on May 26, 2010
As phenomenally beautiful as Karamea and Kahurangi National Park are, there’s an even more otherworldly landscape hiding beneath: the cave system of the Oparara.The Oparara Trust runs these guided tours to the area in cooperation with the Department of Conservation, granting visitors access to unique features that can only be seen with a guide. I donned a hard hat and joined a group of three others for an afternoon tour through the Honeycomb Hill Caves—into the woods, down a padlocked trail, and into the slippery underworld of Oparara.We started with an easy 30- to 45-minute hike through brilliant green forest, and Bill, our fantastic guide, made sure we enjoyed this part of the tour as much as the caves. As a caver and diver, Bill is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the outdoors, and in no time, he had me chewing on horopito (a cinnamon- or peppery-tasting plant) and feeling the undersides of fern fronds for spores.One of the most notable views on the hike was the Oparara River, which runs a red-brown color said to look like tea on a calm day and frothy beer on a storm-tossed day; Willy Wonka himself couldn’t have manufactured a more fantastical river, tinted by tannins. We kept an eye out for rapid-surfing blue ducks, but none were out that day.The caves, on the other hand, were full of wildlife—or at least, the remains of some fascinating creatures that fell in or washed up, most notably the now-extinct moa. Bill pointed out a whole skeleton of a bush moa, as well as bones of deer and kiwis. As we carefully stepped and ducked further into the caves, we explored the stalagmites, stalactites, and other limestone formations. The caves are slippery, so good shoes are essential, and it’s very important to follow your guide’s instructions.At two points on the cave tour, Bill had our group gather and turn off our headlamps; glowworm colonies glittered turquoise in the darkness. Seeing the phenomenon up close, in the quiet darkness of a cave where our small group was the only movement, was amazing, and definitely the highlight of the tour.After emerging from the caves and hiking back to the car, we enjoyed a coffee and tea break with some of the most delicious homemade brownies and cookies from a local baker.The Oparara Trust runs the Honeycomb Hill Cave tours all year, and also leads extended tours that include a visit to the Oparara Arch. Summer options include a kayak tour and a full-day eco-walk. Visiting the caves is a unique experience and a must-do in the Karamea area.
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