbles disturbed the alarmingly soft, chalky surface. This meant that visibility was perfect going in, but if you paused in one place for too long, when you turned around to come out the viz would go from bad to zero. This is a very minor problem in well-dived places like Mt Gambier where roofs of the caves are polished clean by years of bubbles, but in virgin caves like these, is downright terrifying. Often fairly large rocks would be dislodged, and Paul had to adjust his buoyancy on one dive to accommodate a large one wedged between his tanks!
So after three months and over a year’s preparation and unknown thousands on credit cards, it all came to a finish and I flew back to work commitments, leaving Paul to pack up and take the slow boat back to Rarotonga. On the way they anchored off Mitiaro for the night and Paul talked the captain into letting him into the hold to grab some gear. He then swam ashore, rode accross the island on a Honda 50 borrowed from Aunty Mi, the Chief, and dived solo (and nude) in Ana Vai Nauri.
I’m not going to say it was the adventure of a lifetime, because we’ve both had a few since and intend to continue, but it was an amazing trip and the experience of taking on, and then sticking with such a big project taught us both what you can do if you chose to.
We’re very grateful to all the Cook Islanders who guided and helped us in so many ways, and who made us feel so welcome. Specifically: On Atiu: Roger and Kura Malcolm of the Atiu Motel, Tu Mokoroa and Apii Porio and everyone in the Mapumai village. On Mauke: Tautara Purea and Clem. On Mitiaro: Aunty Mi.
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