Thursday 21 September 2017

A Visit to Harwoods Hole


Do this lot look like intrepid explorers? Hmmm....thought not. But they do look bright and chirpy don't they. This enthusiast crew of Kaiteriteri Camp locals is about to head off to find Harwoods Hole, the deepest vertical shaft in New Zealand. Well, find isn't quite right either because it has already been found. What we're about to do is the 45 minute walk to see the Hole (6km/90min return).

Back L to R- Craig, Sarah(sitting) Geoff, Brian(not looking!), David
Front- Sheryll & Roseanne
Harwoods Hole is located at the top of the Takaka Hill in the Pikikirunga Range, 11kms inland from the main road along a narrow, corrugated, gravel road. It's part of the Abel Tasman National Park and while it's a long way up behind, as the crow flies, it's not too far from Kaiteriteri.

About half way along the ridge we stop to check out a very interesting area at Canaan Downs where there are several large open clearings surrounded by beautiful mature trees and bush.

The Stage
The eight day long Luminate Festival is held here every two years, an 'earth friendly festival of music, culture, inspiration & transformation' according to the article in that link (check it out for photos). It's hard to believe that over 4000 people converge on this area to set up camp,  party, dance, participate in workshops and get spiritual.

We had a wander around checking out the interesting facilities- I bet the Pizza oven gets a workout during the festival. Some of us tried the outdoor bath out for size, stood in the middle of the standing stone circle and waited for miracles to happen and gave the carvings a kiss or two. We were all impressed with the bank of composting loos; clean, non-smelling and still doing their job six months after the last festival.

I was fascinated with the urine-catcher, a metal strip, a bit like a piece of guttering, strategically placed at the front of the loos; they even mentioned to sit up straight so the stream was directed better! Remember to click on the photo to read more.

Let it all hang free- outdoor showers. I suspect when they're set up they would be inside toilet tents or something similar, there are children on site after all and I'm guessing there'd still be many who would want a bit of privacy. 

And more fancy loos...including a 'Pee Loo Standing'? Isn't that a Urinal? I didn't take a look to check.

You can actually camp at Canaan Downs at any time of the year. As long as you're prepared to drive the road in and the ground isn't covered in snow! We'd happily take the 5th-wheeler in although there'd be a few tight corners and you wouldn't want to meet anyone coming the other way. We thought it would be a great place to hold a rally. That would sort the wheat from the chaff!

We carried on to the end of the road, to the DOC Canaan Downs Campsite and Harwoods Hole trailhead. There are plenty of warning signs at the beginning of the track, along with a two page instruction and information sheet available for cavers thinking of heading down the hole.

We set off a good pace, the track is very easy to begin with, flat and wide with lovely dappled sun shining in...

We passed a couple of small water filled kettle holes where it was hard to see where the water reflections ended and the bush and moss begun.

The track got a little gnarly towards the end with plenty of small boulders and rocks to clamber over and around. Careful attention was needed to avoid the small gaps between them, they could easily trap boots or twist ankles.

Finally we reach a junction in the track, we decide to take the Gorge Creek Viewpoint track first....although it's not a track, it's a route (as it says under the name). Which means it isn't marked and you must find your own way straight up the side of a steep rock covered bank. 

Luckily people have been before us and there's a sort of track to follow although 300 metres still feels like 600 by the time we reach the 'viewpoint'. 'Viewpoint', that's DOC speak for 'it's not a lookout with steps, a platform and barriers'.  No, it's an open space with a bunch of weird looking rocks at the top of a cliff... 

...where, if you manage to clamber over them to the far side, you'll find that you have a magnificent view down to Gorge Creek and across to the the main highway in the Takaka valley over in Golden Bay. 

Those unusual rocks might look nice and smooth and relatively easy to walk over but believe me, they are far from it. These are very sharp edged and uneven karst limestone rock formations with deep and narrow slots separating the sections at irregular intervals. Slip a foot or leg down a gap and you'd be in big trouble. 

With the agility of a goat, Geoff makes it to the far side...

...while some of us were still trying to crawl and slither our way to the edge. Woah! It's scary stuff looking over the edge.

The best way to peer over the edge was to get down on your belly and pull yourself forward.

I decided I'd probably not get back up and knowing my luck (second name Calamity Jane), I'd somehow topple over or worse, drop my camera!

Craig, Sarah and David checking out the view...

 ...and then we had to do all the clambering again in reverse, this time on our hands and backsides downhill. What are you smiling at Craig? You'll be in big trouble now.

Back down at the junction we meet up with Roseanne and Brian who'd carried on to the Hole. They'd been to the lookout before, so didn't put themselves through that little exercise again. We headed off to the Hole, the marble rocks getting bigger and mud getting deeper.

At 183 metres Harwoods Hole is the deepest vertical shaft in New Zealand. A dry sinkhole, the hole drops to an underground river that emerges and flows into Gorge Creek (the valley in the photos from the 'viewpoint'). Henry Harwood (1844-1927) discovered the hole, though it remained untouched until 1958, when cavers were winched down. After a complete exploration in 1959, Harwoods Hole became the deepest explored cave in New Zealand, a record that stood for many years.

Harwoods Hole connects to the Starlight Cave system which eventually exits above Gorge Creek in the side of the hill,  the whole cave system is over 357m in depth. After abseiling down the hole, making their way through the Starlight Cave system, cavers then have to make the strenuous climb back up the hill to the carpark. There have been many rescues and a few deaths over the years,(including a curious walker who got too close to the edge), Harwoods Hole is for experienced cavers only and the complete trip takes a minimum of 9 hours.

A plaque on a rock just before Harwoods Hole- click to enlarge

Finally we reach the end of the track, ahead of us are some very huge jagged boulders and somewhere over the back of them is Harwoods Hole. The entrance is a 50 metre round hole.

We send the advance troops in to find a route....   
"Arr...I think that's the wrong way Sheryll, darling" says Geoff

They regroup and disappear out of sight. I can't go any further with my camera so I leave it on a rock and then slip and slide my way over towards them (phone camera safely installed in my zip-up pocket) 

There's a handkerchief sized piece of flat dirt between boulders near the edge, or what seems to be the edge. You actually can't see down the hole, it disappears underneath the rocky outcrop somewhere. Geoff squeezes through a slot in the rocks to another point further towards the hole but reports that, while he can see the vertical walls opposite, he can't see down it either.  

The rest of us stay on the safe side of the tunnel. I lean on a rock and stretch my arm and phone out as far as I can to take this shot. And that is as much of Harwoods Hole as we're going to see. 

Here are a couple of photos (which obviously, I didn't take) of Harwoods Hole. Looking at the overhead photo, I think we made it to the end of the rocks at the bottom right.


  1. Caanen Downs is fascinating, I would love to go and look.
    I would never be brave enough to do caving but, again, would love to go (not too close) and look. There are some lovely rock formations.

    1. Yes, Canaan Downs really was fascinating. I can imagine the festival would be quite an alternative gig.
      Caves scare the living daylights out of me, I actually have to see daylight to remain in control :) David has been known to turn the head torch off without letting me know!

  2. Shellie,

    Thanks so much for your blog. I am a keen amateur photographer and your travels are opening up a whole new world of possibilities for places to see in New Zealand. I am in NZ next week and I have seen places on your blog that I never knew existed. I am going to keep following with a lot of interest. Thank you!


    1. Hi Bronwyn, thanks for your comments and I'm glad you have enjoyed the blog, photos and seeing some of the hidden gems in New Zealand. You're going to love touring New Zealand, do let me know how you go. Safe travels.

  3. Great blog Shellie! Looks like a reasonably challenging walk in! Guess just take ones time and watch foot placement!

    1. Thanks Kathleen, glad you enjoyed it. The walk in is a 'walk in the park', it's the climb up to the lookout that is challenging and that last section to the hole is just as bad but well worth the effort. I enjoyed the lookout formations a lot more that what we could see at the hole.


Thank you for taking the time to leave a message, I love reading them! All comments are personally moderated by me and I will post and answer them as soon as possible, Shellie