By Kelly Lynch

It is hard not to think of Middle Earth once we're deep inside Middle Cave. Gollum and his Precious could be quite content here in its pitch black, damp yet warm surrounds.

It is one of three caves at Abbey Caves, a few minutes drive from Whangarei town centre. Steps below the road lead to a secluded property where a walking track meanders across rolling pasture, past generous sections of native bush.

Strewn about are massive limestone rocks, some boulders, others outcrops, curving and jutting at unusual eye catching angles. They are everywhere and their size and prominence gives the impression they're guardians of the property.

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The 18-hectare reserve was once part of a 165ha farm bought by Nathaniel and Amelia Clotworthy in about 1860.

Recent immigrants from Northern Ireland, they built a large two-storeyed homestead for their 13 children but the house burned down almost 100 years ago and today all that remains is the chimney.

The farm was eventually sold to the Golden Bay Cement Company who planned to mine it, but instead in 1989 sold it to Whangarei City Council at a reduced price so it would become a public reserve.

The area is open for exploring but comes with a warning to be prepared as at times water fills the caves, there are sink holes, bluffs and the area is undeveloped. This warning makes the destination all the more appealing to us as a place for an afternoon adventure.

We arrive at the entrance to Organ Cave. Above its opening, limestone slabs wedge together in the shape of a steeple. In front of us, sitting down, surrounded by rocks is a woman unsure of her next move. Contemplating the rocky descent ahead of her she is marooned by her indecision and in doing so blocks the only accessible entrance. It's intrepid exploring that requires a torch, reasonable footwear and some co-ordination.

We leave her and continue on the loop track over a stile and across an open grass area passing countless outcrops and an impressive puriri tree. A sign directs us under the outstretched branches of old trees sprouting epiphytes. The track leads to a jumbled heap of rock and tree roots gripping tightly to any available soil.

The sun struggles to make its way through the dense canopy, and rocks are tinged mossy green. We can hear the sound of running water resonating from within, and the area feels old, ancient, untapped and smells damp and earthy.

Stretching our limbs we climb cautiously over rocks down to the cave floor and resign ourselves to walking though clear, ankle deep water along a bed of stones.

Torchlight is essential and prevents us from hitting our heads and hips on protruding rock formations. Our 7-year-old daughter's constant oohs and aahs calm any parental concern that she might have silently fallen down a hole and disappeared.

The biggest gasps come when the torches are turned off and we tilt our heads towards a ceiling of bright twinkling stars.

It is the light of glowworms, luring insects to their sticky threads. The little stars zigzag along the ceiling showing the way ahead, but once torchlight is resumed they're invisible and the stalactites regain our attention. The cave feels warmer now, and the water moving through our shoes no longer cold.

After10 minutes of slow shuffling though the flowing water, light filters above, through gaps between rocks at the cave's end

There is a large enough hole to exit here but it is high and we're not confident Miss Seven can stretch far enough between footholds in the rocks, so we turn back and retrace our steps.

We do some random spotlighting on crevices in the hope of spotting cave wetas, but none show themselves. Instead we practise our best Tarzan calls, pausing to hear the echoes.

Ivy Cave is near a stream. Its entrance is narrower than that of the other two caves; the water level is higher, and once inside some crawling on hands and knees is required.

We decide to return to it another time and instead continue to walk across the reserve past rock formations, standing above the tree line like towers.

Fenced off in the grass between two small kauri trees is a plaque dedicated to the Clotworthy family, in recognition of their pioneering spirit.

Fantails appear, hopping between branches, their tails fanning when they stop in a nearby tree.

Even if caving doesn't appeal, a walk across this peaceful and unusual property is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

LOWDOWN
Abbey Caves are at 120 Abbey Caves Rd, Whangarei. Admission is free. Take torch, helmet, walking shoes and a picnic.