After leaving Nelson, I headed over to New Zealand’s West Coast. I was tired of cities and towns and people and seeing the same things everywhere I went. After spending a day in Abel Tasman National Park, I just wanted to continue my time outdoors. I wanted to see more of the landscapes I had envisioned before coming to New Zealand. The West Coast seemed like the perfect place to go.
I took the bus from Nelson to Westport and checked in at the Trip Inn Hostel. The second I walked into my room, I met a woman who just happened to want to do all of the same things I was looking to do in the area. It was the perfect situation, seeing as she had a car and I didn’t. We made plans to spend the next few days together, but our first order of business was the Charleston Caves.
The upper West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a karst landscape. That means the land has a high concentration of limestone, and much of it has been formed by the erosion of that limestone. That’s where all the caves come in. You’ll find caves and other limestone formations allllll over the place.
New Zealand’s Charleston Caves
The particular caves I wanted to see are located in Charleston, New Zealand, just south of the town of Westport. These caves are a popular attraction in the area and attract hundreds of tourists for caving adventures. While they are generally referred to as the Charleston Caves, this cave system is actually called the Nile River Caves. The cave system lies within the Paparoa National Park, which is also home to the famous Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki.
The cave we explored is called Ananui, or Metro cave. Access to this cave is highly restricted by the DOC for the sake of preservation. Visitors can only enter the cave on a guided tour, and only one tour company has rights to the cave.
Underworld Adventures has sole access to Metro Cave. They lead a variety of caving trips, including a glowworm tour, cave rafting, and “adventure caving”. Black water rafting and squeezing through tiny tunnels isn’t my cup of tea, so I went on the Charleston Caves Glowworm Tour for a simple tour of the caves.
What I really love about this company is their dedication to preserving the cave and the passion they have for the landscape. Instead of pushing thousands of tourists through the cave every season to raise profits, they limit their visitor numbers. They set up minimal infrastructure within the cave, and have kept it as close to untouched as you can get. There are no lights inside the cave, no railings, just what nature put there.
Charleston Caves Tour
Since it was the middle of winter when I visited the West Coast, there weren’t many other tourists around. My travel buddy and I went on our tour on a Saturday morning, and we were the only ones there! Our guide picked us up at our hostel and drove us down to Charleston before starting the tour.
The first part of the journey required a short rail journey on the Rainforest Train. The ride takes about 15-20 minutes on a purpose-built bush tram through the forest. This was a great time to see the incredible beauty of the surrounding landscapes and get a few photos. The BBC’s “The Lost World” was filmed in the area, so you can imagine how Jurassic this place feels.
After the train ride, there is a short walk up to the cave (which does include quite a few stairs). Before entering the cave, we put on our bright yellow helmets. Besides having a light on them, the helmets themselves will come in handy when you’re playing limbo with the cave ceilings (I hit my head a couple of times).
We didn’t get very far into the cave before it started to get dark. As I said before, there are no lights inside the cave, so we had to rely completely on our helmet lights. I’ve been in caves before, but when you’re in a popular tourist cave, there are usually a few lights built in. It’s easy to forget how dark it truly is underground. Our guide instructed us to turn our lights off at one point so we could get a real sense of true darkness. We waited in the dark for a few minutes for the last of the light to leave our eyes, and by then you realize how much we as humans rely on light for balance and direction.
As we made our way through the cave, we saw all kinds of formations. The stalactites and stalagmites form so slowly over time, and yet they turn into these crazy images—like works of art. White rock that looks like stacks of teeth, or elephants, or a face, or whatever comes to mind, like when you’re looking up at the clouds. It all starts out as drops of water carving into the earth.
The best part of being on the tour by ourselves was that we were able to converse with the guide one-on-one. He told us all kinds of stories about the history of the cave, about the geology of caves in general, and about his favorite parts of this cave he had been through hundreds of times. That’s something you don’t get in a big group, so I consider us lucky to have had that personal interaction. And because it was the middle of winter and there were no other tours booked for the day, we were able to spend hours inside the cave, well beyond the usual 2-3 hour tour. Our guide had so much passion for what he was showing us, it made me care about it even more. That kind of energy is contagious.
Charleston Caves Glowworms
The tour we went on is advertised as a glowworm tour, but that’s not why I went. I felt like it was just an added bonus that we were able to see some glowworms while we were there. The “worms” weren’t glowing as brightly as they would be in the summer season, but we still got a great show. We turned off our flashlights and waited for the little blue lights to start appearing.
I was never quite sure what glowworms were before this tour. Because of the misnomer, it would seem obvious to assume they are worms—but they’re not. Our guide gave us an in-depth lesson on this subject, making the glowworms all the more spectacular. The life story of a glowworm is truly fascinating.
Glowworms are actually a flying insect similar to a mosquito. The “worms” we see glowing in the caves are the larvae. The larvae create a silk string (much like a spider web), which they hang from to catch their prey. The blue light emanating from the larvae is meant to attract food (small insects). The larvae create this blue light through an internal chemical process, which happens when they detect vibrations (sound) around them. That’s why you’ll notice the blue light getting stronger as you enter a new area of the cave—the larvae are responding to your vibrations.
Once the larva catches something to eat, it cocoons and soon becomes an adult. It is then tasked with finding a mate so it can start a new generation. There’s not a lot of time for this though, because adults are unable to feed. Females stay within a very small area after coming out of their cocoons, which makes finding a mate tough—the males have to find them and mate quickly to start the process all over again.
Metro Cave Entrance
After getting a glimpse of the glowworms, our guide took us to the main attraction of the Metro Cave—the original cave entrance. From a distance, it’s easy to see how much light pours in through this entrance. As you get closer, you realize just how massive the opening is. The arched entryway rose high above my head, making me feel tiny. The plants of the rainforest cover the rocks, and a small waterfall trickles just inside the cave.
It’s said that this is how the cave was first discovered. Decades ago, a man who lived nearby set off to map this place out on his own, and this is how he came in. I can only imagine what it must feel like to come across something so magical by accident.
After spending quite some time getting pictures and admiring the view, our group of 3 turned around and made our way back to the other side of the cave, back down the entryway, back onto the train, and back through the forest. I left the Charleston Caves beaming, knowing this would be one of the New Zealand experiences I remember for a long time to come.
Te Ananui Cave (aka Metro Cave, aka Charleston Caves)
Location: Charleston, New Zealand
Tour Operator: Underworld Adventures
Cost: Glowworm Cave Tour $120 NZD