12 May 2023

Abbey Caves and NZ's tragic outdoor education history

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 12 May 2023

The 2008 Mangatepopo canyoning disaster put the spotlight on outdoor education safety. The Detail looks at the changes made in the aftermath of that tragedy - and why what happened at Abbey Caves this week has brought back memories from 15 years ago.

The entrance to Abbey Caves, Whāngarei, where searchers looking for a missing student recovered a body, after a school trip to the cave network.

The entrance to Abbey Caves, Whāngarei, where searchers looking for a missing student recovered a body, after a school trip to the cave network. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

The death of a student at Abbey Caves in Whangārei on Tuesday is a terrible reminder for some of New Zealand's worst school outdoor education tragedy: the 2008 Mangatepopo canyoning disaster.

Safety regulations have been tightened since six students and a teacher from Auckland's Elim Christian College lost their lives while on a course with the Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) in the central North Island. 

But outdoor education faces fresh scrutiny after 15 students and two adults from Whangārei Boys' High School got into trouble in the Abbey Caves during severe weather. One student, Karnin Ahorangi Petera, died.

"If we're still seeing accidents we may need stronger regulations," professional caver and guide Neil Silverwood tells The Detail.

He worked at OPC - now Hillary Outdoors - before and after the 2008 Mangatepopo accident, and has written about the changes to the adventure tourism and education industry.

"It felt like the whole ground shifted under our feet after Mangatepopo and we needed to have far stronger safety procedures in place," says Silverwood.

In the years since then, all commercial operators have had to work with much stricter safety rules - and the adventure activities regulations. Hillary Outdoors, he says, has gone towards a model based on rigid standards that are audited regularly.

According to its safety management system, risks are identified and managed conservatively, and weather conditions are closely monitored. All activities have to have an effective rescue plan. Hillary Outdoors staff also report all health and safety incidents, including "near misses".

After Mangatepopo, there was also a review of school guidelines on outdoor education, but the onus remains on schools and their boards to be responsible for student safety. 

While they don't have to be registered under the adventure activity regulations, they still have to comply with health and safety laws.

Schools use a range of people to run outdoor education activities, the ministry says, including teachers, support staff, contracted providers, parents, volunteers. 

Like all schools, Whangārei Boys' High School has an outdoor education health and safety policy. 

Its "risk assessment method statement" for caving identifies heavy rain, deep water and flooding as potential hazards.

The "hazard management strategy" for this is for the instructor to check both the weather and the water levels leading up to the trip. It goes on to say, postpone the trip if water levels may be too high.

Silverwood, the co-founder of the New Zealand Caving School, says caving isn't always dangerous, but caves are one of the few places in the outdoors where a whole group can be killed during flooding or flash flooding.

"We have to take an extremely cautious approach," he says.

At the very minimum, he says, caves should have flow gauges at entrances that would indicate the maximum safe flow level to enter the cave. 

"Many caves will flood, not all caves, and you might have safe areas inside those caves. So you need really good safety operating procedures in place to know if there is a flood," Silverwood says.

Hear more of Neil Silverwood's reflections on outdoor education and safety in the full podcast episode.

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