About the Oparara Basin
The Oparara Basin is a complex of limestone caves, arches, and channels. The basin is 35 million years old, with the most extensive limestone formations in the southern hemisphere. The basin's pristine landscape and primeval rainforest are popular with walkers, cavers, and nature lovers. Paleontologists come here to study fossil deposits of birds including moa bones, that have been preserved by the caves over millions of years.
The Oparara River, the color of strong tea, flows through the basin meandering in and out of caves, arches, and channels.
Location and getting there
The Oparara Basin is located 20 km north of Karamea in the Kahurangi National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. It is more than 2 hours drive north of Westport. An old road through the forest that branches inland approximately 11 km north of Karamea (on the way to Kohaihai), provides access to the basin. It is a further 12 km to the arches car park and another 3 km to the caves car park.
It is a close and steep gravel road and not recommended for campervans.
The Karamea Information Centre can provide information on shuttle services going to the Oparara Basin.
Oparara is part of Tourism West Coast's 'icon development program', to increase tourism, make money, and create jobs. However, conservationists have been actively opposing the plan, saying it would turn the historic caves into a 'theme park'.
I went to the Oparara Basin with Neil Silverwood, a cave specialist, and outdoor instructor and guide. I was touring the West Coast with Neil to get off the beaten tourist track and see some wild, untamed, and natural landscapes of New Zealand. In Neil's words, 'Oparara is a fragile landscape under pressure from increasing numbers of tourists. Cave formations crumble from the slightest touch; whio nest right next to a busy visitors' car park, and Spelungulas are increasingly being exposed to light pollution from torches worn by visitors eager to see New Zealand's largest and rarest spider.
If technology and tourism don't completely destroy the basin in the next few years, I will rate the Oparara experience highly. Otherwise, we will have to look for other off the beaten tracks to escape the crowds.