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January 2016 Issue
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Cave man

Kieran McKay is pioneering cave exploration in New Zealand. Photo: Neil Silverwood

By heading deep underground, Kieran McKay explores places where no-one has been before.

While almost all the peaks in New Zealand have been climbed and significant white water rivers descended, cave exploration is in its infancy. Kieran McKay is one of New Zealand’s leading cavers and has made significant contributions to the sport.

Perhaps the greatest of these was his role in the Stormy Pot-Nettlebed cave connection. In 2011, Kieran applied for funding from Sport NZ and received a grant to search for the deepest cave in New Zealand. Members of the expedition spent two months camping on Mt Arthur, a mountain notorious for bad weather.

The expedition got off to a bad start; within days of beginning, a storm ravaged their campsite, destroying gear and tents. The group moved into a drippy biv and continued to search for cave entrances high on the alpine slopes. Their tenacity paid off when they discovered an entrance that led to a large underground stream.

Over the next two years, Kieran led a series of expeditions trying to map out the tangled maze of passages and connect the new cave to a lower system, Nettlebed, which rises up towards Stormy Pot from the base of the mountain. Finally, in early 2014, Kieran made the historic connection. The resulting trip, traversing the systems, became an instant classic and takes cavers from just below the top of Mt Arthur to the base of the mountain. It takes most parties two or three days to descend the 1115m deep system.

When asked about the connection, Kieran said: “It became the most important thing in my life there for a while. Getting the connection was the best moment I’ve had as a caver.”

Asked what’s next, Kieran said: “Well, I felt a little flat afterwards but I’ve found other projects closer to home which are equally exciting.”

Kieran is a passionate cave diver and has set his sights on exploring an underwater cave system below the Takaka Valley. “The visibility is amazing, it could be a massive system, we just don’t know!”

If Kieran can sustain exploration at the current rate, I’m sure we will see many more significant and interesting discoveries in years to come.

– Neil Silverwood joined Kieran McKay on the 2014 expedition to connect Nettlebed and Stormy Pot