Limestone heaven, gravel hell – the Tasman region

The Tasman area in the very northern part of NZ’s south island is overflowing with superlatives: there you can find both the largest natural rock arch and the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere as well as New Zealand’s deepest vertical shaft and its longest cave system. It is also home to NZ’s largest spider, the longest spit of land, the largest and clearest freshwater spring and the most sunshine hours in the country. The vibrant golden beaches of the popular Abel Tasman National Park are famous throughout the country and beyond.

Note: there is lots more to see than the places I list here. These are just a few highlights of this pretty area :)

THE WEST: Oparara Basin in Kahurangi National Park

The Oparara Basin on Tasman’s west coast is home to the largest natural limestone arch in the southern hemisphere: the Oparara Arch. It measures a stunning 219m in length, is up to 79m wide and 43m high. However, this wonder of nature is all but easily accessible. From Westport a nearly 100km long road winds to the little village of Karamea before you’ll have to face 16km of one of the steepest, windiest and most corrugated narrow gravel road I’ve ever encountered. It took us around half an hour to drive that nightmare of a road. Nevertheless, it’s been absolutely worth it. Oparara Arch is only a short, 30mins walk from the car park and offers stunning views. The tunnel was formed by the brown-red Oparara River running through it and more arches can be found along its course. One of them is Moria Gate Arch.

A pretty sight, even in grey weather

With its 19m height and 43 width, Moria Gate Arch is much smaller but certainly worth a visit. It is accessible via a different track (30mins) from the same car park. The inside of the river cave is only accessible by climbing a short, narrow shaft. The ceiling of the arch is covered with hundreds of stalactites and is beautiful to behold. Its name was inspired by the novel The Lord of the Rings with Moria (Sindarin: black chasm) being a vast network of mines, tunnels, chambers and halls.

Just 3km further down the bumpy gravel road you’ll find both Crazy Paving and Box Canyon Caves (short 5min walk from the car park). Both caves are free to explore on your own and are home to the largest spider in NZ (Spelungula cavernicola, or Nelson Cave Spider). Crazy Paving Cave is lined with man-made paving slabs but next to the walkway you can see the eponymous natural crazy paving pattern. We spotted one of the extremely rare, huge (and protected by the Wildlife Act) cave spiders (leg span up to 15cm) and one of their weird egg sacs hanging from the ceiling. The Box Canyon Cave is literally next door and apparently home to wetas, spiders and beatles – however, we found it pretty empty (wetas seem terrifying anyway ;)).

THE NORTH: Golden Bay

The Waikoropupu Springs (also known as Pupu Springs) are located in the Takaka Valley and are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and the largest cold water springs in the southern hemisphere. The spring discharges around 14,000 liters of water per second and contains some of the clearest water ever measured. Its horizontal visibility of around 63m is very close to distilled water and results from natural filtering. The springs are spiritually significant to Maori people and are not to be touched.

On our way north we took a short detour to Rockville in the Aorere Valley to have a look at some strange limestone outcrops at the roadside. Looking like a pair of boots sticking out of the ground upside down they were aptly dubbed Devil’s Boots.

Located at the very north of NZ’s South Island (at the end of a 4km gravel road), Wharariki Beach is exposed to strong winds (sandblast feeling included). The probably most famous feature of Wharariki Beach are the four uninhabited Archway Islands. The tallest of the four (66m) contains two arches, giving the group of island its name. Apart from the Archway Islands there are many more caves, arches and rock formations to be found along the beach. At low tide you can venture quite far westwards down the beach, squeezing through narrow cracks and passageways, and scaling a few rocks. A walkway towards the east of Wharariki Beach leads past Cape Farewell, the most northerly point of the south island, and the Pillar Point lighthouse to Farewell Spit, the longest spit of land in NZ (ca. 26km). It’s significant for its wildlife and only guided tours are allowed to venture further than the first publicly accessible 4km. Looking at the spit on a map it almost looks like the beak of a native Kiwi.

Wharariki Beach (1 & 2) | Farewell Spit (3)

THE EAST: Abel Tasman

The staggering Rawhiti Cave (Maori: sunrise) is located just to the west of Abel Tasman National Park. It’s hardly signposted but the road is only unsealed for around 1km (hooray!). The walk to the cave (ca. 1 hour) however, is more demanding than any of the tracks to other caves and arches we have visited in the Tasman area. The first half of the way follows and crosses Dry River (a dried-out river bed) with some huge boulders before ascending in a steep and narrow zig-zag up to the cave entrance – which is one of the largest in New Zealand (40m width, 20m height). The cave is specified as nationally significant due to its diverse twilight-zone flora. A phenomena called phytokarst* is responsible for the immense extension and scale of stalactites especially towards the cave entrance.
After a strenuous ascend on a hot day the coolness inside the cave was more than welcome :) There is also a small viewing platform but other than that the cave is pretty undeveloped.

*phytokarst: plant growth on the rock formations leads to deposit of calcium carbonate on top of the plant growth. As more sunlight reaches the outer areas of the cave, the stalactites in that area are way bigger and curved outwards while the stalactites towards the cave inside get smaller and finer.

Both The Grove and Labyrinth Rocks are in close proximity to Rawhiti Cave and known for their huge limestone blocks, wonderfully shaped by water. The short walk in Grove Scenic Reserve leads to a lookout platform with a pretty view. The Labyrinth Rocks offer some weird rock formations. It’s a super strange location – not due to the cool rock shapes but the naming of rocks such as “kissing pigs” or “Grand Canyon” – where there was clearly nothing remotely like that to see. Also the placing of mini plastic toys everywhere was peculiar. I found the big plastic spider and the real skulls and bones of some cows (I suspect) particularly odd..

The Grove | Labyrinth Rocks

Some of the most stunning sights in the Tasman region can be found at the end of a long, bumpy and narrow gravel road. One such sight is Harwoods Hole, one of the largest caves in the country (357m deep, 70m wide) with the deepest vertical shaft (176m) in New Zealand. A 11km gravel road leads from Takaka Hill to the small car park in the Canaan Downs Scenic Reserve from where it’s a 45min walk to the hole. The last bit involves climbing over huge boulders to the edge of the massive drop. There are no safety barriers at the 50m round entrance and you can’t actually see down the shaft from the edge. Nevertheless it’s an amazing place, but dangerous: only the most experienced cavers should attempt the descend. High up is a slackline spanning the hole and we were lucky enough to see a guy attempting a crossing.

The Tasman area is super diverse and has lots to offer. Apart from cool rock formations, caves and arches you’ll find the most vibrant golden beaches you’ve ever seen. The famous Great Walk in Abel Tasman travels for around 60km along the coast (between Marahau and Wainui Bay) and can be done in around five days. For a day trip you can take a water taxi to a section of the track and either walk back or get picked up at a different point. It’s super pretty and a Must-Do when you’re in the area. When taking the water taxi you also usually get to see the iconic Split Apple Rock and are most likely to spot some fur seals along the coast.

Anchorage Bay in Abel Tasman | Tokangawhā / Split Apple Rock

Other noteworthy sights are the longest swingbridge in NZ over the pretty Buller Gorge and the wonderful Nelson Lakes in the southern part of Tasman. The Riwaka Resurgence, where the river Riwaka emerges from the depths of Takaka Hill, and the Wainui Falls, both accessible via short tracks, are also worth a look.

And: be prepared for some stunning sunrises and sunsets.

  • Mount Arthur is home to the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere. The Ellis Basin cave system is a staggering 1200m deep, making it the second deepest in the world.
  • The longest cave system in NZ is 66km long and runs through Mount Owen in the Kahurangi National Park. It is known as Bulmer Cavern.
  • The Tasman area receives more than 2,250 hours of sunshine per year on average