Melissa Nickerson

Under the surface

There are difficult assignments, and then there’s filming in a watery, dank space with barely room to move. Director Melissa Nickerson goes behind the scenes of Luckie Strike, her documentary about the search for a connection between two Waitomo caves.

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It’s cold, it’s wet, and shadows are playing eerily on the wall. There are maybe 10 centimetres of air between the ceiling and the stream I’m crawling through. A sharp rock digs into my side, prodding my liver, as I contort my body to fit through the narrow space. But my shoulders are plugging the water, and it’s starting to build up, diminishing my air gap by the second. I’m pushing a bag full of camera gear in front of me, but it keeps catching on the stream bed and my cold fingers are struggling to keep it moving.

As far as employment goes, these are terrible working conditions, but the end justifies the means. I’m on a shoot for Luckie Strike, a Loading Docs short film (see below) that we’re hoping to spin into a more in-depth documentary. This is the story behind the story.

New Zealand is famous for its forests, mountains and coasts—but there’s another world that’s just as beautiful beneath our feet, with underground waterfalls, delicate formations, crystalline structures, halls, glowworms and pools. Sometimes the price of seeing the wonders is a bruised body, but it’s worth it.

The cave systems at Waitomo are growing in popularity, but most people are only aware of three or four caves—those visited for glowworms or blackwater rafting. There are actually more than 300 caves in the region, most beneath privately-owned land.

Two years ago, a friend introduced me to the world of caving. Being a rock climber, I was already familiar with some of the skills, but abseiling and climbing underground—often through waterfalls and streams in near-darkness—added a whole new dimension. Add in the tight squeezes, deep drops into dark crevices and belly crawls with your head turned to one side, barely above water, and things start to get interesting.

Crew preparing at 1am in HTG Hut for Luckie Strike filming.

Not long after I began caving, I was staying with friends at the Hamilton Tomo Group hut when we met two long-time cavers, Mike Allen and David Ellacott. They were kicked back on the couch, laughing at us new cavers attempting to complete a list of caving challenges at the hut. This involved crawling through a coffee table suspended from the ceiling, moving all the way over and under the dining table without touching the ground, and other such ridiculous—if difficult—tasks.

We had almost abandoned one of the challenges as impossible when we saw Dave shake his head at us. He turned to Mike and said, “We could do that, eh?”

Next thing we knew, the two men had destroyed our pride and proved us wrong.

Team at back of Luckie Strike, deciding weather to keep going or turn around during flooding conditions.

 

That’s when I learned their story. Mike and Dave, along with a group of other cavers, were working to connect two cave systems, Luckie Strike and Junior Mudball, dubbed Junior for short.

Luckie Strike is a beautiful cave, full of formations, waterfalls and grand halls, tucked away under the careful eye of the main landowners, Pete and Libby Chandler.

Junior, on the other hand, is a small, muddy, tight cave system nearby. It’s usually described as claustrophobic or, as Mike puts it, “Like kneeling in a bath of porridge with a rainstorm coming down on your head.”

By the late 1980s, many thought all the caves in Waitomo had been found. But around 1988, cavers Kip Mandeno, Pete Smith, Kieran Mckay and Dave Smith (along with few others throughout the years) set out to prove that theory wrong. They found about 30 more cave systems, and began to piece together the mystery of the Waitomo headwaters.

Luckie Strike is one of the caves where the Waitomo River begins its journey. These cavers aimed to trace the journey of this water through 12 master cave systems, and Junior was discovered along the way. Junior was very close to the back of Luckie Strike, and cavers thought a connection might be possible. It was a tantalising idea, because a trip down Luckie Strike takes three or four hours to reach the back of the cave, then cavers must turn around and retrace their footsteps. It’s not an easy trip, but what cavers call “sporty”.

Eventually I learned what “sporty” meant. Lots of bridging and jumping over crevices and streams, leaping over falls, hiking, crawling, ascending and swimming. You don’t walk it, you use every technique your body can perform to overcome an array of obstacles.

Dave Ellacott in Jr.
Mike & Dave in Luckie 1

 

But if Junior and Luckie Strike could be connected, this would create a magnificent through trip. Cavers could visit the back of Luckie and exit through Junior, minutes from the road, instead of undergoing a taxing four-hour journey back the way they came. This idea has inspired people to spend time digging in the claustrophobic Junior over last few years.

This connection wouldn’t be as epic as the famous Nettlebed–Stormy Pot connection, which turned two caves into the deepest caving system in the southern hemisphere (it has 1174 metres of vertical drop). But it is achievable, accessible, fun, messy—and the connection is frustratingly close. In 2016, a dye trace showed that the small stream inside Junior flows into the back of Luckie Strike.

That night at the hut, when we asked Mike and Dave what they were doing in Waitomo, they told us they had spent a lovely sunny day deep underground, in a hole half a metre wide, digging through mud and rocks. In fact, they had been doing this every spare weekend for the last year.

By the time we had finished interrogating them, they probably regretted staying at the hut that night.

Fast-forward about a year, and myself and Craig Gainsborough, a caver and film producer, approached Loading Docs with the idea of making a film about the cave connection (it had taken some time to convince the reclusive Mike and Dave to appear in a documentary). Loading Docs selects ten ideas a year and provides support to make a three-minute film. We were selected and the real fun began.

Stepping over 20-metre drop in Junior.

 

We certainly didn’t choose the easiest story. The terrain is catastrophic for all film gear: wet and full of jagged edges. If the surface isn’t rock, it’s a mud, or a stream, or a waterfall. Or air—lots of air, and a rocky bottom far below.

All our gear was broken down to take up less space, so that it could fit through squeezes, and to protect it from the elements. This meant that every time we wanted to film, we had to open the caving bags, open the dry bags, take out the Pelican cases, clean and dry our hands, assemble our gear, and light the location. All of this in damp, constricting wetsuits, while feeling either too cold, or too hot.

But we were not about to let a little bit of discomfort get in the way of the story we wanted to tell. We never thought, ‘What is the easiest way to film this?’ We thought, ‘Wouldn’t this shot be amazing?’ and then we figured out how to pull it off.

We started with Luckie Strike, spending two full days underground. On one day, we carried an 80-metre rope far into the cave in order to set up a long wire cam shot following Mike and Dave as they walked down the stream. We found a perfectly-placed boulder to use as an anchor (it isn’t easy to find anchor points that won’t damage the formations) and from there, we extended the rope 50 metres downstream. One Sony A7s, a gimbal, and few pulleys later, and we had a gravity-fed underground wire cam.

Mike Allen near back of Luckie Strike.

 

Some of the shots were more extreme. At one point, we lowered our director of photography Will Prosor into a crevasse, where he straddled a stream and filmed upwards as Mike and Dave crossed, high above him.

When the cave opened up into a hall the size of a football field, it was time for some drone action. Flying a drone inside a cave is not easy. Neither GPS nor vision sensors could help guide the drone, a strong draft was blowing, and in the darkness it was almost invisible unless one of our head lamps was pointing directly at it. Fortunately, this chamber wasn’t full of intricate formations, but large boulders—it was a rockfall room, which long ago had separated from the ceiling above (there’s always an eerie sensation about these rooms). This meant we didn’t have to worry about damaging our surroundings, but one wrong move and Will’s drone would have been toast.

We had to switch techniques entirely when we began filming in Junior. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to reach the back of this cave, which was refreshing after long days in Luckie. However, the last section of the cave, where Mike and Dave are attempting to dig through to Luckie Strike, is so tight that in some places you have to lie down on your belly, stretch your fingers out in front of you, and pull yourself down the muddy corridor, like a slip and slide. It’s actually quite fun, if you manage to get over the claustrophobic environment.

This is where Mike and Dave spent many of their days off last year—digging in this narrow space, often with the other cavers involved in the project.

Will Prosor making sure the camera is responding on our home made wire-cam set up in Luckie Strike.

 

In Junior, most of our filming crew stayed in a room one metre square while Will, myself, Mike and Dave continued the last 30 metres to the back of the cave. We only took the camera and a small sound recorder, both covered in a heavy-duty weather shield. Everything we filmed was handheld, close, intimate—it made sense to document the two caves in different styles. Even if we had wanted to try something fancy inside Junior, we would have been fighting against the very nature of what it is—messy.

The lack of airflow meant we couldn’t film for long. Our breathing inside such tiny quarters was taking up oxygen, making it hot, and causing the lens to fog up. We got the shots we needed and headed back to the hut, covered in mud from head to toe, to hose each other down.

Our scariest experience took place during the second trip into Luckie Strike. We were attempting to make it to the back of the cave, where the dye trace came through, to film Mike and Dave abseiling a 30-foot waterfall, then climbing over a cliff to the potential connection site. However, as we travelled through the cave, the weather outside became worse and the water began flowing higher. The cave mostly has high ceilings, so there was little chance of being caught in a flood—but the connection is two levels down, where the cave sumps. At the sump, the water was backing up and turning into a mass of churning foam.

Getting to the 30-foot waterfall was a lesson in concentration and overcoming fear. We jumped into deep pools, and bridged streams that were moving much faster than usual. When we finally reached the abseil point above the fall, we debated whether to continue.

Melissa (director) & Dave (caver) in Junior.

 

Mike and Dave investigated. The water was far above the highest flow they had ever seen. We would probably be fine, said Mike—but from someone like him, that means, ‘We might survive, but it’s going to be tricky’.

Three of our crew were not experienced cavers, and we were already tired. In the end, after six hours of traversing, we turned around.

We went into the cave in the morning, and came out late at night. It was midwinter, and frosty. The grass shimmered and crunched beneath our feet. The stars were so bright and clear that we all stopped and gazed at the view, breathing in the fresh air, for a moment—then we were stripping out of our too-tight wetsuits as we scraped ice off our cars. It all ended with a beer in front of the fire, back at the hut where we’d first met Mike and Dave.

Now that the three-minute documentary is finished, we’re filming a longer version of Luckie Strike, which we will be submitting to film festivals in 2018.

May the dig live on.