It began with a chance conversation: a friend at the University of Otago telling of a colleague who had been telephoned by a stranger in the United States wanting to know about “amazing sea caves” somewhere around Dunedin.
When I tracked down Allan Anderson, fisherman and part-time eco-tourism operator, to the picturesque and sleepy village of Karitane, 30 km north of Dunedin, he had just completed his crayfish‑
ing season several weeks ahead of schedule. I’d hit an unexpected patch of calm, blue-sky days, too. Time and tide being in alignment, I was soon struggling into a wet suit on the deck of Allan’s commercial fishing boat as it bounced across the notorious sand-bar at the mouth of the Waikouaiti estuary and surged over the bay to Matanaka, the headland at the north end of Waikouaiti Beach.
This bay is the stuff of legends, the history of New Zealand tucked into just a few square kilometres. A plentiful source of kai moana, it was a strategic stronghold for pre-European Maori, evidenced by signs of a large, fortified pa on Karitane’s Huriawa Peninsula.
Then came the whalers and sealers. Southern right whales were hunted from in the bay and processed on its beaches. Among the whalers was giant James (Tiemi) Apes, the son of American Indian William Elisha Apes, who was of Pequot descent and married Mata Punahere of Ngai Tahu. Two metres tall and weighing over 100 kg, James Apes was renowned for needing two men to row against him to prevent the whaling boat simply going round in circles. And he used to manhandle the heavy vessels single-handedly, carrying them up the beach upside down over his head.
Farming soon followed. John Jones, a colourful and entrepreneurial figure in colonial New Zealand, established a prosperous farm at Matanaka in 1843, five years before the founding of Dunedin.
The stories go on. None of them mentions the caves.
Disgorged into a bright-yellow sea kayak, with Allan sitting behind me, I found it hard to discern what point on Matanaka (also known as Cornish Head) we should be steering for.one of the curiosities of the caves there is their anonymity, accounted for by the fact that their mouths are unremarkable fissures in the cliff-face. Within, they balloon to caverns, some as much as 13 m wide and at least that high, and reaching up to a couple of hundred metres inland.
“They sound intriguing… I’ve not heard of sea-caves you can paddle into in New Zealand,” confessed DOC’s Ian Millar when he heard my description. Millar’s role includes the management of caves in the Nelson–Marlborough district.
“The shape is interesting, because most sea-caves are fairly consistent in shape or they open out at the entrance, not the other way round. And sea-caves are also usually more limited in length because they are formed solely by the mechanical action of the waves.”
Although members of the New Zealand Speleological Society have mapped some 300 North Island and 250 South Island caves, most lie within just two major areas: Waitomo–King Country in the North Island and Nelson–West Coast in the South. The Matanaka caves are well off the speleological track.
The so-called Caversham Sandstone, which is found from Dunedin to Shag Point, about 45 km north of the city, shouldn’t contain caves, according to Chuck Landis, former associate professor of geology at the University of Otago. However, it turns out that when the sandstone was deposited in relatively shallow water some 19 million years ago, in certain spots the calcareous remains of marine animals were also deposited, making up what is termed the Goodwood Limestone. And limestone is, of course, ideal cave country.
“The Matanaka caves appear to have been formed by freshwater dissolving seams of limestone and leaving cavities in the sandstone,” said Landis, who, in 30 years at the university, hadn’t heard of the caves either. “They may well have had no entrance prior to wave erosion during the last 6500 years, meaning the sea has revealed the caves, which were already there, but hasn’t played a significant role in creating them.”
“This cave’s called Noisy,” Allan said as our kayak rode the swell in front of a one-metre-by-one-metre crack in the rock.
This was the first cave that Allan had explored—as a 10-year-old. He and his two brothers, aged 12 and six, had “borrowed” a heavy old lifeboat to go fishing, and, out of the sort of curiosity that kills cats, had rowed it into the dark gap.
“We nosed the boat into the crack and discovered to our surprise that the hole got larger. We edged in further, it got darker and the cave was filled with noise. Our imaginations went wild and we got out as quick as we could,” he said.
Once Allan took up sea-kayaking seven years ago, he began exploring the area properly, this time with a strong torch.
“I quickly realised there was more here than I’d ever heard talk about. Not counting the archways, there are about 10 navigable caves, some of them with multiple branches, and each one unique,” he said.
The first cave we entered was the Pink Cathedral, named after the highly coloured coral-line algae that coat the walls. Outside, the sun shone and the surf crashed, but we were paddling into an increasingly still, quiet and dark world. Deep inside, a flat layer of fog hung 50 cm above the water surface. Deeper still and we were paddling in pitch-darkness. Allan turned on a battery-powered lantern, suddenly revealing the beautiful spindly fingers and glistening mounds of white-brown stalactites, some tinged with dark-green stains.
Off the Pink Cathedral was the Caramel Cave, with a low-slung roof covered in stalactites. Allan pointed out one formation that looked like the top jaw of a shark swimming straight at us out of the rock. We clambered out of the kayak onto a rocky shelf dotted with smooth, white stalagmites. But taking my attention from the pitted surface of the sandstone shelf itself was a series of bowls, most containing one or more rounded stones, each presumably enlarging its bowl in mortar-and-pestle fashion.
When I spoke to them subsequently, Landis and Millar were uncertain about the cause of a strong sulphurous odour that Allan and I smelt in the back half of the Pink Cathedral, especially since there is no known thermal activity in the area. Millar had heard of thin coal seams and iron pyrite, or fool’s gold, being associated with sulphurous smells but there was little if any of those here, Landis said. Decomposing organic matter is another source of such odours, but nothing of the sort was evident.
Each cave has its own distinctive and fascinating features. Coopers Cave has narrow, pitch-black arms branching off it. The Whispering Cave often echoes with “voices”. Tomo’s Crack has an underwater geyser that soaks unsuspecting visitors. Allan’s Mistake can only be accessed by submerging your kayak and dragging it against the strong surge. Gemma’s Cave holds a calf-deep golden-pebbled beach in its furthest reaches. They were a wonderland that took my breath away.
The marine fauna of the caves held some surprises too. The back beach of the Pink Cathedral was teeming with sand hoppers, including what, in my experience, was the mother of all sand hoppers—bright pink, three centimetres long, with strong, almost weta-like antennae. On the walls, Allan pointed out what looked like the biggest slaters I had ever seen. And in the crystal-clear waters of the Pink Cathedral and Caramel Cave, among what Allan readily identified as standard crayfish, were some critters 15 cm long he said he hadn’t seen in all his years as a fisherman but which looked like a cross between a crayfish and a shrimp.
Niel Bruce, at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in Wellington, was sent specimens for identification. The “giant slater” was “a large isopod…almost certainly Ligia novaezealandiae…although it is bigger than those I have seen up here.”
The “crayfish” was actually a shrimp, Alope spinifrons. There are two Alope species locally, one widespread in the Indo-Pacific region, the other confined to New Zealand. The Matanaka shrimp, with its beautiful, irregular, green-onorange stripes and enlarged, rod-like frontal legs, was the endemic species, Bruce said. “They are well known but not much is known about them,” he said. “I don’t know what the rod-like maxillipeds are used for; perhaps for digging at algae.”
It was the big, pink sand hoppers that caused the most interest. They were amphipods of the genus Orchestia, only rather larger than normal.
“At three centimetres long they are really big. Other Orchestia species are normally only half this size. And every other one I’ve looked at has been smooth-bodied, whereas these have distinctive ridges across the top of the body.”
After further investigation, Bruce was able to confirm the giant sand hopper as the little known Orchestia aucklandiae, the largest species of the genus and recorded only from Otago and Auckland Island.
On the wall above the pebble beach in Gemma’s Caves was, for a historian like myself, probably the most exciting discovery of all: engraved initials and a date—“WHB 1892”. To think that someone had been into these caves 113 years before, that they had penetrated this far into the blackness, had stood on the same spot and engraved the letters and numerals now lit by 21st century torch light, sent shivers up my spine.
To find the inscription was magic. The way I found its originator seemed pure serendipity.
Dunedin City Council has a database of most of the city’s cemeteries, and I cajoled an unconvinced archivist into humouring me in my needle-in-a-haystack search by looking to see how many WHBs were listed in the Waikouaiti cemetery. There was only one: a William Henry Brown, who died in 1944 aged 79. I looked up Stone’s Otago and Southland directory of householders. There were no W.H. Browns in Waikouaiti in 1893, but there was one 80 km up the road in Oamaru. By 1898 this person was listed as “horse proprietor, Waikouaiti” and in 1908 as “stud proprietor”.
My first couple of calls to present-day Waikouaiti Browns were fruitless. One of the people I tried suggested the initials probably belonged to a member of the Bannatyne family, who had owned a farm at Matanaka in 1892. Cemetery records, however, revealed no W.H. Bannatyne.
In the meantime a Michelle Brown told me her husband’s uncle was the family historian, and a couple of days later I received a call from him: Lindsay Brown, chancellor of the University of Otago.
“My grandfather was William Henry Brown, and he was 27 years old in 1892, about the time he worked on the farm at Matanaka,” he explained. “He later owned a dairy farm at Waikouaiti and bred racehorses, one of which was reputed to be the unofficial sire of Harold Logan, a top trotter of its day.
“We used to have family holidays at Waikouaiti and would go fishing at Matanaka. I have vague recollections of my late father talking with his brothers about interesting caves on the headland which they had never visited but somehow knew about.”
Later that week my mystery 19th-century caver had not just a name but also a face, as the handsome features of William Brown smiled at me from one of the family’s precious historic photographs.
Final comment on the caves belongs to my guide, Allan.
“Most cave systems the average person has access to have steps and lighting and you go through them in crowds. It’s so unnatural. I’d hate to see that here. What I would like is for DOC or the local community to take guardianship of these caves so they can be protected.
“Where else can you see such amazing caves in such a pristine state and be virtually alone when you experience them? Almost nothing has altered in these caves, and I’d rather stop bringing people here than see them damaged.”