Tales from the Underworld

Celebrating 25 years of New Zealand Geographic magazine …



In Motueka – a small town renowned for its fruit, housetrucks and organically conscious hippies-the stress level was undetectable. Along the main road muscle cars lazily rumbled for attention, and somewhere a child was hammering out a chore of piano scales. The town felt safe and friendly, like a place where nothing can ever go wrong.

That was an hour ago. Now, with the clammy hand of fear at my throat, I am starting to wish I had stayed in town. Though only 10 kilometres away, I am in a world so different that I could well be on another planet. Underground and underwater, inside the bowels of a marble mountain, I am finning against the gentle current of the Riwaka River. My hand slides along a nylon version of Ariadne’s thread, strung out by my guide. All I can hear is my breath hissing in and gurgling out through the mouthpiece of my air supply-until the steel air cylinder on my back hits the rock ceiling with a loud clang. In this silent, liquid gloom, the slightest sound has the intensity of a Chinese gong.


My torchlight zigzags across the grey walls, revealing an austere and surreal landscape like a derelict railway tunnel. The passage-its walls as cold as glacial ice-slants down, then turns upwards and opens like the wide end of a horn. I surface next to my guide, Sean Mitchell, resting on a pile of boulders, and take a draught of moist cave air.

We are in a chamber the size of a circus tent. When we turn off our lights, the darkness is absolute, and so thick I can feel it pressing against my face. These walls have never seen sunlight, yet we have only passed the entrance sumps, flooded siphon-like passages that form a kind of Lewis Carroll mirror gate into another world. Ahead, through clay-coated chambers and tunnels, through twisting squeezes which corkscrew like deformed keyholes, and through yet more sumps, the cave continues for no one knows how far.


Sprawled on the riverside rocks in total darkness-monsters with black wet suit skins, flippered feet and faces distorted by hoods and masks-we may look a natural part of this subterranean world, but it’s only an illusion. Caves make you feel alien and out of place in a way that no other earthly landscape does. They are black holes in the imagination; cold, eternally dark places inhabited by creeping and slithering creatures, places where early explorers found themselves involuntarily slicing the air with crosses and mumbling paternosters. They epitomise our fear of darkness, of confined spaces, of unfathomable depths and, ultimately, of the unknown. Continue reading … 

You will also find this story in my upcoming book GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014