Saturday, March 19, 2011

South Island Road Trip with Louise: Caving and Other Adventures!

After skydiving we headed north to Hokitika to fix dinner by the beach and watch the sunset behind their sand & driftwood sculptures. It was definitely a nice foreground for a beautiful ocean sunset – stunning!

After dark we visited a glow-worm dell where I got to see the starry night sky in an enclosed area inside a thick patch of bush! The glow-worms are one of the many distinct creatures found in NZ and can be found in caves, rainforests, and other damp areas. They are best seen at night as they glow to attract food and mates. Although I’d heard a lot of talk about them, it was my first time actually seeing any glow-worms in person; it was pretty neat to see how many of them there were in such a tiny area!

We slept in our car again that night (the smallest of several vehicles parked in the same lay-by) and headed to Pancake Rocks after breakfast the next morning. Although the Pancake Rocks are pretty neat (they do look a bit like a whole bunch of oddly shaped pancakes piled on top of each other), it was a bit of a touristy stop. New Zealand has heaps of fascinating rock formations and I tend to prefer the ones off the tourist trail a bit!

We then moved on to begin our day of cave exploring! Punakaiki Cavern was just down the road so we stopped to check it out. The cave itself was only about 200m deep, but it was still enough to need your head torch to see anything!

We stopped in Westport to hop online and check a few things, then decided it was about time to find a place to bathe! We turned off the main road and found a river deep in a gorge. When we tried to find an access point, we wound up walking down a stream bed to get to the river (which at that point had come through the gorge on the other side). We found a nice spot for a swim and decided the river was probably glacial fed, given the temperature! Nevertheless, we washed up and came out a little more clean, and even had some fun playing on the beach.

After that, we headed north to Karamea (said to be the west coast's hidden gem). We wanted to explore a few caves in that area and drove the steep, narrow gravel 14 km road to get to them. I'm not sure that steep and narrow actually do the road justice. It was a loooong 14 kilometers of bumpy gravel that wound deep through the hills. But, eventually, we made it!

We first took the track to explore Oparara Arch, which is a huge limestone arch and is said to be one of the highest natural arches in the world (approximately 200m long, 37m high and 49m wide).

It was a spectacular sight, but as my Rough Guide warned, it "appears magically out of the bush but defies any attempt at successful photography." The photos certainly don't do it justice.

On the way back we spotted some other neat rock formations, then promptly realized it was the case of a perfectly still reflection! Next we took another short walk that led to Box Canyon and Crazy Paving Caves. It was a fairly disappointing experience as there were guard rails and warning signs throughout the caves, preventing you from any actual exploring! There were, however, a handful of glow-worms to be spotted, and a fascinating creature hiding in Box Canyon Cave!

We switched drivers and headed back out the long road toward the coast, then headed north to the road's end at the start of the Heaphy track. There we set up camp and grabbed some dinner in the dark. The next morning I had a bit of a lie in while Louise took off on a few hour hike on the Heaphy. I wans't terribly keen on a hard day's hike, so I took it easy and wandered part of the way in later on to Scott's Lookout. It was quite a nice view!

I also explored the Nikau walk, a brief walk around a river's edge, and met back up with Lou when she returned from her hike. Our next plan was heading south to the Truman Track, where we were told was some nice bouldering on the beach. We had to plan our day around the tides, however, as you could only access the bouldering at low tide.

We arrived near the end of low tide and weren't sure if we would make it around to the bouldering area (and back!) in time, so we explored the beach as far as we could - climbing around of course!

We explored some tide pools, found heaps of starfish and some other creatures, and just enjoyed some time playing around!

Nestled low near the water on one of the rock formations we were exploring, we spotted heaps of mussels and decided to harvest a few in order to have something different for dinner! Though I am not typically keen on shellfish, Lou said I was only allowed to help pick some if I was going to eat them too! I agreed and we filled a bag, then added a stop at McDonald's to our to do list in order to look up how to prepare them online! We then headed up to Arthur's Pass to camp for the night (definitely a worthwhile scenic drive - complete with narrow winding roads on the edge of a huge canyon).

Lou had an interesting time trying to cook the oysters in small batches (using backpacking pots on my tiny camp stove) and I was a bit skeptical but gave them a try. Still not sure why chewing on saltwater is a delicacy, but I did eat a few of them!

The next day we did a small portion of the Avalanche Peak Track before deciding to move on toward Castle Hill for some bouldering. We visited Springfield (the nearest "big" town) to hire a bouldering mat and stopped at a campsite for some frigid showers. We also washed a bit of laundry by hand and got creative with our drying methods on our way back to the climbing area!

We got to Castle Hill and it was spectacular. The surrounding mountains looked like a painted backdrop!

There were heaps of boulders just sitting all over the place - slightly overwhelming to a couple of people who had never seen it before. We didn't have a guide book and so spend some time trying to figure out where other people were climbing, and made up a few routes ourselves.

We were both feeling fairly unmotivated that day, and after some half-hearted attempts to climb, decided we'd had enough.

Instead we headed up the road to Cave Stream and embarked on a slightly different adventure! Instead of the touristy shallow caves we had explored the day before, Cave Stream is essentially what it sounds. There is a stream that flows through a mountain and has carved out a nice adventurous cave for the novice spelunker to explore!

We were prepared to get wet, but didn't realize how soon - the entrance of the cave has a pool you have to wade through that comes up to your waist! Our head torches were essential as we made our way through the 560m cave!

We climbed up waterfalls and explored all the nooks and crannies the cave had to offer, at times deviating from the stream momentarily to try to get through in a different direction. We climbed up various rock formations and were surprisingly not cold despite how wet we got! It was fun to explore but hard to get lost because of the simple task of walking upstream. If you weren't standing in the water, you could most certainly hear it and get back on track!

The cave was maybe 5m at it's highest, but got progressively shorter and by the end (after climbing up a 3m waterfall) you had to crawl on your hands and knees to get out. The experience was over before I knew it and was a wonderful introduction to caving for me! 

After we finished the cave, we drove up the road to set up camp and settle in for the evening. Once again Lou and I had an enjoyable day exploring and, despite a few motivational setbacks, I'd say it was pretty successful! At the very least we saw some spectacular sights and I had my first taste of "real" caving!

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