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Some caves of Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand

Driving north-westwards from the most southerly point of South Island we were surprised to come across an AA road sign " Limestone Caves".  It was obviously cave country - sandy-yellow buffs of wind and water smoothed limestone protruded from the grassy valley sides as we climbed gently from the river Waiau.  Following a dry riverbed we passed several shakeholes, until a further sign directed us up to a small bouldery horizontal stream sink entrance.  We had no caving gear so donning head torches, we decided on a quick recce in our NZ Sunday best.

The caves are in fact known as Clifden Caves, just up the road from (believe it or not!) Clifden Suspension Bridge.  Quite clearly they are frequently visited by all and sundry, from Scout Groups to tourists, from farmers to National Park workers.  There is graffiti in several parts of the cave, particularly near the end, but some of it is of definite historical interest with dates as far back as 1868.

Apart from a crawl through a boulder collapse under a second entrance, and one low arch, the whole cave is walking size.  A single passage zigzags along joints, gradually moving further from the valley side. It is clean washed except for mud and vegetation debris deposited at the sharp passage bends.  There is a little stal and some rimstone pools, but most of the system seems to be epi-pheratic in origin and is still very flood prone.  Gradually the floor develops pools and we were stopped eventually by a wide deep pool not far from the third entrance.

From Clifden we moved on to Te Auan and Fiordland, where we met up with Kevan Wilde (Ranger, Waitomo), Marja Wilde, Trevor Worthy (on a grant to collect/study sub-fossils - bones) et alp.  They had kindly brought down all our caving gear from North Island. Arrangements had already been made with the National Park authorities and we had a free boat ride in a Lands and Survey vessel across Lake Te Auan - very rough at high speed in choppy conditions. Thence a three hour slog through bush and across open tussock brought us to Mt. Luxmore Hut, where we met others who had come up in four minutes, by helicopter.

The limestone in this region is young - Oligocene, and lies in a 30 - 50 metre thick sloping band on top of ancient impermeable rocks.  Its upper surface forms the upland tussock country, and in places is overlain by volcanic dust and cinders.  Much of the water in the caves derives from the peaty basins below volcanic Mt. Luxmore.  The limestone band outcrops lower down, just in the bush, as a sheer or overhanging cliff. The caves are controlled by major joints running towards the cliff line, which is also down dip, and a minor joint pattern at right angles to this.

The Southland Caving Group were active in the Luxmore region in the early 60's and some twenty sites were discovered, ranging from Luxmore Cave - over 800m long, to short, unroofed half caves and canyons.  No doubt location maps were made, and certainly some caves were surveyed. Unfortunately the group disbanded, cave sites were forgotten and surveys lost.  Caves have since been rediscovered, renamed and re-explored but there is much confusion even in current documentation.

Although we had free use of the hut, again courtesy of the National Park, it was already overfull, so we two laid down a mattress of dead tussock grass outside and bivied beneath the stars.  In the morning we were rudely awakened by keas.  The kea is a mountain parrot, tame and fearless, of devious cunning, inquisitive, noisy, thieving and destructive.  Down sleeping bags take a few seconds to tear apart with the beak; rucksacs last a little longer.  We cleared our snow covered gear quickly away, and hid the SRT rope too!  From then on the keas were constant pests, and sources of amusement, especially when they hung upside down, to peer at us at work in the 'long drop privy'.

Out first cave. B.P.C. Grovel Extension is a large rift, mainly easy walking for about 200m upstream to narrower passages and chokes.  Here, in a shallow calcite pool, we found the first sub-fossils, bones of the very rare kakepo, a ground parrot.  Nearby, Calcite Cave, only 60m long, had no bones, but a profusion of good stal - rimstone, curtains etc., once a pure white but now somewhat muddied by visitors. Many non-cavers visit the Mt. Luxmore Hut and some of the nearby caves are easily found, of low grade, and very vulnerable. Moving over the 'cave field' to the bigger systems in this group, we entered Luxless Cave, in a large doline an overhanging climb, or a narrow twisting passage, with the stream, in sharp rock, led to a large twilit entrance chamber at the head of a big sloping tunnel.  We worked our way slowly down, carefully examining the banks of the stream and the wall slopes and looking under stones. The best find was a complete skunk skeleton.  The cave became very low towards the sump/choke, but a side passage, crawling in above a short climb, led to some bigger breakdown chambers.  There were excellent examples of slickensides in the roof. The stream, now regained, finally trickled away under boulders, but by going upstream a little we found a small pheratic tube with a narrow vadose trench enabling us to loop back to the crawl. Altogether there were several hundred metres of cave.

The final system of the day was Luxmore, close to Luxless and running parallel to it.  At one end of an elongated doline a narrow climb down led into big sloping passage, with a small stream that tumbled down various rocks and small cascades.  The passage quickly became more confused, passing two inlets on the right, one to Iron Maiden and one to White Exit.  At a third passage, off to the left, the passage reduced in height and width still further - from 2 or 3m high to 1m and from 1 or 2m wide down to 1/2m - a narrow twisting slightly awkward cave down to the sump, or final low bit.  The passage to the left was once very beautiful - a thin white calcite floor overlaying fine translucent dog-tooth spar had been permanently muddied and ruined by careless traffic and glittering with flows had dark handprints in the middle.  NZSS have a policy of not publishing cave locations nor publicising spelaeology.  However, the caves are mentioned in national park literature and non-cavers are openly encouraged to go wild caving in certain areas of N.Z.   Perhaps this is why Luxmore has suffered.

On our way out of the cave we examined the Iron Maiden series, essentially a single decorated passage with a small stream cutting in and out via low oxbows.  At the end was a low section with draughting avens.  The other passage inlet, White Exit, seemed to provide a good alternative route out, and we squeezed and climbed amongst pretty decorations until the passage became ludicrously narrow with no sign of daylight or draught.  We returned to the main entrance to be met by large flakes of snow and a soggy tramp back through the long tussock grass.

Beyond the first cave field, at least a further half hour's walk away, lay the second limestone site, dominated by a deep V-section gorge cut in bare rock.  We visited this area on our fourth day at Luxmore and examined a site which began in the valley side as a tube quickly leading to a pitch.  We rigged this with far too much rope - it was less than 20 feet and could be bypassed altogether by an awkward exposed free climb, below which more bones were found.  We had been led to expect several short rope pitches till the initial sections of this cave, which could well be Steadfast Cave, originally explored, in part at least, in the early 60's. After the entrance pitch a streamway was encountered, which lowered and was bypassed through a big rockfall. More bones were found here on the way out, when we lost the route for some time.  From the fall the cave developed as a rift, and we occasionally had to traverse in the wider roof to avoid constrictions, and then drop down to the water further on.  Two such drops, one roped and one using a tape handline, plus a traverse among formations, led to roomier passage beyond a bend.  Traversing and climbing in the wider, deeper rift passage became more awkward and exposed, and only two of us continued.  At a second major bend a large inlet joined the passage, but we left this unexplored, and carried on along the main way.  Climbing up and down among boulders which almost blocked off the high narrowing rift, one more short drop, requiring our last piece of tape, put us back in the stream.  Thence we were forced upwards, on jammed boulders, to reach the roof and a small ledge overlooking a much larger passage at a 60ft pitch.  There seemed to be no way down through the boulders, and no belays, even if we had a rope, so we had no option but to make our way out, de-tackling en route.

Up valley from the Steadfast entrance and just below the gravelly stream sinks an obvious hole emitted sounds of falling water.  We were told that the pitch here was very deep and put down our longest rope.  In fact, an inclined rift was easily free climbed for about 50ft and only the next 20ft to the floor required SRT gear. Water cascaded in over the vertical section and over me.  Groping in the dark I wished again, and not for the last time, for a decent alternative to the Premier stinkie.  Alight once more and a 6 foot wide, high, wet rift was revealed, and up from here led quickly to the most beautiful formations in the area..  As in Calcite Cave we were rather surprised by the profusion of stal, not usual in alpine karst. We could find no way on, either beyond the stal or down cave where the rift became too narrow.  With luck the formations will be preserved, since the cave is far from the hut, and apparently leads to no significant length of passage.

While hundreds of trampers and a few cavers visit the Luxmore area, very few people ever get to see Aurora Cave where we were heading next.  Further up Lake Te Anou is a tourist show cave, a resurgence into the lake.  The only reasonable access is by boat and tourist launches ply regularly between Te Anou township and the cave.  Some short underground boat trips lead past a few glow-worms to a sump.  Not a particularly exciting trip.  However, less than an hours walk through the bush above here is the main stream sink, leading to several kilometres of passage.  The catchment area, in the Murchison mountains, is not accessible to the public as one of New Zealand¬ís endangered species - a bird like a big blue coot with a massive red bill and elephantine legs - is found there.  We were particularly privileged; not only did we have special permission to enter the region, but the National Park put a big power launch at our disposal, and Trevor knows the cave very well and was prepared to show us a fair proportion of it.

Having left Luxmore in the morning and had a beer or two in Te Anou for lunch, we took the boat across the lake and quickly tramped the 40 minutes through luxuriant deep green bush to reach the huge, old entrance (the stream now sinks further up valley).  A wide gorge, hidden amongst trees, drops into a semi-circular arch, 80 feet or more wide and 50 feet high, whence the passage quickly descends into gloom and then blackness.  The entrance is surrounded by bush, some trees even growing inside, replaced rapidly by ferns and mosses in the deeper, green dampness further in.  A little further in, still outside the threshold, the ground was dusty dry, and we found several flat platforms, amongst the slope of boulders, suitable for bivouac.

Most of Aurora Cave is epi-pheratic and could be likened, if anything, to Dan yr Ogof II.  Much of it floods regularly.  For the moment we avoided the stream, which we could hear constantly roaring away to our right in a canyon, and kept to the left hand side of the big, dry entrance tube. At the far end we dropped into what resembled a vadose canyon, with big scallops in the walls, and large "foreign" boulders scattered along it.  Compared with the Luxmore caves, or with anything in Britain, the limestone was beautifully light - a pale cream colour, reflecting plenty of stinkie flame.  The passage subdivided and our route became briefly narrow and low over fresh water-washed gravel.  After one of the few short crawls in the cave we entered rifts, clean washed and full of clear pools which for some reason we carefully avoided~ expending much effort.  After about an hour we were amongst the only stal in the cave, quite beautiful and very vulnerable.  Beyond this we came to a balcony where our passage ended, overlooking a large mainstream.

Without tackle there was no way down, so back through the stal we looked at a possible route down, through a low crawl and down a climb where all the holds fell off.  We arrived on another balcony where the only way to the torrent below was to jump.  We opted to re-climb the now hold less wall.  Listening elsewhere for sounds of the stream, we found the correct route eventually, emerging on a shelf right beside the water.  Making our way downstream we soon found that wherever the water was confined, and therefore rather fast, we could bridge the gap, traverse or jump from one side to the other.  Elsewhere we waded, up to waist deep, and once or twice avoided the stream altogether using wide, low oxbows.   Finally we stopped at Aurora Falls, 30 feet of deluge just above the sump in the show cave.  We then travelled upstream, past our earlier entry point, until we reached the canyon below our bivouac site.  Here were two ways, each bringing water from the upstream sinks.  Kevan and Trevor climbed above the inlet and managed to bring down every handhold and foothold, together with a few tons of sand and boulders, narrowly missing us.  While they disappeared into big, dry passages above, we investigated the smaller inlet. The thinly bedded limestone was fretted and sharp, and the little stream had carved deep potholes in the floor. We were stopped here by a waterfall, and decided to have a look at the second main inlet.  With its much greater volume of water the numerous cascades of this stream were lodged with jammed tree trunks.  The only route along the passage was via a steep ledge.  This became more and more hair-raising, as it became steeper and narrower, constantly overlooking the waterfalls and plunge pools, until it fizzled out altogether.  Having failed to find an alternative feasible route to the upper dry passages, we returned to the bivouac for a warming drink and to await the others.  They soon returned, having found it impossible to come down our streamways beyond our upstream limit.

Eight hours later, after a good sleep in the cave mouth and a brief walk down the hill, we were on our way back across the lake, with only the boat's wake disturbing the early morning calm.  An excellent way to end an excellent  week of caving.

Graham Wilton-Jones.


The BEC second motto - "The BEC get everywhere" - should be changed to "The Wiltom-Jones's get everywhere".  Not to be outdone by Graham and Jane's antics in New Zealand, Ian has been proving that there are caves in the most unlikely places and I must thank Annie for the following article which she thinks will be of interest to BEC members, even though the cave described was so simple as to be un-gradable. "The rock" is a massive sandstone outcrop about 8 miles from Abqaiq in the Eastern Province.  It is about 2 or 3 miles in circumference.  Ian and a running friend called Billy reached the rock by running through date plantations from Abqaiq.