An Underworld Adventure In Te Ananui

Posted April 28, 2014 by Charli Moore in Features

Paparoa National Park is often overlooked by travelers who drive the length of New Zealand’s Westland. With miles of unfettered wilderness to explore and only a few pockets of civilization along the way, it can be a tough order to see all that the West Coast has to offer.

However I urge you to add the limestone cliffs, canyons and caves of Paparoa to your South Island itinerary.

One of 14 National Parks in New Zealand, Paparoa is home to the famed Pancake Rocks and impressive blow holes that have been carved by the ocean waves at Dolomite Point. A favorite with visitors to the region, this short walking trail out onto the cliffs encompasses some impressive examples of Mother Nature at play.

Bordered by a lush coastal forest and miles of unspoilt sands, there’s reason enough to explore this region of the West Coast for its beauty alone. Yet my recent visit unearthed a rather more adventurous reason to place Paparoa at the top of your South island schedule.

An Adventure In Te Ananui

CC Steve Reekie

Underpinned by blocks of limestone it is the way in which the elements have carved into this soft rock that give the park a rather unique appeal. Deep beneath the rainforest that blankets the ground, over 8km of shafts, caverns and tunnels form a cave network nicknamed ‘The Metro’.

While forest birds such as tui, korimako and kereru migrate seasonally between Paproa’s coastal and upland forests, creatures of the underworld lurk beneath in a limestone maze.

The lively chatter that had followed us through the forest subsides as we reach the entrance.

Off limits to anyone without a certified caving certificate and a permit from the Department of Conservation, few have explored inside Te Ananui Cave.

Clad in vibrant orange neoprene and sporting a yellow hard hat I step off the bus and out into the lush surrounds of the Paparoa countryside.

Not a sentence I had envisaged ever writing, yet it perfectly describes the beginning of my underworld adventure.

My Journey Into The Underworld

Credit Underworld Adventures

Accessible via a short train ride through the lush forested flats of the National Park, The Metro welcomes just a handful of intrepid explores into its depths each day. Operating out of the small town of Charleston, Underworld Adventures offers the opportunity to explore a world shut off from the one in which we live.

A world in which light has no place. A world deep underground.

An experience of two parts I am to join the team of the Underworld Rafting Tour. A half day experience which combines caving with white water tubing. After brief train ride alongside the Nile River and a short hike to the entrance of the cave, anxiety grips me by the hand.

Water drips from the ceiling, trickling down giant white stalactites and dropping into puddle.

I claim to be an adventure traveler, this I know, but confined spaces are just not my cup of tea and the thought of traversing the 2km route underground has sent my mind into overdrive.

My heart is pounding and my mouth is dry. The lively chatter that had followed us through the forest subsides as we reach the entrance.

Protected by a locked gate, to restrict entry to only those with the necessary equipment and certifications, I feel the color drain from my cheeks when the guide turns the lock behind us.

The comedian of the group turns the conversation to the likelihood of disaster underground and recounts the plot line from ‘The Descent’ – a film in which nasty things happen to cavers. This does nothing to calm my nerves.

Going Deeper Underground

CC Lane Brown

However on taking my first few steps into the darkness curiosity prevails and very soon I’m so engaged in the alien world that my heart rate returns to a more sedate pace.

The light that was illuminating our path retreats until suddenly the darkness swallows us whole.

A path that was once engulfed in solid limestone rock is now unfurling in front of me. A tunnel emerges from the darkness and the outlines of gargantuan boulders and calcium deposits are visible.

Water drips from the ceiling, trickling down giant white stalactites and dropping into puddles that have etched away at the rock floor. In its natural state the cave has not been customised for the tour, other than a rope delineating the path we must follow it remains unaffected by the outside world.

Navigating Through The Metro

Credit Underworld Adventures

As we navigate away from the entrance the light that was illuminating our path retreats until suddenly the darkness swallows us whole. The light from the torch attached to my hard hat projects from my forehead like a laser, illuminating the alien architecture around me.

Cavernous spaces appear at the end of narrow paths, water trickles down increasingly intricate organic calcium forms and the walls undulate in and out like the banks of a flowing river.

I can still hear my heart thundering in my ears.

As we reach the lower level of the cave it becomes evident that flood water breaches this area of the route and my nerves kick in again as my imagination spins into overdrive.

Despite fearing my imagination would manifest disaster, no wall of water appears and we continue descending until the recognizable sound of flowing water fills the air.

I’ve haven’t yet mentioned that throughout the tour I’ve been carrying with me a giant rubber tube, which looks suspiciously like it used to be inside a truck tire in a previous life. The reason for such an addition may not be clear, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

Star Gazing 60ft Down

Credit Underworld Adventures

Our guide throws down her tube and the noise sends a shock wave of sound through the cave. A thunderous explosion it terrifies the stuffing out of me and I almost expect the ceiling to fall in on my head.

Of course the ceiling remains stock still although I can still hear my heart thundering in my ears.

Daylight bursts through the opening as the water level drops.

Laying my tube in the shallows I sit with my arms and legs outstretched and link up with the other members of the group.

A train of orange neoprene and rubber tubes we float away from the rock. Just as I start to relax and look around to locate which way the river will take us, our guide instructs me to turn off my light.

Reaching up above my head I can feel a shallow ceiling and realize that we’re floating through a tunnel. Just as my heart rate begins to quicken a thousand celestial forms erupt against the jet black sky.

We have emerged into a glow worm grotto!

Said to be the best display of glow worms anywhere in New Zealand, this element of the trip is worth braving the depths of The Metro’s underground maze, even if you have to hold hands with your anxiety the entire way through.

Floating beneath the blanket of tiny lights we are carried through the remainder of the Te Ananui cave system by the current, and soon arrive at the Nile River. Daylight bursts through the opening as the water level drops and we are grounded momentarily.

Collecting our tubes and walking the few meters to the main flow of the river we are launched out into the white water and carried by the current once more.

With instructions to keep my buttocks within the tube but above the waterline I do my best to navigate the rapids without receiving a river rock smack to my behind.

Safely ashore, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I leave my tube by the river and walk back to the train.

My Underworld Adventure

Credit Underworld Adventures

An adventure like no other during my stay here in New Zealand, my Underworld Adventure is one that I’ll not soon forget.

Fusing adrenaline with the concept of exploration in a pristine environment of incredible natural beauty, the team at Underworld Adventures offer a unique experience that is well worth deviating to Paparoa National Park for.

Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by Underworld Adventures, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Have you ever explored underground? Share your comments with us below.

About the Author

Charli Moore

Travel writer and blogger Charli is a digital nomad currently travelling the world with her other half Ben. Whether backpacking through Central America or road tripping around Australia they embrace each and every opportunity for adventure. Read more about their insatiable wanderlust on their blog, Wanderlusters.

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