Thursday, 18 September 2014

Devil’s Boots & Aorere Caves

We had one more walk ear marked to do in Golden Bay area before we left, the Aorere Caves & Goldfield Track which wasn’t too far up the Aorere Valley at the end of a farm track.

On the way we’ll pass the “Devil’s Boots”, I’d heard mention of the boots quite a few times and seen a few old photos of settlers posing in their horse & carts beside them so I was keen to actually see them in the flesh.

The Devil’s Boots are limestone outcrops & it was easy to see why they are so named! Two upside down boots sticking out of the ground, one on either side of the road. They are well named although they gave me a bit of a creepy feeling; “Picnic at Hanging Rock” kept popping into my head!

Once pass the Boots the gravel road becomes a narrow dirt track that runs alongside the Aorere River for about two kilometres before we arrive at a shut farm gate. There’s a multitude of signs on the gate warning of new lambs and to keep off the grass (this is a private farm & they need it for their animals).

We’re always very mindful of signs and have a healthy respect for private property, we're also very grateful that access is made available (even if the farmer sometimes has no choice in the matter). It is a privilege we don’t take for granted but there are others that do abuse the situation. In particular people on motorbikes & 4WDs moving off road cutting deep tracks into banks and across paddocks. It’s not only private land, we’ve seen some terribly rutted tracks over sand dunes, alongside rivers and in conservation parks too.

As part of the Aorere Goldfields there is quite a long 4WD track that loops around the reserve and continues on to come out on another road back towards Collingwood. We thought we might follow the track for a couple of kilometres to where there was junction with the walking track. We could then walk to the caves from there, saving ourselves some strenuous exercise!

But our plan was foiled, the 4WD track was just too rough and boulder strewn for our “shiny” so we returned to the grassy carpark and headed off up the hill, the caves were 45 minutes away, Duggans Dam, 1hr 20min. We allow at least an hour to the caves as we know from past experience that the DOC times don't allow for much leeway. We tend to stop often- for me to take photos, & to get our breath back. We also don't think DOC allow for older legs!

We pass some old gold workings early in the piece and other than a water race further on that's about all we see of the old gold fields.

The track climbed steadily up & up & up some more passing through scrubby kanuka & broom for most of the way. It wasn’t steep, just an energy sapping-ly steady climb that went on and on. It wound it’s way around the side of a hill and every time we caught sight of the summit we’d think we’re not too far from it now but then it would wind it’s way around the other side. There wasn’t much bird life, in fact there wasn’t much of anything except scrub & boulders although we did see the overnight workings of a couple of wild pigs; the track had been rooted up quite bad.

Finally we hear water and the track disappears into the more usual lush native bush along side a rocky stream. A little further on we see that we’ve reached the end of a water race. Nearby is a short side track to Stafford’s Cave. It’s dark and overgrown near the entrance to the cave and I’m not keen to venture too far. There’s too many rocks to clamber over and the cave heads downhill through a narrow entrance. David moves in for a closer look and shines his head torch down into the blackness. It doesn’t appeal to him either so we return back to the track (mine is a hasty retreat!)

We continue on for another few hundred metres, the track is now following the water race uphill, until we come across the sign pointing the way to the Ballroom Cave. About 20 metres before the cave our way is blocked by a huge slip that has brought down a small forest of trees. Hmm….we don’t have a chainsaw in the backpack so we’re not sure how we’re going to get over or around it but I’m darn sure I’m not walking all this way to end up not seeing the "piece-de-resistance"; the Ballroom Cave.

In the end we fight our way through the hundreds of vines and thick ground cover at the end of the pile. Have you ever tried to get through a tangle of vines? The gaps between them are mostly too small to squeeze through, the vines don’t move much and you end up tripping over every one you try to step over. And your backpack catches the ones above! I can’t imagine how explorers & early settlers managed to find their way anywhere.

Finally we’re at the entrance to the cave, a humongous black gaping hole!

David disappears down the slope and is swallowed up in the blackness before I get a chance to put my head torch on. I call for him to come back to help me down the slippery slope which as it turns out isn’t slippery at all just worn by the hundreds of pairs of feet that have passed this way over the years. The cave was quite barren, we were disappointed not to find any cave wetas, or spiders or any sign of life. I've used the camera flash to lighten the cave in the photos below (except for the middle one).

The Ballroom Cave is reputed to have been used by miners as a venue for dances, hence it’s name. I think they must have been very sure footed, the floor is rough & uneven. And I’m thinking maybe they danced with each other ‘cause I can’t imagine many women would have wanted to come up this far and if they did it wouldn’t have been too glamorous! It’s more likely the miners met in here for a drink or maybe for meetings.

We fought our way back through the vines and over the fallen trees back to the main track where I convinced David that as we’d come so far we might as well continue on up the hill for another 40 minutes to “Druggans Dam” which was the old Slate River Sluicing Company Dam and where we could have some lunch.

The track followed the water race winding it’s way in and around the hillside for what seemed like miles. It wasn’t as hard going now but I couldn’t believe how long the water race (& the track) were, probably a good 2 kilometres. Along the way we had glimpses across the Aorere Valley to the Whakamarama Range and north to Farewell Spit & Golden Bay.

Collingwood is tucked away behind the hill on far right, part of the huge Ruataniwha Inlet can be seen at the end of the Aorere River.

Finally and not before time we reached the dam outlet, a tunnel cut through the rock with a control gate deep inside. With one last steep climb we finally reached Duggans Dam which turned out to be a little bit of an anti-climax. There was just one small clearing off the track beside the lake where we could sit on the ground to have lunch. The only bright spot were the small clumps of native clematis blooming here and there in amongst the gorse & scrub.

Nearby was the race intake control gate.

Not a bird in sight! Although we could see some swans far across the other side beside the rushes. I thought there might have been a few ducks at least.

It had taken us a good two hours to get to the dam & rather than continue on from the dam around a loop back to the 4WD track and then onto the carpark (which would have added another 30-40 minutes to the walk) we decided to retrace our steps back down the same way. At least we knew what the terrain was like, I was worried the 4WD track would have been too stony and rutted to easily walk down and my feet were starting to complain. Loudly. There were also ominous black clouds rolling in from the mountains.

So it was off downhill at a fast and steady pace, we made good time and arrived at the last gate just as the first big fat spots of rain began to fall. By the time we had unloaded and were pulling out of the carpark the rain was torrential. We definitely timed that right.

Was it worth it? Well we both decided it was not the best walk we’ve ever done but we did enjoy the Ballroom Cave.

PS- And I did my part for Farmer Brown, once again rescuing a lamb on the wrong side of the fence. This one led me on a merry chase along the fenceline through two bits of boggy ground, across a stream and up a hill before I managed to catch him when he thought he could fit through a gap under a gate.


  1. Thank you for reminding me of the "Devil's Boots". I remember seeing these in the 70's and had completely forgotten about them until I read your post!

    1. You're welcome! I get the feeling that it's mostly the locals that know about the boots. I do a lot of research before I get to an area and I only found one reference to the boots. Hopefully my blog might help increase the visitor numbers! :) Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Read your blog with great humor. My hubby and I went up there yesterday. Intending to go to the goldfields. Your photographs and story is almost identical to our experience except for the time of day and you were lucky to have a headlamp! We didn't go there for the cave experience, but decided to dso it as we also were put off by the steep and rough terrain, thinking our 4x4 may not cope with it either. We didn't go to the dam, as it was late in the day. We found the signage confusing, as we were looking for the Aorere Cave. We were researching now to find out were the old diggings actually are. And so found your blog. It was funny reading and looking at your pics, and just like you, we decided it wasn't the best walk we had done.

    1. Pleased you had an identical experience! Did you get to the Ballroom Cave in the end? I guess you didn't have the huge slip of trees and dirt to fight your way through though. Aorere Cave is on private land and wasn't open when we visited. I believe they do tours/or open it up, in the summer.


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