New Zealand’s karst and cave systems act as a time capsule. As the cave environment is at a constant, all material breaks down slowly. Our caves store a unique fossil record of various time periods and the remains of many creatures, both living and extinct, can be found in the underworld. Cave formations also offer a window on the past as flowstones, stalagmites and stalactites contain layers which can be time stamped, storing records on past climates amongst other things. Caves are important for scientists, both now and into the future.

Caving is a unique experience and offers a chance to view a different side of New Zealand. They are an important recreational resource and medium for adventure. They also offer exploration with many kilometres of cave being discovered every year.

One of hundreds of tomos in the area, Te Tahi Cave, Hi Hi Tomo. The Charleston Conservation area is karst – a landscape where all water travels underground. Photo: Neil Silverwood

One of the most pristine areas of limestone, important equally for scientific and recreational reasons, is the Paparoa limestone Syncline, a 100 square-kilometre area of limestone on the West Coast of the South Island. There is perhaps no stronger case for land reclassification in New Zealand. The Paparoa National Park was gazetted primarily to preserve the largest area of lowland karst in the South Island. However, a large chuck of the limestone band was left out because of mining interests. Milburn Cement envisaged a grand-scale opencast limestone quarry, although that vision was never recognised.

As well as housing a vast network of caves, larger in fact than is contained within the boundaries of the national park, the area also houses one other secret, the only large limestone arch outside the Oparara Basin in the South Island. The current land status of stewardship land does not provide enough protection and a higher status is needed. National park status would not only protect the caves below ground but the forests above as well.

Photo: Neil Silverwood

The area is also significant for local iwi. In partnership with Ngāti Waewae the Department of Conservation carried out the Paparoa National Park Management Plan review in 2017. As such, and in line with the Ngāi Tahu treaty settlement, provisions for Mahinga Kai were made. The inclusion of the area into the park would solidify Māori rights to gather food within the area and help iwi to use the land.

In 2016, during the Paparoa National Park Management Plan review, the caving community and FMC put forward a strong case for reclassification. This marked a milestone in the park plan and the reclassification process was meant to begin in 2019. Unfortunately this work has not been prioritised and it is unclear if we will indeed see work done on this in the foreseeable future.

Why reclassify? The area has very high conservation and recreational values, but it remains at risk from mining. If it were to gain national park status it would become protected under schedule four of the Crown Minerals Act 1991 and be protected from mining. The process would protect both worlds. While there is some comfort that the reclassification process is a milestone, there is no evidence that the process will actually happen and unfortunately, unlike the Oparara development in another nearby area of karst, the process does not appear to be a priority.


This article is excerpted from the November 2019 edition of Backcountry Magazine titled “Forgotten Lands.” For more information or to subscribe to Backcountry, please visit https://www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry/.