Things To Do in Southland: Explore the Clifden Caves.
If you’re looking to satisfy your inner adventure junky, then a trip through the Clifden Caves should be on your to-do list. The caves are about an hour’s drive from Invercargill, and one of the few cave systems in Southland. At 385 metres long, there’s much to explore including stunning rock formations, plenty of glow worms, and visible fossils.
About the Clifden Caves.
The Clifden Caves are made of limestone formed during the Miocene Era, over 5 million years ago. The limestone was formed by the accumulation of sand, shell fragments and pebbles in a shallow sea. This sediment was buried and compressed before being folded, elevated and eroded, creating the present terrain. Acidic groundwater seeped through cracks in the rock, dissolving calcium carbonate in the surrounding limestone and forming the passageways we explore today.
The caves are home to many formations, including stalactites hanging from the roof, and stalagmites protruding up from the cave’s floor. These formations slowly grow over millions of years when water dripping through the roof of the system deposits calcium carbonate. They can be very fragile so it is important to follow the marked paths and refrain from touching the formations.
The cave’s ecosystem is an ideal home for cave weta, and glow worms which require a damp, still environment. New Zealand glow worms/titiwai are the larvae of fungus gnats, a small fly. Their lifecycle is made of four stages: egg, larvae, pupae and adult fly. The larvae is the only stage that can feed. The glow worm sets sticky silk threads which hang from its nest and uses its “glow” to attract prey which is then caught in the threads. The glow worm pulls up the silk thread and eats its catch, growing up to 2.5cm during this stage of its life. Throughout the system there are many opportunities to turn off your headlamp and enjoy the lights of the glow worms.
What to expect during your adventure.
The caves have three entrances, which are easily accessible from Clifden Gorge Road. The upper entrance is signposted from the road, with an adjacent parking area. The upper system is open to the public year round, but is prone to flooding. You should not enter the cave during or after heavy rain.
Exploration of the upper section of the Clifden Caves is suitable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness, and the Department of Conservation recommends explorers are over 12 years of age. The majority of the system is walkable, with one short section requiring crawling, and three ladders to climb. The terrain can be uneven and slippery and has a number of small pools.
The lower section is only accessible to experienced, well equipped groups and requires ropes and climbing equipment. Access to this section is via abseil. Once in the bottom of the system, you’ll wade through waist deep water with the option of a short swim through the sump to touch the end of the system. There is a short climb back up to the upper section.
What to bring.
Before heading into the caves make sure you have left your intentions with a trusted person. You’ll also need to have the right gear for the conditions. A headlamp or torch, plus a spare for each person is a must, and bring some extra batteries too. The air temperature inside the cave is colder than outside, so make sure you’re wearing layers that will still be warm if you get wet, i.e. polypropylene or wool. It pays to keep a full change of clothes in the car too. You’ll need sturdy, soft-soled footwear than can get wet and muddy. We’d also recommend wearing a helmet to avoid any injuries from low ceilings.
If you’re keen to drop into the lower section you will require an experienced guide. Our instructors regularly take groups through the Clifden Caves so are very familiar with the system, and can safely show you all the best spots! There’s nothing like the thrill of exploring an ancient, subterranean wonderland.