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To read the account of Alex Parton & Vic McGregor’s climb out of the Lost World abyss you could be forgiven for thinking they were part of today’s rock-climbing elite - with all the technology & techniques of modern climbers.
But this amazing feat wasn’t accomplished in 2009 or even 1999… it was back in 1959. There was no rope used; no fancy climbing shoes; no gear of any sort, just good ol’ kiwi “let’s go for a bit of an explore”.
To put the date in context, this was the year of the first spacecraft to leave the Earth’s gravity; The year Hawaii became the 50th State of the USA and the year of first Grammy Awards.
Today, however, is my chance to meet one of these legends in person and to revisit the scene of their amazing deed.
Alex Parton (18 yrs old in early 1959 now 76 yrs ) had jumped at the chance to come along on our new activity “Lost World Through the Window” which retraces part of the route that he and his climbing buddy took that day.
The first thing I notice is the eyes…very bright…as is the smile…and then…the iron handshake…wow ! If I had had any reservations about taking this old campaigner back into the underworld they immediately evaporated … the guy is still a machine !
Today Alex has with him a family group comprising his wife Diane; son Tony & daughter-in-law Sally as well as grandkids Emma & William. So for us, this is a very special situation where we’ll have three generations of the same family sharing the experience. There’s clearly some solid genes in this tribe.
We’re to be guided by two senior Waitomo Adventures staff Iain Murdoch & Brad Smith. They know the cave intimately and between them have been guiding adventures here for over 25 years.
And off we go. A short drive from Waitomo and we’re at the Lost World Hut – gearing up for our adventure. Unlike the ’59 trip, in addition to the overalls; boots; harnesses; helmets; lights there’s all manner of safety equipment.
Safety checks complete and we’re into it. After a short bushwalk we’re descending steel steps into a tomo (sinkhole) known as the “Window”. All around us are ancient trees and mossy outcrops - the spectacularly fluted rocks that give limestone its characteristic pancake look. There’s a surreal point where the ground under the stairs gives way to air and suddenly there’s a drop of 75m between the grating step you’re standing on and the bottom the cave. You’re literally walking on thin air.
From far below rises the distant roar of the Mangapu Stream as it tumbles through the underworld.
Anybody who doesn’t as least fleetingly think of backing out at this point needs their head read…this is a very scary place. But I suspect that can’t be said about this group. Whatever they’re thinking, there’s no hesitation apparent from these folk…onwards and downwards we go into the gaping cavern.
From a vantage point, Alex and I discuss the route he took in ’59 and realise that his climb was even dodgier than I had appreciated. It turns out that he didn’t ascend through the Window Hole itself but rather had followed a slippery ledge to the main Lost World Tomo, then climbed its sheer upper walls to finally emerge via a slightly less vertical section.
Very big Kahunas required for that – very big indeed.
So now he’s quizzing me on how we got all the steel for this walkway into this place – after all we’re on the side of a sheer cliff about 25m underground and 75m up in the air. In one sense, it’s a bit like a bridge climb experience underground … but without the bridge !
Now though, the stairway runs out. The next step is a big one… a 53m zipline up in the ceiling of the cave to gain access to a natural shelf. No problem…Alex probably could have done it without the zipline!
We arrive on the “Dancefloor”… a natural shelf high up in the roof of the cavern.
Perched in this isolated spot we can look across the chasm to where some abseilers are making their way down the 100m abseil as they head for the bottom of the cave on a different route through the lower passages of the cave.
Our team now makes its way down a second and very different kind of zipline (a tyrolean traverse) with a very steep gradient and further into the cave. The descent is controlled by Iain who slowly lowers us one by one into a new chamber – we’ve arrived at Spiderhole.
As we make our way along ledges and ladders Alex points out where he started his abseil descent into the cave all those years ago.
Soon we’re looking up and out through what for all the world feels like the Skullcave of “Phantom” Fame. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be inside the Skullcave looking out through its eyes … I suspect this is it.
Emerging into a beautiful setting of native bush and rocky sculpture we know that we’ve been in one of New Zealand’s very special places…and in the company of one of its earliest explorers.
Thanks Alex - it was most certainly a privilege to meet you and relive the experience through your eyes.
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