The Te Anau Glowworm Caves and Aurora cave system

Date: 29 April 2019

Te Anau caves formation

At approximately 12,000 years old, the Glowworm caves are part of the ‘youngest’ section of the greater Aurora system. Due to youth, the glowworm caves are considered ‘high energy’, the risk of flooding and low stalactite and stalagmite growth are a sign of this.

The Tunnel Burn stream that flows through the system would have originally run across the surface from Lake Orbell to Lake Te Anau. However, gradually this water cut through the mountain and down into the soft limestone within the cave system. The caves are still growing due to the flow of this water – the coursing power and mildly acidic nature of the stream dissolve rock and can turn small cracks into large voids.

Explore the caves

The twists and turns of the Aurora cave system are legendary. While the tour reaches some interesting places, it certainly does not cover the distance of the underground system.

6.7 kilometres long, and with four sprawling levels, the cave system is equal parts dark and treacherous, magical and enthralling. 

The Aurora Cave system

Diagram of Lower cave system

Lower cave system

Te Anau Caves discovery

While the name Te Ana-au is translated as ‘cave with a current of swirling water’, for years the cave existed merely as part of Maori legend. However, in 1948, after three years’ searching, one determined explorer finally found the hidden entrance. After uncovering evidence of water disappearing in the hills and reappearing at the lake, Lawson Burrows took the plunge – diving in and under the lake’s edge before resurfacing inside the cave. Recognising the incredible potential of the site, Mr Burrows began the first tourism operation soon after this initial discovery. 

Original punt used to access glowworm grotto

Evolving cave system

There are many distinct areas within the Aurora system, the colourful names of which leave visitors with no doubt as to the features. The Cathedral is the highest point inside, rising up 20 metres from the cave floor. It may get larger too. The caves will continue to grow and evolve.

Protecting and preserving

Access is restricted to the fragile cave’s ecosystem, and a set number of visitors is allowed each year. It’s not just because of what’s in the cave either. As the major wild habitat of the endangered takahe, an iconic flightless native bird, the surrounding Murchison Mountains are also highly important as a conservation area.

About the author: Will

Originally arriving in Queenstown for a two week holiday, 15 years later he's still here - living the dream. Working in the digital realm means he's never too far from an electronic device and when not in the office you'll find him planning DIY projects he'll never start or enjoying a cold beer with mates.

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