North: Waipu Caves by foot

A scene from Lord of the Rings?

Mahurangi Matters editor James Addis continues his exploration of the north, south, east and west of Mahurangi by foot, bicycle and kayak.

Much of the interest comes from ceilings composed of stalectites.

When I was a lad I did quite a lot of what we called “potholing,” which meant exploring the limestone caves in the Pennine mountains in Yorkshire, England. This could be both exhilarating and terrifying – whether crawling on your hands and knees for an hour through the narrowest of tunnels, or negotiating underground waterfalls while trying to avoid slipping into a black, freezing pool below. It could be dangerous, too. People did get lost, trapped and sometimes drowned. But as I grew older my caving became more of the guided tour variety – board walks, handrails, excellent lighting and a fussy guide telling you not to touch the delicate cave formations became the norm – not to mention a hefty entrance fee.

It’s nice to see, then, that the Waipu Caves brought back some of the thrills of my earlier experiences, while still being safe enough to feel comfortable bringing my kids along. And the best things is, it’s free. Nobody seems to have cottoned on to the idea that you could set up a booth at the entrance and charge people to go in, thank goodness.  

To reach the caves, head north on SH1. Hang a left on Shoemaker Road, near Waipu, and then turn left on to Waipu Caves Road. Continue for about 10km – mostly on loose metal. You will find a carpark close to the cave entrance on your right, and will likely see a few tourists enjoying a bit of freedom camping.

The caves are safe for children – but challenges them to overcome their fears.

The caves are formed from “karst,” which is a combination of limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It has a striking grey, green and bluish appearance at the cave entrance, which is partially hidden by a few bare-looking trees. You might easily imagine you’ve stumbled on a scene from Lord of the Rings.

To enter the caves, you will need a good torch – preferably one that straps to your head to leave your hands free for clambering, and I’d recommend wearing tramping boots. You might also consider wearing a cycle helmet if you have one. Straightening up and accidentally impaling your head on a few pointy stalactites isn’t much fun.

The cave entrance is wide and takes you into a large cavern. Almost immediately you encounter a small stream. Don’t bother trying to keep your feet dry, just wade right through it. It will come up to your ankles at this stage. Eventually, it will be up to your waist – all part of the fun.

Pretty soon you will be bent double, entering a tunnel both low and wide and wading through some deeper water. It was at this point my 11-year-old daughter started to panic. I gave her a few minutes and she calmed down. I took her hand and gently encouraged her on. Tread carefully through the water because you can’t see where you are putting your feet.     

It’s at this point that the mystery and excitement of being part of a strange underground world starts to take hold. Much of the interest comes from the ceiling, sometimes composed entirely of large and smaller stalactites that leave only a narrow, low passage for you to wade through. Other times you will come out into an enormous cavern – as grand as any cathedral. This is a good time to turn out all your lights and admire the glow worms twinkling high above you in the pitch black. Besides worms, bones of bats, birds, amphibians and reptiles are often found in the caves. The realization that some caves contain the remains of fossil invertebrates, often of previously unknown species, only adds to the sense of awe.

My daughter’s nerve finally gave out as we tried to enter the final chamber, which oddly required clambering over a large tree trunk (how on earth did it get there?) and squeezing through a narrow gap.

I left the daughter with my wife and went ahead with my eight-year-old son. He was up to his chest in water on the other side, though did manage to touch the wall at the end so had the satisfaction of saying he completed the entire journey.

At this point, there’s not much else to do but turn around and head back the way you came in. It’s an enjoyable journey. Even so, there’s a strange feeling of relief when you see the sunlight streaming in from the cave entrance again and, perhaps, a slight sense of smug satisfaction that you made it out alive.   


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