Ngarua Caves are located just below the summit (literally) of the 791m Takaka Hill. Just before the caves is a short track to Hawkes Lookout which gives wonderful views back down the valley towards Riwaka, Motueka & Nelson & Tasman Bay beyond.
A close up reveals a patchwork of orchards & red & white shade-cloth. Red shade cloth is favoured by some growers as it helps the colour of red apples to develop. I say it’s a blight on the landscape.
From the lookout we can also see part of Kauhurangi National Park and straight down below to the Riwaka Resurgence which we’ll be visiting after the caves.
Ngarua Caves were discovered in the 1870s by bushmen clearing the hillside of scrub after a bushfire had destroyed the surrounding bush. The caves are located on private land and were closed for many years because early visitors destroyed and removed stalactites, they also wrote their names on the formations. The caves reopened in 1970 and since then have been visited by thousands of people as they pass over the Takaka Hill which separates the Tasmam Bay from Golden Bay. During the winter the caves are open on the weekends only.
The views out over Tasman Bay are spectacular as we drive down the farm road to the cave entrance. That’s tiny Fisherman Island with Adele Island slightly hidden to the left, Marahau is in the bay on the right.
We are greeted in the car park by this giant moa.
Takaka Hill is also know as Marble Mountain. The marble rock is about 450 million years old and is quarried, along with limestone, near Ngarua Caves. The marble was used to build several buildings in New Zealand: Parliament Buildings & the Beehive in Wellington and the Nelson Cathedral.
The surrounding landscape looks completely alien covered by thousands of oddly shaped karst rock peaks jutting up. In layman terms; karst rock is made up of limestone & marble which are highly soluble to rainwater. The corrosive rainwater slowly seeps through the cracks & crevasses and over millions of years dissolves the rocks transforming the landscape into these weird rock shapes along with forming caves, sinkholes & underground rivers. These looked like painted polystyrene rocks from a film set to me.
There were just four of us on the tour, we were issued with hard hats before the cave door was unlocked and the lights switched on. The temperature inside the caves is a constant 11c, it never varies, so not as cold as you might expect.
Once through the narrow entrance the cave opened up into a wonderland of stalactites (growing down from the ceiling) and stalagmites (growing up from the ground). This cave is over 300 metres long with a variety of “rooms” including the magnificent “Cathedral” where we were invited to sing. No one took up the offer. We made our way slowly through, following a well formed but narrow path & boardwalk, stopping at various points to hear about the different formations. Many of the dripstones (as they are collectively known) have missing points. These had been broken or sawn off in the early years by souvenir hunters.
The cave also has an excellent display of skeletons from the extinct Moa, once the largest living bird in the world. Although the skeletons found in this cave, came from a smaller species of the bird; the bush moa. The moa have fallen through the many tomos (sink holes) that are dotted across the landscape above. There are many more moa bones located in the caves but not all have been excavated (there are other unexplored caves on the farm).
It has not only been moa that fall into the caves; possum, sheep & other mammals have also met a similar fate. And just last February, & on this farm, a woman plotting an orienteering course, disappear down an overgrown tomo and fell 10 metres into an underground cave below. It took rescuers several hours to locate and rescue her.
Stalactites & stalagmites take a very long time to form; on average growing roughly 2.5cm (1 inch) every 80 years.
One of the formations was a “touchstone”, it had a small area taped off where you could touch the rock to feel how cool & smooth it was. You weren’t allowed to touch any other rocks or formations throughout the cave. This little exercise showed up the damage that touching the rock can do. The touch area was stained a dirty brown colour and had worn quite smooth. The surrounding area on the same rock was a pristine creamy white with a rough texture.
At the end of the cave, well where we were to leave it anyway, there are many signatures on the stalactites left behind by visitors in the early years (the earliest being 1876 & coincidently on my birth date- many years later of course!). Although there are a few from recent times too. Mike worked on the farm & if you look closely at the date you’ll see that this is when many thought the world might end. He wanted to leave his mark.
Ahead of us a narrow ladder led to the exit of the cave. At this point the cave actually turned a corner, narrowed down and ran on on for a further 60 metres or so (which is as far as it has been explored). We climbed out into bright sunshine and followed the path back to the carpark passing a few fenced off tomos along the way.
There are plenty of larger sink holes not fenced off though & I asked about stock in the paddock. Janet, our guide and the farmer, told us the sheep tend to know where the holes are and avoid them but they do allow a 5% “disappearance” rate when the ewes are lambing. She also said that calves are the ones that tend to disappear on a more regular basis
I’d thoroughly recommend a visit to the caves if you are passing over the Takaka Hill, they’re well worth the effort especially if you have a stunning day like ours.
We’d seen the resulting landscape at the top of the hill, where fresh water begins it’s journey, now it was time to see the exit point of water that has travelled over 4kms and taken three days to work it way through a network of caves, cracks & fissures in the 791m hill to the valley floor below. We headed back down and turned hard right at the bottom of the hill following the Riwaka river upstream for 7kms heading to the north branch of the river & the Riwaka Resurgence.
A short path leads us through bush on the edge of the river, along the way we pass the Crystal Pool, a cool deep green clear pool surrounded by jagged, moss covered boulders. There's also a dozen or so people jockeying for position around the pool, balancing on the slippery rocks. I’ll stop on the way back down to get a clear photo.
Not much further on, and after a short climb up a narrow track, we come to the Resurgence. This is the beginning of the north branch of the Riwaka River. Water is constantly spilling into the light of the day from a deep clear pool beneath a dark cave. The water is as pure as the crystal clear waters of the better-known Te Waikoropupu Springs (Pupu Springs) located on the Golden Bay side of the Takaka Hill. There are a lot of visitors to the Resurgence the day we visit and most are carrying water bottles which they fill from the pool at the bottom of the stairs.
The Riwaka Resurgence is of particular cultural significance & wahi tapu (a sacred place) to the people of Te Atiawa and Ngati Rarua tribes. It has been a place of healing for Maori for many years. Early Polynesian explorer Hui Te Rangiora is said to have used the river’s scared waters to heal himself on the way home from a gruelling voyage in which he discovered Antarctica.
While we were there a group of visitors from Taranaki (North Island) where visiting their whanau (family) in the area and were making a pilgrimage to the Resurgence. Several haunting & beautiful waitata (Maori song) filled the air as women sung at the Crystal Pool & the Resurgence.
After the group had returned to the carpark and on my return back down the path, I was able to move in close to the Crystal Pool to take some photos. While I was there another couple arrived, the lady asking me if I could take her & her husbands' photo beside the pool. She told me she was visiting after many years away & wanted to show her husband this very special place. She also told me many years ago she had written a waiata for the Resurgence. A strange coincidence as she had nothing to do with the earlier group. I took their photo for them and headed back down the path. As I moved out of sight, once again the haunting sound of a waiata came to me through the bush.
A special place indeed. And not only for Maori it would seem.