Added by Alex Tande
Not nearly as popular as some of the walking tracks along the west coast highway 6. The walk leading to the cave offers a fun trip through the forest, along a river bed, and up a scramble to the cave. The walk to the cave is only half the fun, once reaching the cave, putting on a head torch and exploring the stalagmites and stalactites is a great experience!
There are a few different options while exploring this track. The first is making your way all the way to the entrance of the caves. The second is making your way to where the trail splits, one way heading up towards the cave, and the other abruptly ends at a big river crossing. The third is to make your way through the cave and continue on past it. The third option is covered in a different adventure called "Ballroom Overhang"
The car park for this hike is just off Hwy 6 on the west coast. located about 12km north of Punakaiki. There is a green and yellow DOC sign labeling the turn off, "Fox River Caves". Parking is ample and the entrance to the track is obvious.
The hike starts out very flat, and easy. It follows a very clear path as it winds its way through some heavily forested path. As you work your way through, keep your eyes peeled for weka and pukeka, both are ground birds that inhabit much of New Zealand. The first half of the trek is flat and straight forward. It is littered with a few tougher patches that involve big steps that are man made. Nothing that will cause any issues, but a an awareness for anybody that has some knee issues, there will be some up and down. When I completed the trek, it had been raining for a few days, so there was a lot of wet, muddy spots. Overall it was doable to work around the outsides of the track and avoid the wettest parts, but it is quite likely that there will be some soggy spots that require some work arounds, or the acceptance to plant your foot in the middle of some mud puddles.
The trail will spit you out into the middle of a river bed. The trail becomes sparsely marked as you trek along the rocky bed. Keep your eyes peeled for those orange triangles put up by DOC. The time in the river bed is minimal, little less than kilometer. This is a time you need to be careful, BE AWARE of water conditions. If the water is high and rushing, DO NOT cross. Be careful and use your judgement. One the trail heads back into the bush, it starts to climb. As you climb, be careful as there are some creeks and little waterfalls through the path, creating wet, slippery rocks. Ensure your footing and go slowly.
The trail will split, one direction heading up towards the mouth of the cave, and the other abruptly ends at a big river crossing. There is a sign clearly labeled telling you which way towards the caves. It is certainly worth a look across the river. The water color is unique and it is a beautiful view with high cliffs and the bush behind the river.
Once the trail splits, this is the beginning of the section that deems this track an intermediate level. After the split, the trail starts to increase in elevation. It is gradual at the start, but continues to climb. The last half kilometer to the cave is a very steep ascent. The track covers boulders and is a scramble up to the mouth of the cave. If the rocks are wet at all, they become slippery and the danger increases. In the last half kilometer, you ascend about 150 meters scrambling over the boulders which can be wet and moss covered.
Once you reach the mouth of the cave, take your time to read some of the signage in the area. There is some great information about what was happening with the cave in the early days of NZ. Follow the path into the overhang to see the lower cave. The upper cave is the one that you can enter. At this point in time, you will need a torch or flashlight. It is truly pitch black inside the cave, and there are some sections that are very dangerous footing. Lights are a requirement.
As you work your way through the caves, be very careful about footing. There is a section that winds along a narrow ledge with a deep gap between the two sides. An overhang prevents the ability to stand up completely. It is not a very comfortable walk for part of the cave. It does open up and you can stand up completely and explore a bit. There is a path through the entire cave, but at times, the caves can be flooded. With any hike, use your best discretion and hike within your own limits.
The caves provide a chance to explore some territory that most of us are unfamiliar with. It is important to remember to not touch the walls, stalagmites, or stalactites. The oils on our hands can damage the caves, and cause lots of damages to geographical features that have taken years to develop.
Heading back out of the caves and back towards the car, the descent is more perilous than the ascent. Footing can be tougher to find, and it is easier to rush. Take your time and make sure each footstep is solid and secure before moving.
Once you reach the car park, I would encourage you to move quickly while getting out of trekking gear and into driving clothes. The sandflys can be brutal. I took my boots off since there were covered in mud, and promptly got in the car. Drove into Punakaiki, got myself a well deserved ice cream cone and changed out of my trekking clothes.
This is an incredible hike, as long as you stay with in your limitations and be safe. If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, don't continue. Enjoy the gorgeous place!
- Sturdy boots
- Head torch!!!! Bright one!
- Sand fly protection
- Sun protection
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