The Cave of the Spirit
The Cave of the Spirit

The cave of the Spirit (Te Ana o te Atua)

The Cave of the Spirit is the first cave in Waitomo, explored and recorded by a European. Dr Arthur Thompson noted the name Te Ana o te Atua and his reasons for visiting (1849) in a paper published in 1856. He had been instructed by Governor Grey to collect fossil bird bones requested by Dr Richard Owen, anatomist at the British Museum. Dr Owen was delighted with his first consignment of Moa and Takahe bones originating from a New Zealand cave environment. Throughout the 19th century many more moa bones were taken from the cave in the interests of science.

Before development of roads in the King Country, Te Ana o Te Atua was adjacent to an often used Maori walking trail which later became a bridle trail. The trail was an important route for Maori and Europeans travelling from the King Country to Kawhia Harbour on the West Coast. The cave was often visited and still contains examples of old graffiti, luckily very few stalactites were removed or damaged.

In 1952 a caver named John Kendrick recorded the first known movie images of a New Zealand cave. He recreated a caving expedition help from caving friends. This very entertaining film footage can be seen in the Waitomo Waitomo Discovery Centre exhibition.

Over the next 50 years many cavers and casual visitors walked through the cave enjoying easy and safe access over mainly sediment floors, this resulted in lots of footprints, and some mud migrating over calcite areas. More graffiti accumulated.

In 2000, The Spirit Cave passed into the ownership of the nearby limestone quarry operator McDonald’s Lime, they were enthusiastic about Spellbound’s proposal to develop the cave with carefully designed walking tracks that met environmental best practice standards. McDonald’s Lime in turn pledged revenue from their license agreement with Spellbound to replant the land above the cave in native forest. Fences have been built by McDonald’s Lime, which exclude grazing farm animals, already native trees and shrub seedlings are beginng to thrive.

A good cover of vegetation and zero disturbance of soil by grazing animals dramatically slowed down sediment build up within the cave. It is hoped that the calcite pools and floors of the cave will slowly restore to their original white colouration with reduced silt and fewer organic compounds washing over them.

Spellbound has developed track over the cave floor to protect it from further wear and tear, and to make the cave visit much more enjoyable for visitors.

Light streams into the cave of the Spirit
Light streams into the cave of the Spirit

Some important principles were followed during Spellbound’s development of the cave tracks

  • Tracks are removable to provide the least disturbance to the original cave floor. Concrete was used but always poured onto layers of black polythene sheeting.
  • Inert building materials were used: stainless steel was chosen metal for handrails, screws and light fittings; tanalized timber was carefully coated to prevent arsenic leachates reaching the cave sediments; recycled plastic (Replas) planking was used on raised walkways.
  • Construction work was carefully organised to avoid damage or disturbance to the cave. Concrete was used outside the cave to prevent cement dust floating upwards onto the cave walls and decorations. Matting was laid over the mud floors to avoid making more footprints. All metal filings were caught and carried out. All timber bearers and plastic planks were precut to size to prevent sawdust in the cave.
  • Tracks were built in gentle curves. This is an aesthetically pleasing way to treat a cave, it is also a cunning plan to protect the cave. The path was deliberately placed away from cave walls and simultaneously placed below the highest parts of the ceiling to minimise touching and head bumping by future visitors.

This has been a very exciting and satisfying project for Spellbound. Thanks must go to Australian cave consultant, Andy Spate (Australasian Caves and Karst Management Association) for his advice and comments during the planning stages. We would also like to thank Mark Gibson (our cave engineer) for his hard work and great care throughout construction. The newly developed Cave of the Spirit opened to visitors on Boxing Day 2004.