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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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Caves are natural underground spaces, commonly those into which man can enter. There are three major types: the most widespread and extensive are those developed in soluble rocks, usually limestone or marble, by underground movement of water; on the coast are those formed in cliffs generally by the concentrated pounding of waves along joints and zones of crushed rock; and a few caves are formed in lava flows, where the solidified outer crust is left after the molten core has drained away to form rough tunnels, like those on the small basalt volcanoes of Auckland.

Karst topography is typical limestone landscape characterised by high cliffs, grotesque rock outcrops, no familiar pattern of ridges and valleys, funnelshaped basins to which the Maori word tomo is applied, and few surface streams. Because of its extremely rugged, waterless nature, karst country in New Zealand is frequently in dense native bush.

Limestone of all ages, ranging from geologically recent times to more than 450 million years ago, is found in many parts of New Zealand, although it is not all cavernous. Many caves have been discovered, but hundreds still remain to be explored. The most notable limestone areas for caves are the many hundreds of square miles of Te Kuiti Group (Oligocene) rocks from Port Waikato south to Mokau and from the coast inland to the Waipa Valley – especially in the Waitomo district; and the Mount Arthur Marble (upper Ordovician) of the mountains of north-west Nelson (fringed by thin bands of Oligocene limestone in the valleys and near the coast).

Sedimentary rocks (including limestone) are usually laid down in almost horizontal layers or beds which may be of any thickness, but most commonly of 2–3 in. These beds may accumulate to a total thickness of several hundreds of feet. Pure limestone is brittle, and folding due to earth movements causes cracks along the partings, and joints at angles to them. Rain water percolates down through the soil and the fractures in the underlying rocks to the water table, below which all cavities and pores are filled with water. This water, which is usually acidic, dissolves the limestone along the joints and, once a passage is opened, it is enlarged by the abrasive action of sand and pebbles carried by streams. Extensive solution takes place between the seasonal limits of the water table. Erosion may continue to cut down into the floor, or silt and pebbles may build up floors and divert stream courses. Most caves still carry the stream that formed them.

Caves in the softer, well-bedded Oligocene limestones are typically horizontal in development, often with passages on several levels, and frequently of considerable length. Gardner's Gut, Waitomo, has two main levels and more than 4½ miles of passages. Plans of caves show prominent features, such as long, narrow, straight passages following joint patterns as in Ruakuri, Waitomo, or a number of parallel straights oriented in one or more directions like Te Anaroa, Rockville. Vertical cross sections of cave passages may be tall and narrow following joints, as in Burr Cave, Waitomo; large and ragged in collapse chambers, like Hollow Hill, Waitomo (255 yd long, 65 yd wide, and 100 ft high); low and wide along bedding planes, as in Luckie Strike, Waitomo; or high vertical water-worn shafts, like Rangitaawa Shaft (300 ft), Waitomo. Caves in the harder, massive Mount Arthur Marble (a metamorphosed limestone) are mainly vertical in development, many reaching several hundreds of feet, the deepest known being Harwood Hole, Takaka (1,215 ft).

The unique beauty of caves lies in the variety of mineral encrustations which are found sometimes completely covering walls, ceiling, and floor. Stalactites (Gk. stalaktos, dripping) are pendent growths of crystalline calcium carbonate (calcite) formed from solution by the deposition of minute quantities of calcite from percolating ground water. They are usually white to yellow in colour, but occasionally are brown or red. Where water evaporates faster than it drips, long thin straws are formed which may reach the floor or thicken into columns. If the source of water moves across the ceiling, a thin drape, very like a stage curtain, is formed. Helictites are stalactites that branch or curl. Stalagmites (Gk. stalagmos, that which dripped) are conical or gnarled floor growths formed by splashing, if the water drips faster than it evaporates. These may grow toward the ceiling to form columns of massive proportions. Where calcite is deposited by water spreading thinly over the walls or floor, flowstone is formed and pools of water may build up their edges to form narrow walls of rimstone. Gypsum (calcium sulphate) is a white cave deposit of many crystal habits which are probably dependent on humidity. The most beautiful form is the gypsum flower which extrudes from a point on the cave wall in curling and diverging bundles of fibres like a lily or orchid.

The best known cave inhabitants are glow worms, which are larvae or grubs that later develop into rarely seen small flies. Glow worms, almost transparent and having luminous tail portions, are sometimes found in small numbers in bush gullies or under banks, but above quietly flowing underground streams not far from cave entrances they are to be seen in tens of thousands. Other common cave dwellers are cave wetas (crickets), with long legs and very long antennae. Although extremely agile, they are not as ferocious in appearance as their bush relations and are quite harmless.

by Leslie Owen Kermode, B.A., Geological Survey Station, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Otahuhu.


Leslie Owen Kermode, B.A., Geological Survey Station, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Otahuhu.