Caver extraordinaire

21:43, Feb 26 2014
Kieran McKay
BREAKTHROUGH: Caver Kieran McKay with his feet in Mt Arthur's Nettlebed system and his head in Stormy Pot.

Kieran McKay probably spends more of his life in caves than anybody in New Zealand.

The man who has been described as "New Zealand's most ambitious caver" made history last week when he led the Extreme Caving Group on the first "through trip" of the Stormy Pot/Nettlebed system 1200 metres below Mt Arthur, the deepest and longest through trip in the country and the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere.

Back on the surface this week, he spoke to The Leader before setting off to do the trip again this weekend.

What's your day job?

I'm a caver and an outdoors instructor, running an outdoors course, mountaineering courses, and if I'm not on a course, I'm going to be out caving. I'd like to be a fulltime caver. I'm based at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre near Tongariro National Park

How much time do you spend caving?


Ninety per cent of my time is spent either caving or getting ready to go on caving trips. I probably spend about 50 per cent of my time actually caving. Last year I spent around 100 days underground. I doubt if there are any people who spend as much time caving as I do and if there are, I want to meet them, because we should go caving together.

How did you get into caving?

I remember crawling around little pumice caves on my parents' farm when I was about 6. My first real caving trip was when I was 14 and the guy who took us was very inspirational. He gave us some maps and that was it, I was off. It changed my life.

Is it scary?

One of the biggest fears people have is of small spaces and yes, there are lots of those but there are also huge caves, as big as a roadway. The isolation gets to people - you can't just go home. I've noticed that when I take new people caving, as soon as they get underground they get tired. It's the stress.

What about creepy crawlies?

The further you get from the entrance, the smaller the insects get because there's not much food down there. But round the entrances you might have to abseil past some big wetas and spiders.

What are the dangers?

A lot of what people fear are only perceived dangers but there's real danger too: Loose rocks, underground flooding. I had a close call in the late 90s in a cave on Mt Owen. Loose rock is the biggest danger - someone above you could dislodge it. I've got a lot of respect for loose rock.

Your discoveries build on work done by pioneering Nelson cavers over the past 60 years. Have you connected with some of them?

Yes, I met a bunch of them a few nights ago. This old lady who had been a caver came up to me and said: ‘You guys did such a good job' but I told her, no, you started this story - it is not just us. If those cavers hadn't spent half their lives mapping Nettlebed, we'd have got nowhere. The caving population in New Zealand is ageing and we really want younger people to come through. We had the baton passed to us and we want to hand it on, to show people that it's not horrible underground, it's really amazing.

Of course, some days it ishorrible: you're wet, you're cold, and you've got rock up against your back and in your face and wind is whipping through but then half an hour later, you get to an amazing big cave and it is all worthwhile. Caving really teaches you a lot about life. You do get hard times but you get through them and have amazing times.

What does it take to be a caver?

Tenacity. You need to be able put up with shit. When the going gets tough, you need to keep going but you also might need to turn around and help your mate behind you. You need to be technically good: abseiling, surveying, rigging. You need to be comfortable in extreme situations and you need to get along well with other people. You need to be a team player. You need to a good solid outdoors person. You need to be cave fit and mentally strong. You can't teach that - you can teach the technical skills but you can't teach mental strength.

What do you miss when you're underground?

This may sound strange but if you set up the expedition right, you don't miss anything. Once we set out to go home, then I miss the sunshine. I do miss two things though: I miss my wife and I miss my son.

If you were an animal what would you be?

I reckon I'd be an eagle because I'm the type of person that really likes freedom.

When did you last dig a hole and what did you put in it?

Do you really want to know? I pooed in it. But we don't leave our poo in the cave - we pack it all out.