Written by      

I slithered along the gravel through a streamway barely 25 centimetres high, 10 centi­metres of water lapping gently along the centre line of my face. With my head turned sideways, I could breathe only through the top of my mouth by pursing my lips, awkwardly, into a snorkel shape, as freezing water sloshed about my torso and liberally irrigated my left nostril. There was enough room to bend one leg, angle a foot and push my body into the squeeze, 20 centimetres at a time.

Perhaps three metres through, my helmet wedged fast between the gravel floor and the limestone ceiling of the streamway, and I felt panic, rising first in my gut, then gripping my lungs. I wanted to heave in a breath, but I would draw in water and choke.

Instead, I had to breathe out, bury my head deeper in the stream, shove aside the gravel and force my mortal frame through the jaws of the cave.

This was my introduction to the underworld, and to this day, the fear I felt with 200 metres of limestone pressing down upon my head has had no equal, nor the jubilation of exiting the squeeze into the dark chamber behind, standing up and sucking down lungfuls of damp cave air.

It is an unlikely frontier, lacking the brilliant ice of mountain tops, the foaming crests of distant seas or the searing exposure of space. Instead, it is dark and wet and the goal is obscure. “Everyone knows that the highest mountain in the country is Mt Cook,” says Neil Silverwood, who photographed the caving feature for this issue. “But no one knows, or will ever know, what our deepest cave is.”

And yet it is the same urge to explore that drives cavers into the labyrinths and motivates climbers up our peaks. The difference is only the direction they travel.

Kennedy Warne responds to the same lure of the natural world. Some days he travels far—as I write this, he is diving in a marine park off the coast of South Africa—but most days he keeps it close, taking a constitutional amble into the green world of Oakley Creek, where the sun winks off water trickling through the forgotten reaches of Avondale.

“It has become the place I go to be enfolded into nature and woven into the world,” he writes in the feature ‘Pilgrim at Oakley Creek’. “It is where I lose myself, and where I find myself.”

And while cavers and climbers extend the limits of what we know as New Zealand, small journeys of the spirit are taking place every day in quiet and meaningful ways on walkways in our urban centres, the many trails connecting islands of bush remaining in the sea of suburban sprawl, and the great tracks and tidelines of rural and wild spaces.

These are the pilgrimages that define us as New Zealanders, as much as any peak or precipice, for they are where we find ourselves.

More by