'Haunted' cave opens again to sightseers

By Nicola Boyes

A large cave network at Waitomo, which has been closed to the public for 18 years, is about to reopen next week with a new 15m deep, manmade entranceway.

Visitors to Ruakuri, near the existing Waitomo Caves, will be able to walk down a spiral staircase and through a tunnel to views of glowworms and stalactite formations. The original entrance remains closed to protect Maori burial grounds.

Prime Minister Helen Clark will officially open Ruakuri next Thursday. The cave was closed after land disputes between the Holden family, who own the land, and Government.

In a landmark decision it was found the Holden family not only owned the land above the cave, but also owned the ground under it, including the cave itself. As a result, it closed to the public.

Tourism Holdings, which also runs Waitomo's black water rafting operation, has secured a 33-year lease on the cave from the Holden family, and spent $4 million and 18 months preparing for its reopening.

Manager Robert Tahi says the cave has a "presence", but puts it down to the rivers and waterfalls that run through it.

"You can hear them from the different chambers, your imagination takes over and you can imagine people talking or people walking towards you."

He dismisses claims the cave is haunted despite local stories, including an alleged incident where a black water rafting guide, who did not want to be named, said he felt like he had been asphyxiated while in the cave earlier this year.

John Ash, a geologist who has been advising Tourism Holdings on the cave's reopening, said he was aware "quite a few people have had interesting experiences in it".

"People talk about a cave being alive or dead. This cave is very much alive."

According to Maori legend, the cave was discovered 400 to 500 years ago by a young Maori hunter.

A pack of wild dogs are said to have inhabited the entrance and the cave was named rua, meaning den and kuri meaning dogs.

Mr Ash said people who had been in the cave by themselves had said they heard or saw other people.

"To me the cave has mana, it has presence to it."

While the cave is 7.5km long, only 1km of it will open to the public in accordance with strict resource consents.

Each person's experience in entering the cave will be different, he says. "The cave will speak for itself and people will take away a different message in terms of how it interacts with them."

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