Diving into darkness

22:52, Dec 12 2013
Riwaka Resurgence
DEEP THOUGHT: Ross McDonald looks down into the Riwaka Resurgence.

Fifty years ago five Nelson men dived into the unknown at the Riwaka Resurgence. Naomi Arnold reports.

It was the day after news of John F Kennedy's assassination broke in New Zealand. A group of Nelson families had come to the Riwaka Resurgence for a picnic, and to watch a historic moment take place.

Ross McDonald, Malcolm Hume, Eric King, Roger Cross and Graham Hawkins intended to explore the source of the north branch of the Riwaka River, which poured from deep inside the bones of Takaka Hill as it began its overland journey to the sea. Two of them - Mr King and Mr McDonald, along with Peter Garland - had dived it once before in the early autumn of 1960, but on this day the five men intended to chart it for the first time.

Riwaka Resurgence
DESCENT: From left, Graham Hawkins, Roger Cross and Ross McDonald in the Riwaka Resurgence in 1963.

They suited up with their twin-hose aqualungs and attached a rope clothesline, a camera kept dry in a Perspex box, and preserving jars filled with candles and matches. They tied slates to their belts so they could write notes, and picked up rubber torches, sealed shut with hose clips.

They dived in, and, one by one, sank below the surface and entered the black cave. Hours passed. On the banks, Jean King, Vera McDonald, and Betty Hume, who was also Mr King's sister, were timing the men's air, and worried as it got closer to running out. The children played in the river, and grew cold as shadows moved from the cavern's walls to the water.

Finally, the divers broke the surface, triumphant. The map that the Lands and Survey Department eventually produced from that trip was mounted at the entrance to the Resurgence, which was secret no more.


Riwaka Resurgence
ON THE MAP: The map of the Riwaka Resurgence produced after the 1963 dive.

Two weeks ago, on another Sunday, November 24, some of those people gathered again at the Resurgence with members of the Nelson Underwater Club to mark the 50th anniversary of that dive, and to look back on and celebrate the diving career of Ross McDonald, club patron.

At 83, Mr McDonald wasn't in the water on Sunday. "I'll let the young fellas go in," he said, from his vantage point on the walkway above.

His grandsons Josh and Nicholas McDonald-Davis were snorkelling, diving, and swimming with their father Brian Davis in the cold water. Mr McDonald may have grown older but the temperature of the water has stayed about the same - nine degrees. The boys called out that their ears were freezing.

Riwaka Resurgence
VIEW FROM THE TOP: A diver in the Riwaka Resurgence.

"Way back then you did worry," Mrs McDonald says. "They were self-taught, going into something really unknown. They didn't know what they'd come across when they got in - or what was in there at all."

Though he's not diving today, Mr McDonald's no slouch - he recently rescued a 1940 outboard motor from the bottom of Lake Rotoiti after it fell off a vintage boat during this year's classic boat show.

He recalls what it's like to descend into the blue of the Resurgence and surface inside the mountain, into darkness as thick as tar.

After you dive down into the hole, he says, you swim about 30m and go around a corner. There's a waterfall, and you have to take off your fins and climb up over it in the dark, damp air. You put your fins back on and sink back into the water.

You dive down again, and swim another 50m, and you come to a ledge. You take your gear off, climb up - and you find yourself in an enormous empty space, a cathedral underground, maybe six or seven storeys high and about 30m in diameter. The bottom is made up of huge, dry boulders, some of them razor-sharp. There's a sandy sort of creek, and you can plunge into that and walk up to your waist. Another 40m or so and you come to the end, where the cavern narrows into tiny passages.

"You can't get much further - you'd have to be a troglodyte."

In fact, there is a dry entrance to the cavern, which cavers have been exploring for some time. "Not many people know about that." He politely declines to mention its location.

Someone mentions a dive they did once when they popped up into the cavern and came across a group of cavers eating sandwiches, sitting there as dry as a bone.

Inside the cavern, there are stalactites and stalagmites, but mostly it's a big empty space. No light. No sound except the water. It's easier on the way back home, when you can look ahead and see bluish-green daylight shining through the cleft in the rocks.

His first visit, with Eric King and Peter Garland in 1960, was "very spooky". They'd seen an article in the Nelson Evening Mail about the Resurgence and decided to go in to have a look. None of them had done any cave diving before. The Friday April 1, 1960, edition of the Mail carried a small story on page six: "Three underwater divers, clad in rubber suits, aqualungs, flippers and armed with flashlights made the first descent ever into the bubbling black source of the Riwaka River last Sunday."

They found "weird and artistically shaped stalactites" in the cavern, and made two other trips to photograph the insides. Mr King reported no underwater ‘monsters'."

Another diver there that day in 1963, Malcolm Hume, is 75 now, and lives in Feilding on a 4.5-hectare lifestyle block. He was 14 when he started diving, with gear he made at home, including a snorkel out of an old gas mask hose. A college prize of an underwater book started off his interest, as well as the exploits of a certain Frenchman named Jacques Cousteau.

But he gave up diving when he was 50 - Manawatu wasn't exactly conducive to it. "It's rather difficult to find a pond that's deep enough," he says.

However, in 1963 he decided it would be a good time to try the Resurgence. He knew from Mr King, Mr McDonald and Mr Garland's first dive that there were air passages, but the big black cavern was completely unknown."

 "Also there were his daughters Narissa, Tonia and Tanya, his son-in laws, Mrs McDonald,  Malcolm Hume's sister Bev Hume, and Merinda Cassidy, the daughter of Eric and Jean King.

"We just popped into the hole in the hill and disappeared for an hour or two, and then three or four," he says. "It was quite cold."

He recalls seeing a small cockabully, but otherwise the tunnel was "totally pitch black", the only light filtering through when they rose into the first air passage, or sump. "You can look back and there's a nice pretty green flow of the light coming through into the cave. I thought it was amazing."

Ex-air force, it was he who had rustled up the camera case from Perspex and seals, which he'd made with some locals when he was stationed in Singapore. He sealed an Asahi Pentax inside and took it into the cave, bringing it out again in the dark to snap his photos.

He also brought with him a powerful water-going torch, but found that when he got into the cave and shone it up towards the ceiling, the beam faded out and disappeared into the blackness without ever hitting stone.

"It was so vast. You could feel it around you, the huge space, a slight current of air moving in there."

The memory is still strong, 50 years later. "Some of those things, they stick."

Since those first trips, Mr McDonald has dived the Resurgence hundreds of times. It's one of the few notable freshwater dive sites in the region and of international quality.

After the Underwater Club divers have disappeared in the deep, Mr McDonald strides off down the hill for a cup of coffee and a Krispie from the thermos in the car. Though he's carrying two weight belts as well, it is difficult to keep up with him.

He first learned to dive when he was in the air force in the 1950s, and also joined the search and rescue team. There was no police dive team in those days, so he was involved in picking up fatalities and mountain search and rescue. He started out diving with Kelly Tarlton and Wade Doak in the groynes around Christchurch, wearing sandshoes with pieces of three-ply nailed to the bottom for flippers.

Underwater clubs were just starting to form across the country. Mr McDonald started the Marlborough UWC, and then came over to Nelson and formed the NUC in 1958. He was 28.

"All the years I've been in the club I've got back out what I put into it and had wonderful support from my wife and family over the years," he says.

In a full-on diving career, he's been employed in commercial diving, beneath oil rigs, in ship salvage, has travelled all around New Zealand scrubbing the bottoms of massive ships, and trained divers in Nelson for 42 years.

He has worked in dams and spent six months working on a desalination project in Nauru. He's helped with the Cook Strait power cable installation at Fighting Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. He's spent time doing geo-surveys of Tasman and Golden Bay, looking for oil. He's dived the earthquake fault line in Lake Rotoiti, seeing up close where the flat bottom suddenly plummets off.

Above the lake, he's taken a chainsaw up to the snow near Rainbow skifield and cut a hole in the ice, pulled out the chunk, inserted some ice screws, and dived down to explore the world under the sheet of ice.

He's had a couple of near misses. In the Cobb dam once, he and a colleague were 30m down and 15m up a tunnel, checking the dam gates. Up above, someone accidentally pulled the plug out of their light source, leaving them stranded in the dark, confined space.

"We just tried not to panic and used our little torches and hung on to the power cord and managed to get ourselves out," he says.

"Sounds easy, but I don't think it was," Mrs McDonald says.

In 2011 he won the coveted Wyland Foundation-Dive New Zealand magazine recognition award, which he says was "very special". The award recognises those who have unselfishly contributed huge amounts of their personal time for the benefit of all divers and the marine environment, for no personal gain or glory. "I've never seen him so gobsmacked," Mrs McDonald says. She also saw a rare tear.

He's also picked up the 1998 Sport Tasman Sportsman of the Year award. And he's earned the greatest respect from the Nelson Underwater Club for the work he's put in.

The club, numbering about 50 members and families, intends to continue Mr McDonald's work.

"Ross has shaped diving for New Zealand," president Craig Morris says. "My part now is to keep the dive club in good steady hands so Ross can see all that energy and work that he started can be carried on."

But it's harder to dive unusual places these days.

Rainbow frowns on the ice-diving lark, and the Department of Conservation sometimes finds itself in the difficult position of weighing up conservational, recreational, aesthetic and spiritual values of New Zealand's special places.

Another of the early Nelson Underwater Club's haunts was Golden Bay's Waikoropupu (Pupu) Springs, the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and also the largest coldwater springs in the southern hemisphere. They contain some of the clearest water ever measured and are regarded as sacred by iwi. Mr McDonald was the first to dive the spectacular springs in the late 1950s, when it was just a weedy pond.

In early 2006, prompted by concern about the spread of the invasive algae didymo, the department opted to close off all physical contact with the springs: no fishing, swimming, diving, wading, boating and drinking the water. It said this was done to safeguard water quality and "to respect cultural values".

Prior to this, diving was allowed under a voluntary code of conduct, restricting excursions to 15 minutes and prescribing no more than four divers at a time. Divers came from around New Zealand and further afield to experience the amazing water clarity, officially measured at 63 metres.

At the time the Underwater Club vowed to fight the ban, saying the original code of practice for divers was sufficient to protect the springs.

Nelson Underwater Club members are still cautious about Riwaka, fearing a repeat. In 2009, DOC put up boards explaining the spiritual significance of the place, leading committee member Mark Roden to comment to the Nelson Mail: "We respect the place too. Our form of respect is to go and check it out."

A carved waharoa, or entranceway, straddles the riverside pathway at the Resurgence, recognising the cultural significance of Te Puna o Riuwaka. It is wahi tapu, a sacred place, a powerful site where they would not eat or swim, and a place of healing for iwi. Newborn babies were brought there to be blessed - the water comes up, from Papatuanuku, the Earth mother, not down from the father.

Chairman of Ngati Tama, Fred Te Miha, says he doesn't have a mandate to speak for other iwi, but would not want to see divers kept out, as they add knowledge about the caves in their mapping of underground systems.

"I think it's a big help, the work they do. We still don't know enough about the cave system and it is beneficial to all New Zealanders," he says.

"What we're worried about is divers not cleaning their gear properly and introducing something foreign to it. Once it gets to the caves you'd never get rid of it."

He hopes all divers are made properly aware of the importance of cleaning gear.

"But I don't know how you're going to police it." He says he's aware of counter-arguments that nothing can grow in the caves because there's no light, but says international divers risk bringing all sorts of microscopic foreign organisms into the water, with consequences that can't be foreseen.

Mr McDonald says divers are very aware of those risks.

"We look after the place - no food or anything up there, and we really make sure we clean everything up," he says.

"It's a spiritual place with the water coming out of the ground. We don't want to see it shut down."

Mr Morris says the club divers "respect it at a really high level".

"It's not just "oh we're going for a dive in a cave", he says. "We take what they say very seriously. It's like going back into time - reality doesn't exist when you're in there."

He says that part of diving is exploring the underwater environment and instilling wonder in people and respect for the natural world - something that not everyone knows instinctively, when, to a landlubber, a flat blue sea can look as uninteresting as a paddock.

Both he and Mr McDonald agree that if everybody knew what the world was like underwater, it would change how they relate to the sea. "People go down there and they're blown away. They didn't even know that was sitting there."

All divers have their special little spots. Mr McDonald's is Kaikoura, and for Mr Morris it's Bottle Point, near D'Urville Island, as well as D'Urville itself. On a good clear dive, he says it's equal to a dive in the Poor Knights, New Zealand's best spot for underwater beauty.

"You can equal that, and we have it on our doorstep," he says. "It's like massive beautiful gardens, a forest. People don't get to see what you see. It's hard to put into words what seeing that can do to people."