In the dark


Imagine, it is dark, and you turn out the light, now there is no light, non-whatsoever, not a moon or a star, just inky black. Then to add to your discomfort that you are squeezed between two rock walls, oozing with slime and mud. There is just enough room to get through if you turn your head sideways and suck in your stomach and then slowly you can inch forward.

This is caving and some people do it for fun!

Caving is also known as ‘spelunking’ and sometimes  ‘potholing’ it is simply the recreation of exploring natural cave systems.  There are wild cave systems (non-commercial) all over New Zealand and then there are show caves (like parts of Waitomo www.glowworm.co.nz .

The challenges involved in caving vary according to the cave being explored. As well as the total absence of light beyond the entrance, you have to deal with negotiating pitches, squeezes,  water hazards and bats and cave weta’s (fact; the New Zealand cave weta is the heaviest, (not the biggest) insect in the world!).

But let me be clear this can be a dangerous endeavour, you can google where caves are and you can venture in, but sometimes the hard part is getting back! So unreservedly we suggest you use a professional guide for a great experience and make it back safe.

Sometimes categorized as an “extreme sport”, it is not commonly considered as such by long time enthusiasts, who dislike the term for its connotation of a disregard for safety and safety is a big part of what caving is about.

New Zealand is riddled with cave systems, some of which are commercial, some can be investigated without any real experience.

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, www.waitomo.co.nz  Here there are caves that you can simply walk through. There are a range our ‘tourists’ caves where you can walk around on clearly marked pathways and broardwalks, some even have wheelchair access like Raukuri Cave or you can float around in guided boat tours, these tours are around an hour, children under 4 go free.

For the more adventurous there are caves you can float throughbut on a tyre, this is called black water rafting. There are a few options, like The Black Abyss (sound worse than it is) and Black Labyrinth. It is a thirty-five-metre abseil into the caves, then you are hooked up to a zipline and descend further into the darkness. Then it’s tube time! For both tours, you get in your tubes and raft the underground river, below a sky of glow worms through a labyrinth of a cave system. You will also get to raise your adrenaline levels by jumping off a few waterfalls. For those on the Black Abyss, you will have extra time to explore the cave tube-free, including climbing up waterfalls and floating out through the caves. https://www.waitomo.com/black-water-rafting

You can take it up a notch with the Lost World is an all-day world -class epic adventure  https://www.waitomo.co.nz/adventure/lost-world-half-day-adventure It is a  100m abseil into a 4 hour experience, into a cave that is between 50-80m above you, like being in a scene  from Jurassic Park.

The South Island has several caving areas – you will find guided underground adventures in Nelson, www.ngaruacaves.co.nz  Ngarua Cave Tours is a family owned business with a huge local history, the cave offer a real kiwi experience there are a variety of stalagmites and stalactites, the tour even features an skeletal display of moa. Located in the Takaka Hill range and open daily throughout summer offering guided cave tours hourly from 10am-4pm. You need to book in the winter months (June-Sept) and it is only $25 per adult!

There are a range of cave systems around Fiordland and on the West Coast. Harwood’s Holeis famous , 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 in limestone, or in its metamorphic variety, marble. Other than this, there are sea caves in several areas, and some lava caves, are formed in volcanic rocks as they cool, principally in and around Auckland.

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, formed as the lava cooled the most visited of these is on Rangitoto island.

The region around famed Waitomo cave system , ( https://www.waitomo.com/ ) extends southward to north Taranaki and to Te Anga near the coast, contains most of the North Island’s best-known caves, including the longest, Gardner’s Gut, which is 12 km long. Other major caves are the stream caves of Mangapu and Mangawhitikau, and the Waitomo Headwaters System.

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 the northern Wairarapa.

A lot of these caves are not commercial, you can simply visit yourself, but there is always a risk if you entering alone. If you want to step outside of commercial caving join a caving club they run regular tours to fit your level of fitness and expertise (http://caves.org.nz/local-groups/ )


As with the North Island, caves are found in both limestone and marble throughout north-west 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 New Zealand’s deepest caves as well as the three longest caves – Bulmer Cavern (67 km) at Mt Owen, Ellis Basin System (33 km) at Mt Arthur, and Greenlink system (26 km) on Takaka hill.

The other major South Island area is north Westland. At Karamea there is the 13-kilometre Honeycomb Hill Cave, which has over seventy entrances, plus New Zealand’s largest limestone arches. ( https://www.oparara.co.nz/ ) Currently the road to Oparara is being repaired so you cannot simple drive there, however they are still running daily caving tours. Tours range from 2-5 hours and you can get picked up from your accommodation in Karamea. The Oparara has a magic all its own, born of a million years of undisturbed isolation. Tucked away in a corner of Kahurangi. Rich unspoiled rainforest stretching across a broad valley floor, three magnificent arches sculpted by the Oparara River.

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.

Underworld Adventures are located just 20 minutes north of Punakaiki lies the sleepy township of Charleston. But the old gold-mining town hides a spectacular secret: the beautiful Te Ananui (Metro) Caves and one of the best gloworm displays you can experience anywhere in the world! Be advised there is not a handrail or boardwalk to be seen! It is truly a antural and “real” guided cave experiences left and will leave you feeling, close to an ancient pre-historic world sculpted by water and decorated with fragile calcite formations. You need to be able relatively fit as you walk up after crossing the Nile River by suspension bridge and up 131 steps (equivalent to a 6-7 story building) to the cave entrance!  https://caverafting.com/gloworm-cave-tour/

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 cave, in an incident which attracted widespread media attention in the country. Brewer suffered cracked ribs, concussion, and a broken pelvis. It took about 3 days to get him to the surface which can’t have been fun (a 3km distance normally taking 5 hours), and while most of the distance was covered with Brewer on a stretcher, there were several tight squeezes some were widened with explosives, he had to be pushed and pulled through some sections. The effort involved more than fifty cavers to get him out.

These types of issues are rare and as mentioned earlier cavers are renowned for their safety, there is no coast guard or helicopter rescue underground. 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 take a commercial trip there are lots, some truly world-class like the Lost World and Black water rafting in Waitomo or if you want a more authentic experience is to join a  club and a great place to start is http://caves.org.nz/local-groups/.

All images and some text supplied by compnaies mentioned

Most images supplied by Legendary Blackwater rafting



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