If there’s one unexpected thing we’ve found pleasantly surprising about New Zealand, it’s the quantity and quality of the caves. We expected beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and mountains, but the caves keep surprising us, and surprising quite a few of our local friends as well as caving doesn’t seem to be overly popular with the people we know (most had never heard of Waipu Caves or Abbey Caves)! This weekend we visited the beautiful Abbey Caves in Whangarei, about two hours north of Auckland.
About 6km from the town of Whangarei, there’s a sign on the side of Abbey Caves Road showing people where the short trail starts to the caves. These caves, while not quite as intense as Waipu Caves, are not for the unprepared tourist. Getting in and out of the caves requires a bit of scrambling and you’ll really want a headlamp, clothes you can get wet and dirty, and good close-toed shoes. There are glow worms in Organ Cave, which is the first and largest of the three caves that make up Abbey Caves. While not similar to Waitomo Caves as far as glow worm quantity goes, there are more than when we visited Waipu and of course these caves are free and self guided, just how we like em!
On the very short walk down to the first cave we noticed two Shetland ponies, or mini horses, grazing in a fenced area to our right. We were eating apples as we walked down and Sissy called out, “Horsie!” and oddly enough the mini horse looked up. “Apple!” was her next call to the horse, which even more oddly responded by trotting over from 50+ meters away. The mini horse and Sissy bonded over our apple cores for a few minutes before we headed down to the sign with a very basic map on it and to Organ Cave.
The foliage in the area was typical New Zealand bush with massive ferns and crazy trees everywhere, and at the mouth of the cave we noticed someone coming out as we were about to head in. The lady was one of six people we’d see all day on a Saturday at an awesome, free attraction. There was a stream running through the cave as is common in the caves we’ve visited on the north island so far, and we hopped right in. Light quickly disappeared, leaving us in absolute darkness, and on our headlamps went. We didn’t notice any of the eels that seem to be quite common throughout the north island, which was good since it was so dark it would have been a bit surprising to feel something snaking passed our legs.
As we looked toward the roof of the cave we saw the blue glow of the glow worms we had been first introduced to in Waitomo Caves, and later in Waipu Caves. As a recap, glow worms are in fact maggots that spin silk that they hang from their hammocks to catch bugs flying by, which they eat. They glow blue to attract the insects, so as long as the lights are out, they look like mesmerizing blue stars dotting the roofs of various caves throughout the country.
Once we made the short walk into the cathedral, or largest portion of the cave, we moved on through various narrow passages, and up and away from the stream. We spent quite some time in the cave before reaching a dead end that we couldn’t get passed, and turned around and headed out. If you take your time to take some pictures, which are incredibly hard to make turn out well, and admire the glow worms, expect to take 45 minutes to an hour in Organ Cave.
Next we wandered around through the bush for a bit trying to find the aptly named Middle Cave, until Sissy made the bright suggestion of using the wooden steps to get over a fence that’s passed Organ Cave as you face it from the path. A short walk through what would seem to be farmland brought us to a sign that read, “Middle Cave”. I promptly apologized for doubting Sissy’s choice to go in this direction and we went over another fence and into the much smaller cave.
This cave didn’t have many glow worms, but did have a really cool section near the end where the rock looked like something from another world. The lines in the cave all flowed in the same diagonal direction and looked like a hole had been torn over the years pretty violently, which we walked through to the dead end where the cave seems to have collapsed on itself sometime in the past. We barely got wet in this cave, which contrasted with Organ Cave, where we ended up submerged past our knees at one point.
The final cave, Ivy Cave, was a short walk further down the same path that took us to Middle Cave. We descended into the last cave in Abbey Caves and turned our headlamps back on. This cave started out with us in deep enough water, at times passing our knees, and quickly turned deeper. The further we ventured the deeper it got, until finally we were submerged to our chest in cold water, wandering through the cave toward a light we could see in the distance. After hitting a particularly deep spot in the water, we got to the end pool in the cave where we got out and scrambled out of the opening in the rock back to the sunny outside area.
The walk back to the road took us through the completion of the loop we began by passing through the three caves, and past some amazing looking rocks and flowers. We passed a homestead that looked particularly nice to spend a few nights if we had been traveling instead of on a weekend trip, and headed back to the road. In all we spent close to three hours on the trip, often stopping to snap some pictures or meander about, so it could be done faster or slower depending on if you have somewhere to be or not.
As a bonus we headed to the nearby Whangarei Falls in the middle of the town of Whangarei (pronounced Fangarei, as the letters W and H together in Maori make an F sound). There’s a small parking lot (car park) that has a short path leading to the top of the falls, and across a temporary looking bridge that runs over/past the funny looking old concrete “bridge” that probably spent more time under water than above it.
The falls are pleasant, although there was a good bit of trash in and around the bottom pool, but that’s to be expected when such a nice waterfall is literally in the middle of a decently sized (by NZ standards) town. There’s a path that leads you close to the falls to the right as you face the falls, and if you have sturdy enough shoes on and don’t mind getting wet and scrambling a little, a way to get behind the falls to the left. Be careful if you take the route to the left, it’s really slippery, but you can get almost to the middle of the falls pretty safely from there from behind.
On Your Way South
On your way back south, assuming you’re heading that way, you may check out Waipu Caves if you aren’t completely exhausted and have a few more hours to spend caving, and Piroa Falls, another beautiful, more picturesque falls on the way down. Enjoy!