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Safeguard Magazine

Cave Creek: Secret no more

Darren Gamble was one of the students at Cave Creek who scrambled down to help the victims. He spent years suppressing the memories and never mentioned it to anyone. He spoke to PETER BATEMAN about coming to terms with the experience.

In April 1995 I was 18 and studying outdoor recreation and leadership at Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth. It was a two-year certificate course. It was quite hard to get into – you had to be interviewed. When I got the nod it felt like a privilege and really exciting.

At 17 I’d won a free course to Outward Bound at Anakiwa. It was a life-changing experience, no question. Afterwards I just wanted to be an Outward Bound instructor – that’s where I was going with my life. I’d changed and had such a positive reaction, I wanted to do this for others.

I quit school right away. I was mixing with a bad crowd and wasn’t going in the right direction. So when I got into the Tai Poutini course, I thought: brilliant, how lucky am I?

What was happening on the day of the platform collapse?

It was our first year and we’d just come back from holiday after the first semester. Cave Creek was one of the first outings after the break. It was a day walk with people from DoC who were going to talk about the Cave Creek resurgence and cave system. We were split into two groups. The first group had gone the day before. They’d had a wicked day out and really enjoyed it.

You were a bit behind the rest?

I was towards the back because Leanne had a sore leg, so she was hobbling a bit. I was always keen on her so it was an opportunity to do some talking and see where that might go, so I hung back too. That is incredibly unlike me, I’m usually out front.

At one point she took off and headed up towards the front, and then she stopped and drifted back. I thought, yes! So we were chatting away, walking along behind. A few of the lads ahead were carrying on, throwing rocks into big tomo, laughing about it and making a hell of a noise.

So when the platform went, that was my initial thought: that someone had dislodged a really big rock, just the lads dicking around again.

How long did it take for your group to arrive at the scene?

We were literally just around the corner. Maybe ten seconds. But we students didn’t know there was a platform there that was now gone. Our tutor John knew, and Shirley from DoC. We three students – Leanne, Mark and myself – had no idea. We could hear screaming. Shirley and Mark went out to fetch help. John and Leanne and I began to work our way down. John warned us to prepare ourselves. He stopped us and said take a big breath, this is going to be hard. It was only when we got down and saw the platform that we realised how hard.

Did you have any first aid knowledge?

We’d done basic first aid in the first semester, so we had some clues. We took direction from John. First, to work out who we could help and who we clearly couldn’t help. We did a quick scout around the area to work out where everyone was and who still alive and who was obviously dead. Then we got back together and made a plan to work on those who were alive. Caroline was in a lot of discomfort but screaming and quite vocal. With our limited knowledge we thought she had a broken femur so we didn’t really worry about her. We were more worried about the ones who were alive but not talking, and the ones we could hear but couldn’t see.

Why couldn’t you see some people?

They were under the platform, which was still intact and kind of balanced on two rocks. There were a lot of people in the gap. A lot of bodies … I haven’t ever talked about this.

One guy was moaning. John and I went under the platform and moved bodies out of the way so we could get him out from a really awkward position. Leanne was dealing with someone else who was still alive at the time. We put another guy in the recovery position.

You must have been running on pure adrenalin?

Yep. Just get in and get it done. You can’t think about it. All three of us were in that mode. John said if we need to stop, stop; if we need to hug, let’s hug. He was awesome. We were laying out bodies, organising them.

There were hard moments when we saw mates, it was awful. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. One of them who was still alive, you could see in his eyes he wasn’t going to make it. I don’t know what his injuries were.

How long was it before help arrived?

It felt like an eternity. We had done everything we could do. We had moved people, we’d put Stacey with Sam to keep him company, we had Caroline with Scott because they were good mates, holding hands to support each other. Steve was so far gone, I just sat with him. I didn’t want him to die while I was holding his hand. It was bloody awful.

Then John came over with a list of everyone’s names. Who was alive and who was dead. He sent me back up with the list. I bolted out of there with all the adrenalin in the world. Running along the track. Maybe for 15 minutes, I don’t know.

That’s when I saw a police officer coming along. Oh my God, help is actually coming. I just told him it’s really bad and gave him the list. He had a radio. He said great, thanks, carry on out of here son. Little did I know Scott had died not long after I left.

When did you reach other people?

In the car park quite a way in from the main road. By the time I got out there were fire engines and ambulances and helicopters. There was a volunteer firefighter, an old boy, he said come with me, gave me a blanket, said stay there, we’ll see you right. He didn’t want media getting hold of me. I just sat down on my own.

Then John and Leanne came out. We hugged for ages. John drove us to the DoC office at Punakaiki. He told us to ring our parents because it would be on the news. Already there was media lining up. I phoned Mum. I was pretty blasé, just told her I was fine and that I’d tell her more later.

Then John drove us back to Greymouth. We pulled over to see the most beautiful sunset that night, we felt it was like all our mates saying goodbye to us. We were all in shock trying to process what the hell had happened.

Now that I think back, how wrong was that, having John drive us after an experience like that? He was in charge of the group. Now that I’m older, I think what was he going through? Then we got dropped off at our places and left to our own devices for a bit. Luckily Leanne’s host family took the initiative to take me as well. I went back to their house.

Leanne and I were able to spend time talking and debriefing. Neither of us slept that night. That was good. We couldn’t eat food. We didn’t know what to do. Parents began turning up. We were asked if we were willing to go back down and show the parents. We did that.

At the time I never appreciated what the parents were going through. Now that I’m a parent, man, I couldn’t think of anything worse.

How many days later was that?

Maybe two days later. Everything was a blur. They had the memorial in Greymouth and I barely remember it, and yet I sat on the stage! The prime minister was there, Jim Bolger, they gave us this beautiful greenstone and the Queen’s Service Medal, but I don’t even remember that. I was in another world in my head. It didn’t seem to matter.

We’d done all the funerals by then. We tried to go to as many as we could, all round the country. Air New Zealand gave us free flights. Such a whirlwind.

Did you carry on with the course?

I carried on. I owed it to my mates. I had a tough year. I got a wee bit loose with my attitude to risk. I took quite life endangering risks that first year, kayaking and different things. Sometimes I made the paper for not the right reasons, getting rescued out of rivers.

The second year was about leadership. You want to be a good safe leader out there. The guy who was in charge, Steve, who I have a huge amount of respect for, he really questioned my ability and frame of mind to do the second year. I was nearly kicked out. But John said no, he’ll come right. He’s had a tough year, give him a second chance.

And the second year I did pull my head in a bit more. I was 19 and still did some silly things, but I passed pretty well.

These days you’d receive counselling. Was it offered?

They referred us to a psychologist in Christchurch. As a student in Greymouth, how do I get there? And why am I going there for an hour? I did the first one and thought it was a complete waste of time. I had Leanne – we did actually become girlfriend and boyfriend. That was good enough for me at that time. So I didn’t do it again.

In hindsight it would’ve been nice if someone had taken control of that and maybe arranged a counsellor in Greymouth. Someone to force you to sit down, talk about it, ask how it is affecting your decisions, how are you dealing with it. But once I turned it down there was nothing else.

I did my best to just shut it down. Just bury it and move on. I feel I’ve always owed my mates something. I’ve been gifted my life and I was lucky, so I have to make the most of that and not waste it. That’s been my attitude ever since. If I’ve been given opportunities and they are good ones, I haven’t wasted them.

I ended up moving to Australia. I didn’t tell a soul over there. To this day my best mates there still don’t know. When I came back after five years I became a student again at Lincoln University. They brought up Cave Creek a few times, about how DoC changed their procedures. They just needed to utter the words Cave Creek and God, I just sank. No one knew I had any involvement with it. Just the words would take me back. That’s post-traumatic stress stuff.

What were you studying at Lincoln?

I did psychology and outdoor leadership at university. It was a pretty cool degree but I didn’t finish it because I got the dream job in Malaysia. An incredible experience. I thought, man, I’m living my dream job so I’ll put uni on hold, and get on with building a massive outdoor education school. I was helping to influence thousands of students, had adventure races running, team building.

I felt like I was having a positive influence on the world. It was the pinnacle of what I set out to do. It was cool. That was five years. About three months in I was handed the reins. I took a real leadership role. I was 24 or 25. Pretty lucky – right place, right time.

How has Cave Creek affected your attitude to risk?

It’s given me the ability to think scenarios right through to the absolute worst case and actually believe that it could happen. When I’m doing my risk management plan and safety systems I’m pretty staunch on it and always have been. People can think of the worst case scenario but they never really think it could happen. But it can. I’ve seen it happen.

We had an awesome track record for 50,000 students over those five years. No deaths. Maybe one went to hospital with a suspected snake bit which turned out not to be a snake bite. I’ve got to credit Malaysians, they’re pretty risk averse, they’re not like us, who like to climb trees and throw rocks.

Half of our job was to get them to be more like that – to get them out of their comfort zones, challenging themselves a bit, do a few scary things.

Cave Creek left you uninjured physically. How about its effect on your state of mind?

Undiagnosed anxiety and depression. I had suicidal thoughts in the first year. I had drinking issues. I don’t drink any more, but I used to.

I’m a pretty hard working character so I immerse myself in activity, but in down time I had time to think. I didn’t like to think because that’s how you keep things buried, you don’t give it a chance to come out. So if I had time to think, drinking was always the thing.

I hated having time to think. You know how people say sit and meditate? I actually do that now and it’s good, but back then, no way, I wouldn’t allow myself to do stuff like that. I kept busy.

I suppose it’s a bit like soldiers back from war. If you’re a man, that’s what you did. You just shut up and got on with your life because you’re a hard bugger.

Otherwise the demons would get you?

That’s right. I’ve certainly been in my big deep dark cave many times.

One day I opened up to my friends here in town. We went down and did the Ghost Road cycle trail. It was on the West Coast so memories came flooding back, and I blurted it out. Honestly, I’d never done that.

I’ve stopped drinking and I’m thinking about it a lot more. I’m considering going down for the anniversary. I’d bring the family – my wife and two kids, they’re ten and eight – and tell them all about it. That’s my 44-year-old brain – a bit more sensible now.

I don’t need to keep it a secret any more.

Darren Gamble operates Station Lodge in Ohakune with his wife Jane and their two children. Outdoor adventures continue.

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