A Personal Caving Adventure in Clifden Caves

On the road again! Today, we leave the comforts of the Lumsden Hotel and hit the road towards Tuatapere. Somewhere in between, we’ll do some casual caving for an hour or so… Because that’s what you do when you’re backpacking in New Zealand!

Sheepish Southland

So far, we’ve noticed that Southland has a very typical landscape when driving through: fields and fields and fields and, guess what? Fields and fields of sheep! You know all those sheepy stereotypes you have probably heard about New Zealand? Well, Southland is that living and breathing stereotype.

Nevertheless, it’s just another aspect of New Zealand’s diverse landscape. We can see layers of landscape where the scene starts to change in the distance: flat fields turn into rolling green hills that turn into higher tussock hills that have a backdrop of snowy mountains in Fiordland National Park.

For now, we’ve found out where all the long straight roads have been hiding in New Zealand.

Arriving at Clifden Caves

Soon enough, we reach the “green rolling hills” section of our road trip. But who would have thought that underneath these sheep grazing fields hides a cave network that takes about 1-2 hours to get through?! We have to check Clifden Caves out! What’s more, it’s free!

We arrive at a small yet pumping car park where across the road is a sign to the “limestone caves” with the entrance hidden just under a hill covered in sheep. A sign at the entrance says: “Warning! This cave is prone to flooding. Do not enter during or after heavy rainfall.” Well, there hasn’t been any rain for a couple of days but it still begs the question: where the hell are we going?!

Awesome limestone formations around every corner! Awesome limestone formations around every corner!
The glowworms' tiny strands of sticky stuff. Yum. The glowworms' tiny strands of sticky stuff. Yum.
The badass caver shot The badass caver shot
Not much room for error Not much room for error

Scrambling and squeezing

Headtorch on, a torch grasped in hand (or flashlight for you Americans), and our phones charged for back-up torches, we are ready to delve into Clifden Caves.

Already, some (overweight) people who we saw enter the caves before us have turned around. The Clifden Caves are not for everyone… What we thought would be a casual walk in the caves quickly turns into a scramble as we squeeze down narrow gaps. This has quickly turned into a caving adventure.

Glowworm grotto

As we crouch through the cave, we notice the odd glowworm above our heads slowly turn into a grotto of glowworms. They’re everywhere! Plus, with some sections of low ceiling, we can really get a close look at their sticky strands used to catch insects. We even see the maggot itself at the top of the strand with its light moving up and down its body. It’s fascinating to watch!

The colander helmet crew

There isn’t much other wildlife hidden down in the Clifden Caves other than perhaps three groups of tourists that we meet along the way. There’s a group wearing helmets, which is a smart idea albeit one guy has literally duck-taped a colander to his head. There’s also an Australian lady we meet called Penny. We cave with her for a while before she shoots off ahead (we are always taking too long to take photos). Finally, we find a sheep bone lying beside a rock pool… At least, we think it’s a sheep bone…

From glowworms to stalactites, check out the amazing Clifden Caves

Following markers

Markers and arrows throughout the cave keep us on the right track – without them, we’d be totally lost. Despite there being two early exits out of the cave, we are determined to make it all the way to the end. The further through the cave we go the more glad we are with our decision. The limestone formations decorate the cave walls with tiny stalactites and other long lines creamy white limestone. These have taken hundreds and thousands of years to form so we make sure not to touch them.

Limestone formations

Where the ceiling has been formed by acidic groundwater seeping into the caves and dissolving the calcium carbonate to create these formations, the ground is formed by the water that has flooded into the cave. Perfectly circular potholes provide obstacles to get over. Some small and easy enough to step over. Others… Well, this proves to be our biggest challenge in the Clifden Caves…

Penny, the crazy shoe lady, coming across the treacherous pool Penny, the crazy shoe lady, coming across the treacherous pool
Ladders into empty potholes Ladders into empty potholes
Leaving the underworld behind Leaving the underworld behind

The clifden cave challenge

We catch up with Penny who says there is a pool up ahead that is difficult to cross. “I am stupid enough to come into a cave by myself but I am not stupid to try and cross that by myself,” Penny says. We decide to check it out all together.

Along the way, a girl from the colander helmet crew has turned back because she can’t do this next section with a sprained wrist. Now we’re just getting more nervous…

The pool of doom

Hell! Penny wasn’t joking. The only way across this pool without going for a cold swim is to walk across a narrow ledge which is just submerged in the water, then either crawl across the rest of the ledge that is out of the water (if you can fit), or use an overhang above to hold yourself onto the ledge… With a backpack full of camera gear, this is not going to be easy.

Robin goes first to check out the situation. He makes it across using the climbing technique. (There’s no way his lanky body is crawling along the ledge). All seems Ok, but only if we do it the right way. First, we need to take off our shoes.

Laura goes first, making it across slowly but easily enough. Robin follows with the heavy backpack. With one hand he holds onto the overhang, with the other he takes the backpack off his back for Laura to grab from the other side. He makes it across. Phew! Finally, Penny wearing an extravagant display of shoes tied around her neck makes her way across the best she can with so many muddy shoe obstructions along the way.

We made it!

Man, it feels good to be able to get past that obstacle! Now we have a series of ladders to climb into giant empty potholes, up narrow gaps and down into God-knows-where.

By this point, we’ve said goodbye to Penny who has to drive all the way to Dunedin so we are left climbing ladders in the dark and navigating over shallow pools until…

Emerging back to reality

“I see the light!!” Laura calls. We crawl out onto the muddy grass. We made it! After about four hours (we were, filming, Ok? Don’t judge us for taking twice the time), we have finally made it out of the caves. It feels good. It feels like an achievement… Until, we walk two minutes down the road back to the campervan… TWO MINUTES! On one hand, what an awesome caving adventure. On the other hand, we’re kind of p*ssed!

A nice surprise

Those feelings quickly leave us when we arrive back at the van with a note and a packet of chocolate is strapped to our van door handle saying: “Thank you for the caving adventure.” N’aw, Penny, that is so nice! Thank you!

Onwards to Tuatapere!

Muddy and hungry as hell, we rock up at the Tuatapere Backpackers. As Tuatapere is the “Sausage Capital of New Zealand” we get ourselves some sausages from Murray at the Shooters cafe and bar, some potatoes from Four Square and cook up some classic “bangers and mash”. As expected, they are the best sausages we’ve had in New Zealand!

Join us tomorrow where we are heading into the southern end of the Fiordland National Park on the Humpridge Track!

Laura and Robin

Climbing further down into the Clifden Caves
Climbing further down into the Clifden Caves Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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