RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 36 Number 2 Article 3
June 1999

Edgar Sixtus - One of the Early Cave Personalities

This article was forwarded to us by Dave Edland. It originally appeared in the November edition of 'Cavity', the newsletter of the Canterbury Caving Club in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was written by Moira Lipyeat of Christchurch, and is reproduced here with permission. A few minor amendments by Steve Glasgow of NZSS have been included.

Some years ago I was asked to do a history of Harwood's Hole for a Swedish film crew. While doing this, I became fascinated by the history and geology of the whole area. Edgar Sixtus was a key figure in the early discoveries of that area but I found very little about the man.

At Easter this year (1998) I fulfilled an ambition of mine; I found Edgar Sixtus himself! Each time passing through Motueka over the years I had quizzed various people, with no results. But this time a butcher I talked to put me in touch with a very alert and interesting Edgar Sixtus. He was willing to be interviewed and could recall the events of fifty years ago quite vividly.

Although Edgar Sixtus just died on 14 September 1998, at 88 years of age, and had a stroke four years ago, he was able to keep his listeners thoroughly enthralled for many hours until the end of his life. I particularly enjoyed his tales about the early exploration of Harwood's hole, and the history and geology of the surrounding area.

As early as 1810, Maori refugees from the attacks of Te Raupraha had roamed the area but had feared the hidden valley home of Taipo (meaning 'thundering underground waters'). In 1843, the explorer Charles Heaphy described the most remarkable of the geological features; "immense crater-like hollows, terminating in dark cavernous wells with subterranean drainage". This was named The Land of Eccentric Landscapes, a mysterious area named after Canaan in the Holy Land, "The land flowing with milk and honey"; Joshua 5, verse 7.

In 1897 R. and T. Pattie named this area while out looking for wild cattle from Riwaka. H. Harwood, the Mansons and M. Horton came across the area when out hunting and discovered a knob of quartz. Harwood took up the land soon after. This was part of the Mt Arthur marble - up to 500 million years old and some of the most ancient rock in the country. The ridge terminating at Harwoods Hole was known to the locals since the first survey but had not previously been named.

In 1890, one of the Sixtus brothers who had immigrated from Germany in 1843 applied for a section on Canaan Hill. By now there was great activity on the hill, clearing the bush and prospecting for gold. Some of the earliest possums had been liberated near Takaka and trapping them had become a source of income. A licence was required to do this and two pounds a year seemed excessive so Homestead Creek was a good place to hunt and trap the animals for the young son Edgar. It was on one of these expeditions that he found the gaping abyss we now know as Harwoods Hole.

Life was hard in those days. Edgar had left school at 14 and helped his father. A bush fire had burnt their house in 1920. Life was isolated and only tracks led up from Takaka (Rameka Creek) and 11 km in from Takaka Hill. The land was cleared and farming was hard. Edgar had always had a great interest in the minerals of the area. He retained that to the end of his life and had a great collection. He was very active in lapidary societies.

In 1951 the Abel Tasman National Park was extended to include some of this area. Max White, the first ranger, was remembered for his erection of huts and building paths. The area was becoming known to the outside community. Botanists explored the area finding rare plants. It was a noteworthy breeding ground of the rare giant land snail Paryphanta hochstetter; these are now protected. By 1955 geologists were searching for uranium. I. J. McKee, of Lime & Marble at Mapua, identified other minerals. Valuable scheelite was found. Intrusion of molten granite into original limestone under temperature and pressure had formed marble, which had become valuable for building.

Now enter the cavers...

1958 The first caving expedition to the area from Auckland consisted of Frank Walton, Les Kermode, Paul Weston and David May. They were prospecting for caves. Edgar Sixtus suggested they look at a deep shaft at the termination of a shallow valley known as Harwoods Flat, following Homestead Creek. This was named after an earlier settler who had grazed sheep there. Edgar Sixtus showed them the "Hole", suggesting that they call it "HARWOODS HOLE" and the cavers agreed.

The New Zealand Speleological Society had been formed on 1 October 1949 with one member, Henry Lambert. Speleo Bulletin 26 (June 1958) recorded the above visit. It was noted that E. Sixtus had not dared look down before! Rocks were thrown down, and the depth was estimated as 700 ft (215 m) with sides rising another 200 ft (61 m) on three sides The gaping mouth of the hole was estimated as 140 ft by 200 ft (43 m by 61 m). A winch would be required. These had been used in European caves before, but it looked difficult. They decided to investigate via Gorge Creek, so Dave Kershaw and Peter and Helen Lambert of Nelson did a reconnaissance trip up Gorge Creek and found an entrance blocked by a pool 20 ft by 60 ft (6 m by 18 m) - and very cold!

NZSS Bulletin 29 (March 1959) records that another party of seven visited the hole. Ropes and ladders were considered to be too exhausting, so a winch had been supervised and built by Richard Scott at no expense to NZSS. One thousand feet of 3/16" galvanised steel cable with breaking point of 1.2 tons was used. The winch weighed 5 c.w.t. and was powered by one H.P. Villiers four-stroke engine and gearbox, and a clutch from a Matchless motorcycle. The chair was adapted from a parachute harness with a steel seat. Anyone interested in the above can view it at the Waitomo Museum of Caves. The person in the chair had a leather flying helmet with built-in headphones. The Press had a reporter present recording NZ's biggest cave project so far.

The First Assault

24 December 1958. Peter and Helen Lambert were first on the spot at Edgar Sixtus' farm. Canaan Road had been put in but was rough and took one hour to get in from the turnoff. The rain was heavy as the Auckland group arrived, although by Christmas day, 1958, there was less rain.

Boxing day. The winch was set up at the top left-hand side of the scree slope. All unstable rock and shrubs were removed. An aluminium ladder was used for a belay and volunteers on the ladder took two hours to put in the peg. A clothes line and prop analogy was used.

27 December 1958. After an early start the group drew straws and Peter Lambert won. He hung in space, in the mist, rotating as he descended, but became tangled in the vines and had to be winched up again. David May was next. He hooked his thumb, screamed and was saved, but eventually went down in a normal descent. Enthralled, cheering and laughing, those still at the top celebrated with several bottles of beer. The total time taken to reach the bottom was from 1:25 pm to 3:03 pm.

30 December 1958. All were up early and Malcolm was down in 15 minutes but took two hours to untangle wires at the bottom. Catherine Donald, a Scottish girl, was staying, and she went down in 10 minutes. They made coffee at the bottom and explored the cave, finding numerous formations and bird bones. Kakapo bones had been identified and also a blind beetle, genus Duvaliomus. Later there was a large rock fall and the winch was dismantled for that year. Following press publicity 13.10 pounds was donated towards the project.

Starlight Cave was discovered in January 1959. This was blocked by a calcite dam which was lowered 18 inches with a chisel and spade. It was named "Starlight" after reflected lights in the pool. Three heligtites were named after the three wise men.

NZSS Bulletin No. 34, p.59 records "Christmas Expedition Goes to Deepest Hole Outside Europe. Total depth 1210 ft - exciting adventure - 21 on trip". Peter Lambert and Dave Kershaw (from the previous trip) led the party. There was more fluoro testing, photography, comradeship and exploration. Dyes and gelignite were used. On Monday 4 January 1960, the winch was in continuous action. Heather, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Edgar Sixtus, went down. At 8:15 Peter Lambert started his ascent. The motor purred. There was the usual excitement and anticipation, but then the motor stopped! Peter was near the top, when a deafeningly loud crash was heard! Peter Diamond and Peter Reid just escaped the rock fall but Peter Lambert landed the full impact of the rocks. He was drawn up and cut out of the harness. Help was sent for. Everyone knew how serious it was, and Peter died soon after, having never regained consciousness. His helmet was knocked to the bottom. A memorial was subscribed immediately. It made a sad ending for an expedition.

In 1971 we read that the first descent by single fixed rope technique (SRT) was by Keith Dekkers, Fred Kahl, and Ashley Cody. This was after six months planning and the experience was available only to the few who owned a break bar descender (rack), jumars, and webbing harness. A life line was used for security on the first trip. Walkie talkie radios were considered essential, as well as a notice to warn sightseers at the top not to throw rocks. The trip, using 200 m of Donaghy's spinnaker cord, was successful.

By 1979 UK cavers had heard of Harwoods Hole from Mick Hopkinson and together with Fred Kahl and Keith Dekkers, planned a trip to do some filming. This is the first record of people thrashing and marking their way to the top of the bush by the lookout rather than follow Gorge Creek down.

No record of Harwoods Hole would be complete without mention of those many people who have been lost (mislaid) coming up that path and the man-hours spent marking the route with hundreds of sections of Venetian blind. The onga-onga always remains an obstacle.

I hope this has been of interest to those many cavers who make Harwoods Hole one of the highlights on their caving calendar. Very few accidents have been recorded but this shaft deserves the maximum of respect and common sense. The hole continues to be enjoyed by many each year, whether they have the courage, expertise, and equipment to descend or for those who only watch in awe. It is good to recall Edgar Sixtus and his band of intrepid cavers who first accepted the challenge. Until his death Edgar Sixtus kept all early records of Nelson Branch and I noticed their first meeting was 4 July 1960, no doubt excited by the discovery of this great cave. The name of Edgar Sixtus will continue to be remembered because another cave near his home, which he showed the visiting cavers, was named after him - "Ed's Collar".

Moira Lipyeat

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