Into the dark

With the borders still closed, Steve Dickinson provides a run-down of another fantastic outdoor activity us Kiwis can pursue this summer.

Imagine, it’s dark, and there is no light whatsoever; not a moon or star, just black. You are squeezed between two rock walls oozing with slime and mud, but there is just enough room to get your head through if you turn it sideways and suck in your breath. This is caving, and some people do it for fun!
Caving, also known as  ‘spelunking’ and even ‘potholing’, is simply the recreation of exploring natural cave systems. There are wild cave systems (non-commercial) and show caves, and some are in between.

The challenges involved in caving vary according to the cave being explored. Besides the total absence of light beyond the entrance, you will typically have to deal with negotiating pitches, squeezes and water hazards, as well as bats and cave wetas (which is the heaviest, not the biggest insect in the world).
Sometimes categorised as an ‘extreme sport’, it is not commonly considered as such by long time enthusiasts. They dislike the term as it suggests cavers disregard safety, despite it being one of the biggest aspects of caving.

New Zealand is riddled with cave systems. Some of these are commercial, others can be investigated without any real experience, and some can be taken on without professional help, but you will really need to know what you are doing. Spelunkers (cavers) say that New Zealand has some of the most challenging and spectacular caving systems in the world, but even first-time cavers can enjoy the underground landscape. Caving experiences range from a gentle drift through a glow-worm grotto to a rip-roaring, rope-dangling, action-packed subterranean adventure.

In the North Island, the best-known caving area is Waitomo in the Waikato region. Here, there are caves you can simply walk or float through (this is called black water rafting), as well as caves that require abseiling, climbing, and squeezing. The experienced Waitomo operators know how to turn you into a caver in a single day. The South Island has several caving areas. You will find guided underground adventures in Nelson, Fiordland and on the West Coast. Harwood’s Hole, just off the main Motueka-Takaka road in the Nelson region, is the deepest sinkhole in the southern hemisphere. You can investigate it but be careful you do not fall in – it is 180 metres straight down.

Most caves in New Zealand are formed of limestone, or of its metamorphic variety, marble. Other than this, there are sea caves in several areas, and some lava caves formed of volcanic rocks, which are principally in and around Auckland.

North Island

In Northland, there is a small limestone region containing some popular caves just a few hours north of Auckland at Waipu. Beneath Auckland City are lava caves, which were formed as the lava cooled. The most visited of these is on Rangitoto Island.

The region around Waitomo, extending southward to north Taranaki and Te Anga near the coast, contains most of the North Island’s best-known caves, including the longest, Gardner’s Gut, which is 12km long. Other major caves are the stream caves of Mangapu and Mangawhitikau and the Waitomo headwaters system.

To the south towards Awakino, the limestone region becomes narrower. Popular areas in north Taranaki include Puketiti, Matawhero, and Mahoenui, including several caves more than 4km long.
Towards the East Cape in the Whakapunake region, there is the Te Reinga Cave and the Mangaone Valley with the Mangaone Cave. To the south, between Coonoor and Makuri in the northern Wairarapa, there are numerous small caves.

Other small North Island caving areas include Pohangina (north of Palmerston North), Taihape, Martinborough and Mauriceville. There are also small cave systems between Coonoor and Makuri in northern Wairarapa.

South Island

As with the North Island, the South Island’s caves are formed out of both limestone and marble. One of the most popular areas is northwest Nelson. The marble areas – Takaka Hill, Mt Arthur and Mt Owen – are higher up, with caves up to 1700 metres above sea level. These three marble mountains contain all of New Zealand’s deepest caves, as well as the three longest caves – the Bulmer Cavern (67km) at Mt Owen, the Ellis Basin System (33km) at Mt Arthur, and the Greenlink system (26km) on Takaka Hill.

The other major South Island area is north Westland. At Karamea, there is the 13km Honeycomb Hill Cave, which has over 70 entrances, plus New Zealand’s largest limestone arches.
Along the east coast of the South Island, there are only small cave areas – in Marlborough near Blenheim and Kaikoura; in Canterbury at Waiau, Broken River, and Pareora; and in North Otago near Palmerston.

In Southland, there are minor caving areas at Monowai and the Stuart Mountains, as well as at Fiordland and around Te Anau.
Caving can be dangerous, and every year there are one or two rescues. The most famous New Zealand rescue was in 2007, when Michael Brewer, an experienced caver, was struck by falling rock deep within the Greenlink/Middle Earth caving system. The incident attracted widespread media attention in the country. Brewer suffered cracked ribs, concussion and a broken pelvis. It took about three days to get him to the surface which couldn’t have been fun (they had to travel 3km, which normally takes five hours), and while most of the distance was covered with Brewer on a stretcher, there were several tight squeezes. He had to be pushed and pulled through certain sections, and some areas were even widened with explosives. By the end, more than 50 cavers had been involved in the rescue.

These types of issues are rare, and as mentioned earlier, cavers are renowned for their safety. There is no Coastguard or Westpac Rescue Helicopter, so in the extreme conditions, it pays to be cautious. Regardless of what region you are in, if you want to experience caving, the simplest way is to join a club, and a great place to start is http://caves.org.nz/local-groups/.

Article by: Steve Dickinson