Rawhiti Caves, Golden Bay, New Zealand

Goldeny Bay is kind of like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.  I was expecting a lot of surf, sand, water and sea dwelling critters – which I got.  What I didn’t expect was a healthy dose of cave viewing – something I’d never done before.  Sure, I’d seen some teeny-tiny, Mickey mouse hole-in-the-walls, but never a full out, grand-daddy of a cave – complete with a million or more stalactites (those are the ones that point downward – I had to look it up).  Welcome to Rawhiti Caves.

Rawhiti Caves were formed over 1 000 000 years ago by small amounts of weakly acidic water that seeped through the cracks in the bedrock.  Over the years, these cracks widened and the water collected into pools and flowing streams.  Slowly, more of the rock between these streams crumbled, and finally, a massive cave was formed.  The stream which contributed to it’s formation, would now be deep underground, probably still working away at the rock.

In the Maori language “Te Rawhiti” means “The sunrise”.

The route to get there starts south of a little place called Motupipi which is south-west of the larger town of Pohara.  When you finally come to it, you will see this sign:

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You may see parked cars around here, but unless you feel like walking an extra 20 mins, I’d drive down the trail (through 2 gates, make sure you shut them after you or sheep will be running free and farmers running after YOU).  It’s a gravel/rocky road, so be careful:

IMG_3365 Eventually you will come to a trailhead overlooked by greenery:

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Walking from the sunshine into the shaded dark of the forest gave me a momentary pause – Don’t a lot of Twilight Zone episodes start like this?  Guy and girl enter a forest looking for adventure and end up in some extra dimensional hell?  Ah well – bugger that, I want to see these caves.

The path cuts through the forest, and ends up running parallel (left hand side) to a dry river bed:

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At one point, the path leads to the river bed and disappears.  Just walk across the rocks – to the opposite side of the bed and follow it for a few minutes.  The path will re-appear, taking you out.

The trail isn’t too bad to start with – quite flat and an easy walk, but as you progress, it gets tougher and tougher.  Make sure you have sturdy shoes and lots of water.  In some places, the track is wet and slippery.  Also, there are some steep areas covered with tiny gravel – making it a treacherous climb.

On official websites, the track is said to take about an hour.  Well maybe if you have the fitness level of  a Kenyan long distance runner!  But if you’re like the rest of us, it takes about 1.5 hrs of heart hammering, ball (or ovary) busting, sweat inducing pain to get up there.

Ok – maybe it’s not that bad, but it IS a hell of a climb.

Once you make it up (after shedding a few pounds), the cave is a very welcome respite.  Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but the temperature inside is drastically lower – much relief from the cruel sun.  As you approach it, the vastness of the whole complex really jumps out at you.  There is a platform at the end of some wooden stairs that takes you into the cave:

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Looking out the edge of the platform, you see this:

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Magnificently eerie eh?  Staring down into the darkness conjured images of Cthulu’s tentacles reaching out to grab me and ending this adventure in a tales-from-the-crypt-esque fashion.

There was no-one around (officials or uniformed park ranger types), so I suppose, if you had the right gear and the guts for it, you could do a descent into the cave to check out it’s farther reaches (although there were signs asking people to stay to the path).  Not that I’m recommending it, just saying!  (I was sorely tempted, but didn’t have the gear and plus the ole ball and chain probably wouldn’t let me).

By far, the most impressive feature of the entrance to this cave is the overabundance of stalactites:

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Like  Hello Kitty in Asia, they were sprawled over every inch of the cave.  These intriguing structures are formed by the constant drip of calcium rich aqua through the cracks in the roof.  Minute amounts of calcite are left behind and over time, this develops into the striking formations one can view today.

One of the stranger things I saw was that a few of the stalactites were curved and reaching toward the opening of the the cave.  Upon later investigation, I discovered that the trees above the cave roof had extended their roots through the roof and into the stalactites, thus influencing their growth toward the sunlight.  Pretty neat eh?

Another strange thing I saw was something that looked like a bucket:

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Apparently, these are water collectors.  In days past, they were left here until full, then carted away.  I guess, calcium water was very highly prized because it would have been a real bitch to walk down that trail carrying 2 or even 1 of these.

Taking the cave in was a great experience.  It’s sheer vastness and depth create a sense of wonder as well as fear.  If you are up in the Golden Bay area, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Rawhiti Caves:

From Motupipi, find Packard Rd.  Take it all the way to the end till you see a bunch of mailboxes on the left.  You will see the sign for the trail.

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