New Zealand: ancient forest and caves in Karamea Oparara Basin

New Zealand attracts some 3.5 million visitors a year as a holiday destination. Fortunately, there is still plenty of unspoilt nature and places that the masses skip, such as the remote and fairy-tale Oparara Basin and the protected Honeycomb Hills and Caves. We wander through prehistoric primeval forests and literally go ‘Down Under’, into the dark. And walk the forgotten traces of the giant Moa and the Hurry eagle.

Text & Photography: Angelique van Os

The bright yellow jeep crawls up. The engine growls, while the counter gets stuck for about forty kilometers. The treacherous curves are sharp and there is hardly any overview. A bit nervous I wobble on my seat and pull firmly on the handle. The half hour takes a long time. The half hour takes a long time. “This is one of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand. Now the weather is dry and calm, but when it’s windy and wet here, it’s a big challenge. To drive here yourself, in most cases you have to take out a special car insurance and motorhomes and buses are not allowed to come here.” Fortunately, Yvonne Williams knows what she is doing. She knows every corner, every bridge and every blind spot on her thumb, because as a guide of Karamea Guided Tours and the Information Resource Centreshe daily drives this winding road up to the Oparara Basin. This is an area with majestic arches and caves, of which the limestone layers are estimated to be about 35 million years old. One of the highlights is the protected Honeycomb Hills and Caves, which are hidden in the 4520 square kilometre Kahurangi National Park. The ancient rainforest stretches far behind the mountains into the interior, while the sea and its vast coastal strip are a stone’s throw away.

Isolated location

Williams works as a guide for two and a half years, but lives for about ten years in Karamea, the northernmost part of the West Coast on the South Island. International walkers often see a glimpse of the area because of the famous nearby Heapy Track. But Karamea is hardly known because of its isolated location. It lies about 150 kilometers above Punakaiki, the popular Pan-cakerocks, and for many people that is too far. The area is also not accessible by car via the Abel Tasman National Park, which borders on the other side of the north. “It is mainly Australians and the kiwis themselves who come here,” says Williams.

Fairytale primeval forest

However, we are not going to the public area, but to the protected area of the Honeycomb Caves. You can only go here with a guide. The cave was discovered in 1948 by local hunters, but geologists and scientists from The Buller Caver Group only studied the finds in the 1970s. At the modest entrance there are signs that it is a protected area, but there is no physical supervision. “New Zealanders are good at trust, so we don’t have a ‘man’ here, no. I come here in high season regularly twice a day and colleagues screen the area daily. So we keep an eye on things. If people go here without permission, there is a hefty fine over their heads from the DOC (Department of Conservation), because their rangers also monitor the area and the condition of the fragile cave.”

To reach the cave system, which is more than fifteen kilometres long, we first walk for about half an hour through the fairytale-like primeval forest. The impressive para ‘Konings’ ferns with their curly leaves shine in the morning sun and I keep staring up to the dizzying, metre-high Rimu, Kahikatea and beech trees, many of which are about 800 to 1000 years old. They are completely covered in moss and all kinds of new life is growing out of them. Apart from the birdsong of the small, curious Fantails and Bush Robins and the soft splashing water, it’s very quiet here. I feel like I’m walking on the film set of Lord of the Rings. And that’s not such a crazy thought, because Yvonne Williams tells me that scenes have been recorded here for the second part of the trilogy, as well as for Jurassic Park.

I feel like I’m walking on the film set of Lord of the Rings

Bones and fossils

Also striking is the dark brown colour of the Operara River, which appears again and again in the forest with its many branches. There is no aqua-blue glow here that is so characteristic of New Zealand waters. “This is due to the digestion of leaves that mix with the river bottom. This releases tannin, which colours the water to brown. By the way, it is very clear and clean water”, says Williams while we climb over a wobbly swing bridge. On the other side, we approach the cave system. Under the dense canopy of ferns and other greenery, the grey contours of the cave are already visible. The Honeycomb has at least seventy openings and holes. This is one of the reasons why thousands of bones and fossils of especially birds (59 species) have been found in the basin of the cave. They tripped unsuspectingly in search of food into the dark or fell into the abyss by a slip. Most of the finds have been transferred to national museums. According to various geologists and researchers, birds increasingly lost their ability to fly centuries ago because they had little or no natural enemies. As a result, they transformed more into ratites. Once in the cave, they couldn’t get out without their wings.

Super continent

The most striking feature of New Zealand’s native fauna, especially in this area, is the absence of four-legged land and mammals. There are only two species of bats and the protected hailstone species Tuatara, while in the exotic jungle you might expect snakes, crocodiles and monkeys. For a long time it was thought that the cause lay in the separation of the prehistoric super continent Gondwana. New Zealand split off and drifted away from Australia, India, South America, Africa and Antarctica. One of the reasons why there were hardly any dinosaurs living there. Today, however, scientists suspect that the absence of large terrestrial animals is a result of the extinction of certain species over the past 80 million years. Anyway, it was the birds that dominated the country and spread undisturbed. Meanwhile, New Zealand has mainly protected birds and many species are threatened with extinction, such as the national symbol the Kiwi, the Kea (the only mountain parrot in the world), the Kakapo, the Black robin, the Kokako, Bellbird and the Tui.

It was the birds that dominated the country and spread undisturbed.

Homicidal eagle

Just before we reach the main entrance of the cave, my guide tells us that many bones have been found from the extinct giant Moa (230 kilos) and even a full-length skeleton of a Hurry eagle (Aquila Moorei, weighs 9 to 15 kilos and has 3 meters wingspan!) that has been exhibited in a national museum. Williams: “According to the Maori legend the gentle Moa walked unsuspectingly into the cave, when the murderous eagle spotted him from the air with his sharp eyes and attacked him through one of the holes. However, the Moa fought back, but because of its enormous weight, they fell together into the depths and broke their legs through the fall.” Studies show that the bird of prey died out almost simultaneously with the Moa in 1400. The Maori exterminated the nine Moa species, causing the Haast eagle to lose its natural prey. Because of this he himself went down. The bird of prey owes its name to the German geologist Julius von Haast, who for the first time in 1871 discovered remains of the eagle. “There are stories known that the eagle from the air with its razor-sharp claws could easily grab a human being, fatally injure him and ate him.

Down

In the meantime we have put on a thick vest, put on helmets and clicked on lights. With flashlights at our fingertips we slowly descend a few metres into the darkness. Here a completely different world reveals itself. A humid, dark environment consisting of brittle dripping layers of formed limestone, stalactites hanging down, the so-called elephant feet (thick stalactites) and stalagmites standing up through which narrow side branches of the Ope-rara river flow. I have to be careful where I put my feet, because the soil is moist and slippery. Narrow crevices let through a ray of daylight here and there, but the inhabited world seems far away. At various places a group of large bones are lying around in a bit of posture. It is unbelievable that the birds have been so big. Williams tells how limestone has changed over the centuries due to the impact of erosion, where besides wind, water and ice also earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been affected. In some places we see large masses of ribbed layers where limestone has been corroded, or has almost completely decayed to dust.

Silent death

A little further on we hear hard running water. In this area there is about six meters of water every year and Williams has experienced several times that in case of heavy rainfall the river rises to a height of one meter within an hour. Another reason why stuck animals often couldn’t find a way out: they drowned. Nowadays hardly any dead animals are found, for which Williams doesn’t see a clear cause. Although the bird population has decreased drastically, there are still animals living in the Basin.

As we walk on, the water decreases and we arrive at a drier part, which is full of narrow side entrances. Pointing to the ceiling, the guide says laughingly: “I think Michelangelo has found inspiration for the Sistine Chapel here.” The shape looks a lot like the famous building.

When we turn off our headlights to see the magical light of glowworms it becomes clear how suffocatingly dark it is here. What a panic the animals must have had to endure, who were stuck and died quietly. Thanks to the flashlights we can easily find our way out and the green forest meets us beautifully. Just before the exit we see another grave of a giant Moa. “I feel sorry for this boy. He fell into a square gorge and could not climb out, while he was so close to his freedom.”

Back at the parking lot we walk to the Moria arch. This is one of the public impressive arches of which the Oparara Arch is the largest (43 meters high and 219 meters long). The Moria arch is smaller (only 8 meters high and 46 meters wide), but according to Williams it is more elegant and has a nice surprise that visitors can easily overlook. The arch is named after a fictitious location from Lord of the Rings. Without realising it we walk over the rock, which we have a beautiful view of after five minutes. The full vegetation that hangs over the arch and the low water that runs through it form a magical picture. The icing on the cake is found at the back. Via large boulders we descend and stand right under the limestone mountains. I feel peaceful and void at the same time in this special place where it’s once again clear how powerful and unique nature is in this faraway country.

Honeycomb Hill Caves practical

The Honeycomb Hill Caves can only be visited under the supervision of an accredited guide. Due to the fragility of the underground environment, a maximum of eight people are allowed here. In the high season (January-February) two groups per day are allowed. I traveled with the only provider, Oparara Guided Tours. Costs vary. This trip costs $ 150 per person; for half a day, including lunch. Reserve in advance. For info & bookings: Karamea Information & Resource Center Market Cross, Karamea

nieuw-zeeland-kahurangi-national-park-oparara-basin
The light meets us again from the Honeycomb caves.

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