If you’re up for a bit of an expedition, you’ll get a proper reward here in the Ōpārara Basin in Kahurangi National Park on the West Coast, 25km north of Karamea.
Created over a million years of steady erosion by the tannin-stained Ōpārara River are three elegant arches cut through the 35 million year-old granite and limestone.
You can read all about their formation in the information boards at the car park and then enjoy a pleasant walk through lush, fern-filled beech and rimu rainforest, home to many birds including kākā and, enjoying the rapids at the river, the rare whio, or blue duck.
It’s a primitive and fragile eco-system that’s marvellous to see, but visitors should continue the good work begun by those who halted logging here back in the 1980s by taking care not to damage it in any way.
* A guide to Kahurangi National Park: When to go, where to stay and what to do
* New Zealand’s best secret walks for summer
* Karamea: The last little town on the West Coast
* The Heaphy’s Enchanted Forest
Because, according to the Department of Conservation, the main arch is the biggest in the southern hemisphere at 43m high, 79m wide and 219m long. It is certainly properly impressive: a huge and graceful curve above your head, artfully lit from both directions, with reflections below in the dark waters of the river.
There are steps inside, leading up to a viewpoint from where the entrances, fringed with mosses and ferns, picturesquely frame the surrounding bush. Short-tailed bats live here – and wētā – and the really lucky might even spot a giant land snail.
Be prepared for a slow, narrow, winding and bumpy 16km drive along an unsealed road to the car park and then a well-made 2km track with steps. Good shoes are recommended, and you’ll appreciate having a torch for some of the caves.
If your vehicle isn’t suitable – height restrictions disqualify big campervans – you can hire a car for the day in Karamea. Picnickers will be visited by bold weka.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
Take the easy loop walking track to the well-named Mirror Tarn and the 19m high Moria Gate Arch of Lord of the Rings fame for some more striking sights, including moa footprints in the rock. It’s well worth the optional clamber down into the cave for the satisfying photo opportunity.
If you continue past the Ōpārara Arches, 2.5km further along the road there is an easy track to the Crazy Paving Cave and Box Canyon to explore too, where, if you look closely, there are fossils to spot in the limestone, drip formations overhead to see and glow-worms.
If you want even more caves, consider booking the Honeycomb Hill Cave option with Ōpārara Guided Tours in Karamea, to explore areas not accessible to the general public because of their important content of the fossilised bones of moa and other extinct birds.
It will cost you only effort and patience, for which you will be generously rewarded.
BEST TIME TO GO
Ideally choose a fine day, as rain can make the going slippery – although with the compensation of a small waterfall inside the main arch. See westcoast.co.nz