Tucked away on the very northern edge of New Zealand’s South Island is one of the best natural features of the entire country. Here you’ll find New Zealand’s Oparara Basin, a wildly beautiful complex of limestone features.
The sleepy town of Karamea is the literal end of the road—you can’t go any further north on the South Island’s West Coast without your walking shoes. Because of this, the town itself is not as frequented by tourists as other parts of New Zealand. A good portion of visitors actually arrive by foot at the end their walk on the Heaphy Track, one of the country’s nine Great Walks.
Karamea is quite isolated, but it’s the gateway to a natural playground. Outdoor adventurers love this place. There are tons of hiking trails, the Kahurangi National Park, access to the Heaphy Track, and (the reason I went) the Oparara Basin.
Visiting the Oparara Basin
The Oparara Basin is a karst landscape within Kahrungi National Park, around 45 minutes north of town. It is home to magnificent caves, arches, and other limestone features carved out by the Oparara River. The temperate rainforest feels wild yet serene. This is a great place to explore for a day, with plenty of short walks to choose from.
You can also expect to see plenty of Weka around here
Oparara Basin Short Walks
The Oparara Arch is the largest natural rock arch in the Southern Hemisphere. It measures in at 200m long, 49m wide, & 37m high. The arch is incredibly huge; standing beneath it makes you feel absolutely tiny and fills you with true wonder and amazement.
The short walk to the arch takes about 25 minutes each way. Allow a full hour for the walk and linger nearby for photos.
The path to this walk is across from the restroom & picnic area at the Oparara carpark. You’ll first come across a small hole in the rocks, which will lead you to the riverbank beneath the Moria Gate Arch. I was skeptical at first, but once you are through the entrance, it opens up with plenty of space to move around. There is a chain near the entrance to help you climb back up.
If you are just going to this point and back, allow about 30 minutes. You can also continue on to see the arch from the other side of the river.
The Mirror Tarn is a glassy, reflective pond. You can quickly walk here from the second carpark, in about 15 minutes. I’d recommend doing the loop walk, which takes you past the Mirror Tarn, and over to the Moria Gate Arch and cave. Allow an hour and half to walk the full loop and explore the various features.
Crazy Paving & Box Canyon Caves
These small caves are a short walk from the Cave carpark and are linked by a trail. The first cave is home to cave spiders, and you can find (disgusting but very cool) egg sacks hanging from the ceiling. It is a really interesting thing to see up close. Descend into the second cave where it is very dark (bring a flashlight), and wander around. It’s a small area, so don’t worry about getting lost.
Honeycomb Hill Cave
The Honeycomb Hill Caves are well-known for the vast collection of bird fossils, including Moa bones. This specialty area has restricted access, so you can only see it a part of a guided tour.
How to Get to the Oparara Basin
To get to Karamea, you’ll either have to drive up from Westport, or catch a shuttle. There are no bus routes or other public transportation options to get there.
The Oparara Basin is 20 km north of town, so you’ll need a car to get there too (unless you hitch a ride, which is doable).
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