Thursday, 9 April 2015

Lost World- The Oparara Basin

Ten kilometres north of Karamea is the turnoff to the Oparara Basin, a hidden valley 14kms up another narrow, rough gravel road (an old forestry road) and inside the Kahurangi National Park. Yet again we are visiting Kahurangi, the largest National Park in New Zealand and one we have visited many times on our journey around the top of South Island.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the distance travelled on a gravel road always feels at least twice as long as it actually is, probably because of the slow speed (it took us 45 minutes) and the bumping about inside the cab. This road was no different. It started out well but steadily got worse with many corrugations and washouts and a few steep sections where there was no gravel or dirt, just bare rock where the road had been cut through.

All the same it was a lovely drive with thick rainforest bordering & sometimes forming a tunnel over the road with occasional glimpses of a rocky creek bed down below the road. Splashes of red from the flowering rata vines grabbed your attention here and there. It’s been a good summer for the rata, they are still flowering long after there usual season. Possum control must have also helped.

It was a great surprise, after not seeing another person or vehicle on the way in, to finally arrive at the end of the road and find this information shelter and a quite a few cars. What a lovely welcome to the Oparara Basin this is; toilets, shelter, interpretation panels and picnic tables.

The Oparara Basin has been called the ‘lost world’ and is one of the finest features of the Kahurangi National Park. Along its course through the basin, and over 35 million years, the Oparara River has carved out three massive limestone arches and numerous cave systems.

At the end of the road and just a few kilometres further on from the public carpark is the highly fragile Honeycomb Hill cave system; a 13km maze of tunnels with over 70 entrances & only first explored in 1980. This cave system contains the remains of over 50 species, including the extinct moa and New Zealand eagle and is only accessible by guided tour to protect the fragile and unique environment. Within this protected area is the Honeycomb Hill Arch, the basin’s third and remotest arch.

There are two arches we are allowed to visit & we decide to visit the Oparara Arch first, the largest natural rock arch in the Southern Hemisphere. The 1km walking track follows the Oparara River upstream. We keep an eye out for Blue Ducks/Whio, there’s a breeding population located in the basin but once again we miss out on seeing them.

The walkway is well formed and very picturesque with ferns and moss growing everywhere and over everything. David sets his track timer going and we’re off….

We pause at the edge of the river where it’s very still and reflective. The dark tannin stained water turns a rich gold colour as it flows over the shallow edge. Cup of tea anyone?

Thick moss and lichen encrusted branches overhang the river and the track like ghostly arms and David is sure James Cameron’s inspiration for the movie Avatar must have come from here- or in fact Weta Workshops inspiration. He feels like he’s walking through a movie set and large blue people will spring out at him at any moment.

And here’s our first glimpse of the huge arch, a land bridge over the top of the river.

And directly underneath, looking up.

The track leads us up into a huge cavern where there’s an old sign with the measurements. Apparently these are not quite right though- DOC’s measurements put the arch at 219m long, up to 79m wide, and 43m high.

We make our way down to the river bed….

Where we can now see the other end of the tunnel….

We wade through the river, (wearing our Tevas was a good idea- most people had walking shoes or tramping boots on), crossing it a couple of times before reaching the other end.

The water is cold but not too deep….

Until the last crossing where it’s quite swift and there’s a deep pool. The rocks are also slippery so we decide we’ll not risk getting wet. A pity because I’m sure there would have been some blue ducks up further! The boulders and rapids we can see  around the corner look like ideal blue duck territory.

We head back towards the entrance…

And I take a photo of David standing below the impressive arch.

Back along the track I stop to take some close ups of the rich green mosses and the stunning moss covered rocks that surround a stream which flows down into the river.

And stop by the river again where I spot these rocks with their contorted faces & hair tuffs.

Back at the carpark we see that our foreign neighbours(with their very young daughter) from the Karamea Domain Campground have parked beside us. In their hire motorhome. Hmm....they obviously can’t read and we’re not sure how on earth they managed to manoeuvre their van over the road without doing some serious damage.

And I can’t imagine what they would have done had they met anybody coming from the opposite direction. The width of the road would have been little more than the van itself and there were very few areas to pass or pull over should another vehicle approach. But there you go, they made it there and back, and were tucked up safe and sound on their site by the time we returned. We heard that the grader was due through the road the next day, I wonder what would have happened had anyone met that on the road let alone a large campervan.

Still to come from the Oparara Basin-

Crazy Paving  & Box Canyon Caves
Mirror Tarn
Moria Gate


  1. Yes another great post, upon my return, it will be by bike, with camera, drawing gear and a saxophone so will be rather epic. We camped at the old sawmill at the southern entrance and can await there for good weather.
    Heavy rain here today in Nelson, much needed after the long dry spell, with autumn in full swing.

    1. That'll be a very long day, but I'm sure the local birds will appreciate your saxophone- you might even spot some blue ducks :) It's still raining here on the Coast :(

  2. Hi Shellie,
    Awesome photo's ! Too bad you weren't able to get across to the other site; I was at Oparara in March 2012 and left my own rock pile at the other site of the arch. I was curious if it was still standing. But alas, I need to scour the web for other travellers who have been there.
    Have fun !

    1. Thanks & sorry you couldn't see your pile of rocks, unless it was pretty big I suspect it might have been washed away in any one of the floods that have passed through since 2012- did you see the size of the logs caught at the entrance to Moria Gate Arch? (in the last blog for Oparara)

  3. Beautiful place. Magical. Your photos once again really show it beautifully. We were so lucky to have seen two of the gorgeous wee blue ducks.

    1. Yes, our timing wasn't right but one day we'll be back there. Luckily we've seen whio elsewhere otherwise I'd have been back up there before now! :)


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