Squeezing through tight spaces and wading through freezing cold cave water is not everyone’s idea of a fun time, but for 66 of New Zealand and Australia’s most experienced cavers that’s exactly what they did over the weekend.
Sixty Kiwi and six Aussie cavers worked together to rescue a hypothetical injured caver in the Kahurangi National Park for the triennial New Zealand Deep Cave Search and Rescue (SAR) training exercise, co-ordinated by Police and other agencies.
This year’s exercise, held in the Bulmer Cave, began at 7am on Friday and ran through to midday on Sunday 12 March.
The National Park is home to three of New Zealand’s longest cave system, Bulmer Cave, which runs for 74.3km through Mount Owen and is 750 metres deep.
It’s a fitting place to practice a deep cave rescue, as a major rescue took place in the late 1990s after a caver fell and injured themselves.
The scenario, which took volunteers about eight months to plan, is based around a caver having fallen six to seven metres down a seven-metre pitch about a three to four hour walk into the cave.
Cave SAR, LandSAR, NZ Police SAR and Fire and Emergency NZ teamed up to run the scenario. There was a 24-hour incident management team (IMT), a catering team and the Nelson Fire and Emergency team brought along their incident command vehicle to assist with managing communications.
The forward base, which was a short walk from the entrance to the cave, was set up to give cavers a place to have a lie down, refuel and recover between their times in the cave itself.
Senior Constable Sarah Cook, one of the Incident Controllers for the exercise, says it has been great having such experienced cavers and emergency services personnel come together to practice and prepare for a potential real-life event.
“We know from experience that cave rescues can present many challenges for responders, so having a cohort of trained and equipped search and rescue cavers ready to respond is vital,” she said.
“We would like to thank the local community in the Owen Valley area for their support of this exercise and their ongoing support for the cavers who come to explore Bulmer Cave.
“While caving is an undeniably exhilarating excursion there is always going to be a risk of falls, flash flooding, injuries or cave-ins, especally for inexperienced or unprepared cavers.
“A reminder to any wannabe cavers out there to keep an eye on the weather, wear appropriate clothing and to explore with a companion.
“Despite being ready to jump into action when needed, we want cavers to enjoy the experience and be able to walk out on their own.”