Under the ground and over the moon: Q&A with Waitomo Adventures

February 21, 2019

Scott Culpan’s job involves abseiling down waterfalls. But the bit that really gets him excited is passing on knowledge, and seeing his staff build up their skills and confidence.

Skills Active caught up with Scott, an operations manager and training manager at caving company Waitomo Adventures, to ask him what it takes to prepare cave guides for the ups and downs of the job...

What is Waitomo Adventures all about and what do you offer?

We offer high-end adventure caving. We have a blackwater rafting trip, two different ziplining options, we abseil down waterfalls, and we have a 100-metre free-hanging abseil into a cave called the Lost World. We take groups of up to 12 people, and our ratio of guides to guests is between 1 to 4 and 1 to 6.

All of our tours are four hours return, apart from our Lost World Epic, which is an all-day trip that finishes with a barbeque dinner.  

What do you do?

I share the role of operations manager – there is a group of four of us who have that role. I’ve also got the full-time job of training manager. And then I also do guiding as needed.

As training manager, I induct new staff into the company. And then we teach them all of their caving and rope skills, their vertical skills, everything right from the beginning. With that, there’s a lot of record-keeping, which flows on to preparing our paperwork for when we get audited.

[Adventure tourism operators like Waitomo Adventures go through regular safety audits to make sure they are complying with the Adventure Activities Regulations in the Health and Safety at Work Act.]

What do you love about your job?

I would say teaching and imparting knowledge – I really enjoy that aspect of it. Passing skills onto people, and creating tools to deal with high-pressure situations.

What kinds of high-pressure situations?

For instance, dealing with a flash flood whilst in a cave. And being prepared for all the ‘What if?’ scenarios. What if it rains heavily and the river comes up? How do you deal with a non swimmer? How do you deal with an injury in a cave?

A catchphrase we’ve always used is that our guides specialise in "taking ordinary people into extraordinary places". It’s a technical environment – it’s vertical, there’s water flow. So your group management skills have to be absolutely on point.

How do your guests feel when they finish their cave experience?

We often have people say that their trip with us has been the best activity they’ve done whilst in New Zealand. They feel a huge sense of achievement.

For example, with the 100-metre abseil into the Lost World cave, it’s not uncommon to have people in tears and hyperventilating at the top of the abseil. But we can support them and coach them and they do it. People really conquer their fears. When they have done it, they are over the moon.

You are putting your staff through the new Skills Active caving programmes. Can you explain how this came about?

Going back a few years now, I was asked to be a technical advisor on the qualifications. So, as an industry, we have fed into how they were designed. To see them now come to fruition is very rewarding.

From our perspective at Waitomo Adventures, what’s good about these qualifications is that they allow the organisation to fit the learning to its own specific safety management system (SMS) and its existing procedures.

For example, with the Level 4 programme, it asks trainees to cite the relevant information from their company’s SMS and standard operating procedures. The qualification basically gets them to demonstrate that they know what their company’s system is all about. That’s how it needs to be, because our SMS is going to be different to the next company down the road.

In the last few years, with the advent of adventure safety audits, it has increased the importance of maintaining our paper trail, right from induction to assessment to ongoing training. We’ve worked hard to develop a really good SMS that we stick by, and it’s vital when it comes to audit time.

If there was a qualification that required us to change our whole system, it just wouldn’t suit us. With the Skills Active training, we can continue to do what we’ve always done and it slots in seamlessly.

Why is it important to have everybody at Waitomo Adventures trained up to the same standards?

We couldn’t do what we do without everyone being on the same page. You have to know that your fellow guide is thinking the same way you are, and their technical skills are as good as yours.

Thankfully, in 31 years of operation, we’ve never had to deal with a major incident, accident or injury, but we still train for it throughout the year. If someone is strapped into a stetcher and you’re pulling them up a vertical pitch, it’s essential that your whole team is singing from the same song sheet.

What are some of the ways that you’ve integrated the training into your business?

We’ve got this beautiful, new three-storey building and the top floor is dedicated to the guides. It’s got a great big staff room with a 5-metre ceiling and hanging ropes. It’s a facility where people can practice rope skills at any time, no matter the weather.

We’ve got two other outdoor training facilities, and then we’ve got multiple caves – not just our commercial caves, but others that we use for vertical training, risk management, leadership skills and more.

What makes a good caving guide?

You can have a physically tough job, like farming, or you can have a job that’s mentally demanding – dealing with customers all day, interacting and talking to people.

Cave guiding combines the two. It’s very physical and taxing on the body, but you’re also leading a group of paying customers, so you are the entertainer and the motivator. A good cave guide is fit, strong and capable and they have a positive attitude and a big smile.

Some people are cut out for it and some aren’t. But it’s a lot of fun and we go into amazing places. So on those days when you’re feeling a bit tired, you get into that environment and realise, Hey I’m not stuck in an office somewhere – I’ve got a pretty cool job!