Top 7 New Zealand Caves You Should Visit

Waitomo Cave Entrance
Image: Kathrin & Stefan Marks

New Zealand caves offer some of the best caving (also called spelunking and potholing) in the world whether you are a beginner or seasoned expert. While New Zealand’s caves are sought after as a unique outdoor experience, they also offer the possibility of exploring undiscovered terrain.

Cave in New Zealand
Image: Donnie Ray Jones

Interesting and vast underground ecosystems can be found including beautiful rock formations, enormous rooms and tight crawlspaces, astonishing rivers and waterfalls, ice formations, and even strange, intriguing animals! A rule of thumb that should always be followed is to never go alone. There are many beginners tours offered throughout New Zealand that can assist you in your new adventure. Many unique and stunning caves can be found throughout New Zealand. The majority of the caves are made up of limestone and marble, these challenging and distinctive caverns attract tourists from around the world. We will touch on some of the most popular caving areas including Waitomo, North Westland, and north-west Nelson.

Waitomo Caves

Waitomo Cave Entrance
Image: Kathrin & Stefan Marks

Waitomo is by far the most popular area for cavers. Often touted as the glowworm caves, by tour guides, they can feature thousands of sparkling glowworms (arachnocampa luminosa) that hang above you as you glide silently through the cave by boat. Besides the mystical glowworms, Waitomo offers the regions longest cave, Gardner’s Gut, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) long. Most of Gardner’s Gut systems include tunnels washed out of limestone by streams of water. One of the most distinguishing features of Gardner’s Gut is the Birthday Candle which is the tallest stalagmite in the country at a staggering 7 meters (23 feet) tall and 2 meters (6.7 feet) around. A stalagmite is a natural wonder of limestone caves, where cave formations rise up from the ground due to the dripping of mineralized solutions and the deposit of calcium carbonate.

Waitomo Cave Tubing
There are several companies offering cave tubing and blackwater rafting through the different Waitomo caves. Image: Madeleine_H

Also part of the Waitomo system is Ruakuri Cave. This spectacular cave offers the longest walking tour in the country and features limestone formations, crystal tapestries, subterranean waterfalls, and an up close look at the famous glowworms. Unique to the three main caves in Waitomo is Aranui Cave which is a dry cave without any rivers running through it. Visitors here can expect to see the native New Zealand cave wetas, which are large long-horned grasshopper type insects. This cave in particular was formed on an earthquake fault and therefore the rain water creates immense amounts of limestone crystals which adorn the ceiling in pale pink, brown, and white.

North Westland

Honeycomb Hill Caves
A caver crawling in the Honeycomb Hill cave system. Image: Ancientnz

In North Westland one of the most popular caves is the Honeycomb Hill Cave in which the Oparara River flows through. Located in Kahurangi National Park, the cave itself boasts over 70 entrances and New Zealand’s largest limestone arches. Offering huge passages and enormous chambers, light often shines through the many different opening creating a unique and beautiful experience. Honeycomb Hill Cave is also famous for the discovery of the most varied collection of sub fossil bird bones ever found, the moa bones. Rare formations are also found in this cave and include cave coral, rimstone pools, and cave pearls.

North-West Nelson

North-west Nelson on the south island features some of the world’s largest and deepest caving systems. In this area you can find Mount Arthur, Mount Owen, and Takaka Hill, which are all marble mountains up to 1700 meters (1 mile) above sea level. The longest cave in New Zealand is the Bulmer Cavern which can be found in Mount Owen at around 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) long, with 400 meters (1,312 feet) being unexplored. Nearby the Nettlebed Cave in Mouth Arthur can be found. Nettlebed Cave is one of New Zealand’s deepest caves at roughly 889 meters (2,916 feet) deep. This multi-level cave can take cavers up to two days to explore. Also in Mount Arthur is the Ellis Basin cave system which was found in 2010 to actually be deeper than Nettlebed Cave at 1,024 meters (3,359 feet) deep, which now makes it New Zealand’s deepest cave system.

Nettlebed Cave
Calcite Gour Pool, Takaka Hill. Image: Paul Rowe

New Zealand boasts caves that are renowned around the world and are perfect for the beginning caver all the way up to expert cavers. Guided tours are offered all throughout the region’s most popular destinations for great prices. If you’re in the New Zealand area or looking for a new adventure to be had, make sure to go and explore at least one cave. It will be the experience of a lifetime!





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