Starting time

To debut The Cave Journey, this first story is enriching because it is about the fieldwork experiences during this last summer in Waipuna Cave, a charming place beneath the Waitomo region landscapes in northwest New Zealand.

The appointment:  7:30 am at Gate 9 of the University.  The scientific team is ready. Dr. Adam Hartland, researcher from University of Waikato New Zealand, Inken Heidke, Ph.D. student from Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, in Mainz, Germany and myself.  Helmets, boots, gear and work equipment is organized in the vehicle. The first stop is at the famous road bakery where coffee and a delicious cake will provide the necessary energy to start the day’s adventure.

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A beautiful open landscape illuminated by the sunny morning awaits us to begin the journey to Waipuna cave. Here we organize the material, put on this funny getup and start hiking up the hills and enter the forest where the sunlight is being trapped by the lush vegetation where the forest star is The Silver Fern (Cyathea dealbata) “Ponga” in Māori language, this fern is native to New Zealand and is now a symbol of national identity.

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Moving onward we take a detour to the meteorological station to download the data of temperature and rainfall that the devices record every day. We then continue on this passage full of discoveries, obstacles, and expectations that take us into the Earth’s depths.

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The descent is quite an experience that challenges your physical and mental limits, forcing you to focus all your attention on the steps that you are making, because to go downwards you have to use your four extremities very efficiently + balance your body’s gravity centre + analyze the possible pathways + summon up courage+ decide which step to take next+ trust your grip on the rocks (that by the way are covered with slippery mud) and sometimes use unknown strength that helps you not to fall.

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Once the fright is over it’s possible to enjoy the release of adrenaline during the descend, this accompanied by a discrete feeling of happiness which is increasing after the first steps made underground and is leading into an interesting maze of stalactites where ducking, turning or squeezing a little bit is required. However, the reward is amazing an ornate palace with whimsical shapes of calcic formations.

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We made it!  Waipuna’s heart is the source of information that we have been looking for all this time. So now the work begins by organizing to take water samples from the different drip points.

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Photo author Inken Heidke

This water will later be analyzed in the laboratory to determine its elemental content as well as the oxygen and carbon isotopic composition. We also measure the drip rate to which these drops fall as well as the temperature, pH, and electrical conductivity, another important parameter is the C02 concentration in the cave air.

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Photo author Inken Heidke

The characterization of these geochemical parameters helps us understand the environmental conditions that led to this drop of water from the beginning of its path, the chemical transformation through the soil layer and the limestone bedrock until finally get to the dripping point, that under delicate equilibrium conditions in the cave atmosphere and after some thousands of years will build speleothems (stalactites and stalagmites among others).  Isn’t this amazing? Super exciting!  Think about it, if just one drop of water or a very small amount of calcium carbonate coming from a stalactite has information about the environmental conditions that occurred in the past… Can you imagine what else? Or what other kinds of information the entire cave has?  I know, it’s mind-blowing!

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Going some meters further into the cave the team looks for a place to set the passive sampling of aerosols (tiny particles suspended in the air). Because it is an area of research is beginning to develop we applied a type of experiment called “No target experiment” because there is no question or objective to pursue, just put filters in the Petri dishes, wait for a while and come back the following week to take the samples to the lab to analyze and see what we find. It’s a mystery!  In my view, it’s equally interesting to have clear objectives as it is to not have them. It is a way to observe without preconceived beliefs about the potential information that nature has to show us.  If we are open to listen to it of course.

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Photo author Adam Hartland

This gets more and more interesting, but for the moment our time in the cave has ended. We take a few minutes to contemplate and little by little say our goodbyes to the magical cave.

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Photo author Inken Heidke

By the end of the day, we are physically tired but filled with good underground vibes that comforts, cheers and recharges our energy to continue life’s journey.

Many thanks to Dr. Adam Hartland and Dr. Sebastian Breitenbach for making this possible. To QUEST project and DAAD for the funding.

And if you have two minutes, why don’t we go…

To close this chapter a nice short concert performed by “The Flowstone Orchestra”

Adventure in the cave from Cinthya Nava on Vimeo.

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