From rescued to rescuer - how Mike Brewer became the 'cave doctor'
The term most of us use to describe a lucky escape is dodging a bullet.
For Motueka GP Mike Brewer it was dodging a rock the size of a small fridge.
In fact he didn't dodge it entirely, the rock hit him and in turn caused him to fall 2 metres, break a pelvis and crack a few ribs in the Greenlink Cave System, near Harwoods Hole, in 2007.
"The rock had adequate mass to destroy me," he says in typically understated fashion.
"I find it hard to understand how more damage wasn't done."
Brewer refused to let the accident put him off caving, going back into it as soon as he was able.
"My wife puts it down to my lack of imagination."
Brewer's descents into the 183m deep Harwoods Hole, 33kms north of Motueka, haven't only been recreational.
He's also been involved in many rescue missions in New Zealand's deepest vertical shaft over the years, most recently to help save the life of a 25-year-old Canadian woman who fell whilst abseiling in February.
He was one of the first responders to the accident and initial reports were ominous. When they got to the scene and established communications, the injuries appeared less serious than first thought.
Brewer was the attending doctor and one of the two people to descend down to tend to the victim.
While he was down there a team assembled the rig to pull them out.
"That's the beauty of working in such a big team, where even though we don't get to do it very often we tend to know each other and we do practice so I can focus on the medical issues while above me the others are going to be organising the rigging and the roping."
Once Brewer had made her comfortable and placed her in the stretcher he tied himself to the stretcher for the ascent - the scariest part.
"I like being in more control of my ascent. You're totally dependent on people above you having set things up properly.
"Other than keeping the injured person comfy, I just had to keep the stretcher off the rock face for the last 30 or 40m."
He describes it as the Aoraki/Mt Cook of caving. The immense abseil along with the beauty and sportiness of the cave stream below makes it one of the "must-do" trips in New Zealand. It is also popular due to the fact that it's so accessible and is only a day trip.
People tend to focus on the abseil into the cave as the most dangerous part, but this only accounts for a fraction of the accidents.
"More people get lost in the caving system or even between the cave exit and the car."
The main challenge of the abseil is that because it's so long the amount of control needed changes as you go down.
"As you get closer to the bottom it speeds up so you need to have learnt techniques for control."
Brewer says the number of rock climbers wanting to descend into the hole has been problematic because they tend to be very familiar with their own gear and are used to a short abseil on double rope. But he says caving gear is specialised and different enough that it can catch people out.
"A lot of people see it as a one-off. They've got the time and they've got the gear so 'lets go and do it'.
"They're not going to invest in going to a club and rent the right equipment or even go with someone who is familiar with the area.
"That's been the worry for some time."
Brewer admits they have no way of knowing how many people do it and most don't seem to have any trouble.
He got into caving himself while he was at university in Canterbury and his flatmate suggested it.
Brewer says he did it for a few years before losing interest but when he met his future wife Sarah in the mid 80s, she insisted he get back into caving. This solidified his involvement.
"For me the appeal has always been the exploration and there's always so much new stuff going on here that has been the ongoing motivation for going caving."
He says different people have different reasons for doing it and he has even known people who take it on as a way of conquering their fear of heights and small spaces.
"I like the idea that I've learned how to survive in the environment and be mentally and physically comfortable. And that's a nice confidence feeling.
"I remember the first time I camped underground and thinking how revolting that was but slowly I've got more and more comfortable at staying underground for sometimes a week at a time."
Being an experienced caver and a GP meant he was always going to be in demand in rescue situations.
"I'm by no means an expert caver and I'm not an expert medical person when it comes to trauma and rescue but I have a combination of skills that puts me in a unique position.
"I live at the bottom of Takaka Hill so I'm a good go-to person," he added.
He can be on location quickly.
As far as advice goes for anyone thinking of having a crack at caving Brewer recommends going though a caving club which has the right experience and equipment.
"While it might take a bit more time finding someone to take you and get familiar with the equipment its an investment worth doing.
"It's not the sort of thing you decide on Saturday morning and go and do Saturday afternoon if you have never done it before."
As for the future, Brewer at 57 says he's in the sunset years of his caving, but has no immediate plans to hang up his ropes just yet.
- Sunday Star Times