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Mysterious cave in the swamp forest

Mysterious cave in the swamp forest
 
 
 
 
 

THE REMOTE Heaphy River flows through rugged limestone karst country. When the track was first constructed by European settlers in the 1890s rumours were spread about caves in the area containing human bones.

Forest near the hut

Forest near the hut

These reports came long before the archaeological site was discovered. One of these caves was supposed to be near the Heaphy Hut and the other was near the junction of the Heaphy and Gunner rivers several kilometres upstream. Despite these claims of discoveries being reported several times in the years between 1890 and 1909, subsequent expeditions to this day have never found bones in caves, but there were a number of caves rediscovered along the sides of the valley.

Returning to the hut from the beach I met Ken, one of the three guides for the largest group that had stayed overnight. He told me they were heading to Field Cave and that I was more than welcome to join them. They will be leaving in a few minutes time. It turns out the guide lives very close to the farm where I had lived outside of Motueka in the late 1980s, and he did confirm David yesterday mentioning that much of the subdivided farm was now owned by the Hare Krishnas.

I set off along the track with the group. There were two other guides, both female from near Nelson. The group they were leading were from a bushwalking club based near Melbourne. Interestingly they were all over the age of seventy, but still very fit and young at heart. They needed good fitness with what was coming.

Heaphy River

Heaphy River

From the hut we followed Ken along the track upstream towards Lewis Hut. This is where I will be heading this afternoon. The group had yesterday come from the James Mackay hut which is the next one along. This was their fourth day on the track, but they had booked two nights at the Heaphy Hut. Today was a day of relaxing and exploring. Some of the older members of their group were resting in the hut in preparation for their hike out along the coast tomorrow.

The track followed the river through increasingly thickening forest. Without the direct exposure to the sea the forest had better conditions to grow in. The palm trees and ratas were a lot larger here, growing on the small river terraces and around giant limestone boulders that have rolled down the hill in past earthquakes.

Steady rain was falling, so everyone was rugged up in their waterproof raincoats and trousers. Thankfully there was no wind in the shelter of the hills. The only sounds we could hear was our talking and the crunch-crunch of our boots on the granite gravel pathway. The birds were rather quiet this morning.

At the point we left the track

At the point we left the track

After hiking for about a kilometre we reached a bluff where a tannin stained stream was flowing out of the rock under a bridge where we walked. This was the first sign of caves in this area. The hills around the Heaphy River are apparently full of caves as would be expected in coastal limestone country. Apparently there is a sizeable cave inside this entrance, but it would have involved a tight and very wet squeeze to get inside.

We continued walking along the track a bit further until reaching the bridge crossing a fairly substantial stream. Its deep ochre colour was due to leaching of rainforest vegetation. Once over the bridge we stopped. I noted we were half way between the bridge and a palm tree that grew in the middle of the track. This was the only palm tree I would encounter growing in the middle of the track anywhere on the trek.

Going through thick bush

Going through thick bush

I could see a crudely trampled route through the forest to our left. We left the track following Ken through this route, walking in single file through the thick vegetation over the soft boggy ground. The route was overgrown with the spring growth but still reasonably obvious as a trail. We were thankful to have three guides who we thought knew where they were going.

After a few minutes we reached the remains of what used to be the original Heaphy Track. When first built in 1893 the track used to follow the base of the limestone formations to minimise any erosion by the river when it floods. The early explorers, track builders and surveyors had used some of the caves for shelter and storage.

Unfortunately the ground through here was very swampy with the forest litter hiding big puddles of water. My boots quickly became saturated again as we sloshed our way through the swamp. The forest here was very thick and it would have been easy to lose one’s bearings and get lost.

The creek crossing

The creek crossing

The going was reasonably smooth until we suddenly reached a small stream cut deeply into the soft soil. The thick palm foliage made it rather difficult to see but it was obvious the water was a little too deep to wade through. The knotted stems of a fallen Northern Rata had conveniently fallen across the stream, so we all decided to cross the natural bridge it created. It was a bit awkward getting everyone across, but fortunately we all made it without anyone getting wet. We had just about completed the crossing when three guys from the Nelson Search and Rescue (wearing their uniform) joined us. At least we were in very good hands now.

The cave entrance

The cave entrance

From the stream the track became particularly swampy, passing a large puddle in the forest almost big enough to be a lake. Then we reached the edge of the steep hillside and followed it for a short distance before the guides decided we were close to the cave entrance.

They led us through thick bush up the slippery slope. Thankfully the foliage here was very sturdy and thankfully none of it was the nettle bush I had seen yesterday. After some time the guides decided we were a bit lost and we had to stay put on the edge of the steep slope for a while so they could get their bearings and find a way up to the cave entrance. After about quarter of an hour they worked out the route and we had to traverse across the slope before finding a muddy route which we should have come up in the first place. We had walked past it only by a few metres before.

From there it was a bit of a scramble uphill under a large tree before we were suddenly at the huge gaping cave entrance of Field Cave. It was actually a double entrance with a huge twelve metre high hole running through the bluff for about fifteen metres. The cavern was about seven metres wide and had bright green foliage blocking the view on either side.

Looking into Field Cave

Looking into Field Cave

There was a steep descent through the cavern. I was wearing my head torch and turned it on to look around. To the left of the cavern was a drop into an even larger cavern where we were heading.

Field Cave is one of the largest known caves in the valley. It was named after the Field brothers who worked on the original track and scratched their names on the wall deep in the cave in September 1893 just before the track passing by was completed. Their initials were ACF and FWF. There was a third set of initials WMB, but the name of this person has been lost to time. The name was proposed by the late Trevor McNabb who used to be a well-known farmer and bushman who contacted the New Zealand Geographic Board to name the cave now long since grown over.

Climbing into Field Cave

Climbing into Field Cave

There are two entrances to the main cavern. The main route required a downhill scramble from where we were currently standing. This didn’t seem to be a good idea, so we headed towards the other main opening into the cave to where a passage dropped moderately into the cavern. This was a much smaller entrance, but despite the muddy clay caking on our boots, it was easy to get into.

Once down in the cavern I saw markers with string running just off the ground. Clearly people had been here before and obviously they wanted people to walk along the established path.

Following the creek along the cave floor

Following the creek along the cave floor

A small stream ran along the bottom of the cave. This was most likely the same stream we had crossed earlier. Fortunately the floor of the cave was very flat. At one stage a large stream, perhaps the Heaphy River itself had run through here, carving the cave out into a very easily accessible path. Other caves I have explored in the past have had huge boulders to clamber over that had fallen from the ceiling in past earthquakes. It was reassuring to see there were no obviously large boulders that had fallen off the ceiling in this cave. That being said I definitely didn’t want an earthquake to happen now.

Going through the cave

Going through the cave

There were a couple of people who had decided to take the main entrance down. It had been rather precarious for them still making their way down when I had reached the bottom of the cavern. The cave was lifeless apart from a few long roots that were snaking their way down the main entrance searching like a braided river searching for the dampness of the stream running along the cave floor.

Once we were all in the main cavern we began following the path upstream. The walls of the cave were surprisingly smooth indicating the river would have flowed swiftly through here at some stage before earthquakes lifted the valley higher causing the water to divert to the other side of the valley.

A hole at the end of the cave

A hole at the end of the cave

The channel narrowed to about four metres but the cavern stood a good ten to twelve metres high with its well water worn sides. There was a very small entrance to another cavern. Beyond that the main cavern suddenly narrowed to about a metre wide where two enormous boulders had fallen from the ceiling during a past earthquake.

After having walked about six hundred metres along the bottom of the cavern we reached the end of the flat bottom. From here the cave divided into two ascending steeply towards an entrance high above us on either side. Bright green light filtered by the palm vegetation outside. A cascade of brown roots tumbled into either entrance in an attempt to find water and soil below the terraces of solid rock.

Returning along the cave floor

Returning along the cave floor

We found the shell of a dead giant snail in the cave. This was an ideal place for all sorts of critters to seek shelter from the elements outside.

The entrances were difficult to scale, so we had to return out the way we had come in. On our way back we spotted an area of small knobbly stalactites hanging from the ceiling. They seemed to be very old from a time long past. The past rivers had wiped away any evidence of stalagmites on the cave floor.

Ascending the cave entrance

Ascending the cave entrance

Finally we reached the main entrance and braved climbing the steep face up to the double entrance, neither entrance we could see from down here. It wasn’t as hard as it looked and soon we were all up going through the top entrance again.

Once back above the ground we carefully descended the steep muddy route back to the old track. From there we made out way back sloshing through the swampy forest until reaching the creek, where one by one we crossed over the slippery bridge of tangled roots. A couple of people decided to just wade through the cold thigh deep water. Once on the other side we continued through the thick swampy bush until eventually reaching the new track, where we stopped and regrouped at the bridge before heading back to the hut.

Returning along the old track

Returning along the old track

Upon arriving we washed the mud off our clothes at a tap out the back of the hut. The pair of wekas I had seen earlier were foraging around nearby.

The old track had been constructed from the Collingwood end of the track. It closely followed one of the old Maori routes across the mountains. The track crossed the mountains coming all the way down to where the Heaphy Hut now stands. The coastal section wasn’t completed at that stage as Karamea was still a very remote settlement and the coastal section was considered too unstable for a permanent track to be constructed.

The group back on the main track

The group back on the main track

For three years the track builders cleared the trail from Collingwood, having to endure tough wet conditions until they finally reached the bottom of the Heaphy Valley.

Some of the toughest conditions they faced would have been through the final swampy forests along the Heaphy Valley, with the large menacing river to their right and the vertical limestone formations to their left. When surveying the route to cut the track around the limestone formations they discovered some of the caves, including Field Cave where three people – the Field Brothers and one mystery man, inscribed their initials in the darkness of the long cavern.

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Date:

 

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04 November 2015

 

Kahurangi Nat Park

New Zealand

 

40°59'S
172°07'E
5 - 18m ASL

 

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