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June 2008

 

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New cave discovered in ancient mountain

26 Jun 2008

Cavers exploring deep inside Kahurangi National Park, in the north west of New Zealand’s South Island, have discovered a new passage through rock that is 500 million years old.

A six strong caving party found the passage after a nine-hour underground journey into Bulmer Cavern, Mt Owen. The cavern is New Zealand’s longest cave system with 55km of passages.

One of the six cavers Neil Silverwood, a 31-year-old student, says he has been caving in the area since he was 16 and has spent more than 100 days and nights in Mt Owen but was unprepared for the latest find.

"We had a bit of a breakthrough and found a stunning passage," Silverwood said.

"It would be one of the most beautiful passages in New Zealand, full of knee-high crystals ... the other guys said it was the highlight of their caving careers."

Kahurangi’s world class caves
The geologically complex Kahurangi National Park has some of the deepest caves in the world.

Metre-long helictites, formed by water slowly evaporating, were recently discovered growing sideways out of the wall in one passage.

"They're the biggest in New Zealand and world-class stuff. Before we found them we didn't know these formations existed here," said Silverwood.

Other rare finds included angels' hair, which look like crystal pick-up sticks.

The mountain, like Mt Takaka and Mt Arthur - other mountains in the region - has such good caves because the marble rock, which is about 500 million years old, dissolves with water action.

Silverwood said the oldest of the passages was estimated to be about a million years old.

It was possible there could be another 50km of tunnels under Mt Owen that remained undiscovered, according to Silverwood and his team.

Camping in the mountain
The cavers’ original forays into the area were day trips that lasted up to 16 hours. But in 1996 a permanent camp was established deep inside the mountain with sleeping bags, a cooker, stereo and supply of food.

Two years later, cavers came to the end of the first system but cold air coming through rock gave a hint that there were more caves. After some judicious digging a whole new system of caves was found.

"We were spending a week at a time underground," Silverwood said.

"We were pretty excited, just coming out for a few days and then going under again. Mostly we're just driven by exploration and seeing what's around the next corner," he said.

More information:

Kahurangi Park: Oparara walking network

Hiking in Kahurangi Park

Caving in New Zealand


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