Karamea, West Coast: A land of long-lost treasures

It’s been a little over a year since the New Zealand border closed and some may feel like they have seen every corner of the country during that time.

But I don’t think anyone can say they really explored Aotearoa until they approach one of the South Island’s last frontiers.

Karamea is a place so special that you can still see whole moa skeletons lying in a 35 million year old cave system. There is only one road through Westport on State Highway 67, and we discovered it’s a journey full of hidden gems.

The honeycomb cavities

The Honeycomb Caves are suitable for all fitness levels.

Brook Sabin / things

The Honeycomb Caves are suitable for all fitness levels.

As we walked through the thick moss-covered forest, the first clue we wanted to see was the security camera.

The bush around us is so pristine and Jurassic that you can hardly tell where the forest floor is. And that’s our second clue as to what’s to come. If there wasn’t a trace, it would be a minefield.

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It is incredible to believe that the ground we are standing on was once under the sea, and over millions of years when the land came out of the water, a spectacular maze of limestone caves began to form.

But these beautiful formations have a hidden danger that Māori referred to as tomo, or holes in the ground. Moa and the Haastadler – the largest known eagle in the world – occasionally fell into these holes, and that’s why we are hundreds of years later making our way underground.

The Honeycomb Caves are one of New Zealand’s greatest treasures: you can only enter with a certified guide and security cameras monitor this to make sure no one else goes inside. The caves are a short walk from the area’s famous Ōpārara arches, but almost beyond belief, this hidden cave system doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

After a 30-minute walk, we came to an opening in the earth where we were instructed to turn on our headlights and enter a dark passageway, leaving the light behind.

The first surprise was the size of the cave; Fortunately, none of this crawls on your hands and knees.

After walking through the honeycomb caves for an hour, we emerged again in a green wilderness.

Brook Sabin / things

After walking through the honeycomb caves for an hour, we emerged again in a green wilderness.

The second surprise came about 20 minutes later when our guide turned a corner and our group fell silent. I knew there were moa bones down here, but I never expected to see what lay ahead: a complete moa skeleton.

Our guide explained that the bird fell through a tomo and broke its leg. The pause was clearly visible. It is incredible to think that hundreds of years later we are looking at the bird in the very spot where it died. The cool air in the caves helped preserve the skeleton.

The Department of Conservation bans the publication of photos of the bones, fearing that doing so could encourage poachers. But when you visit us you can take a few snapshots for your personal use. and share the remarkable pictures with a friend.

After an hour underground, the cave suddenly opened, revealing a green wilderness. We slowly left a world that felt just as pristine as it was underground.

THE ARCHES

You can go into the huge Ōpārara arch.

Brook Sabin / things

You can go into the huge Ōpārara arch.

While you’re in the area, don’t miss to explore the other caves of the Ōpārara Basin. These are freely accessible and do not require a guide.

It is believed that the Ōpārara Arch is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with a length of more than 200 meters and a height of 40 meters. There is a staircase in the arch that you can go in and see the other end.

The Moria Gate can be climbed inward on a separate short walk by lowering yourself on a short chain to see the iconic photo from the arch.

On the trail, you can also see weka, kākā, and even giant carnivorous land snails known as powelliphanta.

THE HEAPHY TRACK

If you travel to the tip of the West Coast on State Highway 67, you will arrive at New Zealand’s slice of Hawaii.

This is the beginning (or end) of the Heaphy Track, an 82 km four- to six-day hike from the west coast to Golden Bay that traverses Kahurangi National Park. A landscape reminiscent of Hawaii’s garden island of Kauai.

The beginning of the Heaphy Track (on the west coast) looks like the coast of a Hawaiian island.

Brook Sabin / things

The beginning of the Heaphy Track (on the west coast) looks like the coast of a Hawaiian island.

If you don’t have time for the entire hike, you can spend the night at Heaphy Cabin on the west coast before returning the next day.

Or if you only have a few hours, try the Nīkau Walk – this is the beginning of the route.

This 50-minute walk takes you through an impressive collection of Nīkau palm trees on the beach that feel like you are in the Garden of Eden.

The Nīkau walk takes less than an hour.

Brook Sabin / things

The Nīkau walk takes less than an hour.

THE OLD GEISTERSTRASSE

This old miners’ trail has been turned into a delightful walk (or bike path) through dense forest, secret valleys and long-lost waterways – it even includes 21 bridges.

When you add the unpredictable west coast weather, you have a recipe for adventure.

The 85 km long Old Ghost Rd near Westport typically takes two to four days to cycle or five days to walk.

The Rough and Tumble Lodge is located on the Mōkihinui River.

Brook Sabin / things

The Rough and Tumble Lodge is located on the Mōkihinui River.

The route has four huts – that is, each day takes about four to six hours. Book your final night at the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge for a well-deserved reward.

Don’t be fooled by the name. After a long walk, this place feels like heaven with excellent food, luxurious beds and a hot outside shower overlooking the river.

After a big meal, you’ll fall asleep listening to the Mōkihinui River – it’s absolute bliss.

SPECTACULAR SHORT PATHS

There are a few short walks on the way back to Westport that are definitely worth a change of pace.

The Charming Creek Walkway takes three hours each.

Brook Sabin / things

The Charming Creek Walkway takes three hours each.

The Charming Creek Walk follows an old railway line and leads through hand-dug tunnels, past waterfalls, over a swing bridge to Mangatini Falls.

A little further south is Cape Foulwind. This walk winds its way up steep granite cliffs past a historic lighthouse and ends at a large seal colony.

The stunning stretch of coast was named by Captain Cook after his ship got off course in a lazy wind.

The walk from Cape Foulwind takes just over an hour each.

Brook Sabin / things

The walk from Cape Foulwind takes just over an hour each.

More information:

Get there: Karamea is a six hour drive from Christchurch or 4.5 hours from Nelson.

Stay there: Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge costs $ 250 per night with continental breakfast. See: oughandtumble.co.nz Last Resort Karamea from $ 120. See: lastresortkaramea.co.nz

Play there: Ōpārara Guided Tours conducts a cave tour through honeycomb caves. USD 95 per adult and USD 45 for a child under 12 years of age. See: oparara.co.nz

Information about the Heaphy Track and cabin bookings can be found at: doc.govt.nz/heaphytrack

Information on Old Ghost Road and cabin bookings can be found at: oldghostroad.org.nz

Brook Sabin and Radha Engling toured New Zealand on a Stuff Travel nationwide road trip in a Hyundai Kona Electric. The vehicle has a range of 449 km in the real world on a single charge. Further information can be found at: hyundai.co.nz/Kona-electric.

The author’s trip was supported by Development West Coast

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