Auckland’s Volcanic Caves

Volcanic action over much of the Auckland isthmus gave a legacy of numerous lava caves, and while they did not have the attraction of glow worms as at Waitomo, nor unusual fossils found in caves near Wellington, in the early days of the Colonists there was much curiosity about those fissures beneath Epsom, Three Kings, Onehunga, Mt Albert and others.

A Day at the Caves, Maungakiekie

In the early days the Prince Albert Inn, Epsom’s licensed hotel, was the base from which tour parties left to visit caves in Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill’s) lava flows. A reporter from the “Auckland Times” described the excursion in March, 1843.

“We have heard a good deal of this place, and resolved when opportunity offered to pay it a visit, for the purpose of giving to the best of our ability a description of its peculiarities, in the hope of inducing the good people of Auckland to look about them a little instead of confining the exercise of their optics as too many do to a perpetual survey of the flag staff. On Friday last our holiday came off, and being favoured with the company of a friend or two, we walked to the Prince Albert Hotel in Epsom, where we enlisted the kind services of Mr. De Philipsthal* as a guide, and on our way passing through the estate of George Cooper, Esq.**, we were lucky enough to encounter Mr. Clare, the miner and well-sinker, who joined our party, carrying with him a Davy’s safety-lamp.

The entrance to the caves under Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill
Weekly News, Sire George Grey Collection, Auckland Libraries

The entrances to the cavern (for there are two) are nearly concealed by Tupakihi scrub, and lead immediately to a kind of circular vestibule, in the walls of which, so to speak, as the sight is reconciled to the sudden darkness of the place, various fissures will be discovered.


* Alfred de Philipsthal was licensee of the Prince Albert Hotel at the time and may have arranged the reporter’s trip to the caves to drum up the tourist trade.

** George Cooper’s estate was on (these days) Manukau Road near Epsom and Domett Avenue.

Going Underground

We turned our attention, as instructed, to one upon the right, a small arched opening about three feet high, gradually lessening in dimensions till it is barely large enough to admit the passage of a person in an absolutely crawling posture over the surface of rough scoria. When the head emerges from this place there is a sudden descent of about fifteen feet, (5m), and, having made it, the adventurer will find himself in a large cave again, branching out in various directions. These avenues are of unequal extent some extending perhaps as far as fifty yards, (45m), others less than so many feet frequently ten or twelve feet high (up to 4m), but more often not above three or four (about 1m). The roof, side and bottom are composed of rough scoria, with this remarkable circumstance, that in almost every passage, large or small, the roof is singularly perfect in form of the semi-circular arch. Generally speaking, there is little moisture in the place, but here and there water is dripping from above, and where that is the case stalactites are rapidly forming. With exception of the regular avenues, there is nothing striking to the eye of the general observer, the place seems to consist of rude heaps of very sharp rough scoria, upon which it is necessary to be very careful of one’s footsteps.

Burial Place

In the entrance of the cave there are several piles of human bones. But we did not observe any indication of the Aborigines having had the courage or the curiosity to penetrate beyond except indeed that at the very extremity of one of the deepest passages we found one solitary skull no doubt carried there by some explorer like ourselves, and dropped because of the trouble of taking it further. In one of the deepest recesses, after crawling upon our hands and knees for a considerable distance, we came to a spacious cave twelve to fifteen feet high (5m), from the roof of which, through crevices in the scoria, were dependent like bell-ropes the long white fibrous roots of some plant, which we intended to examine, but in the difficulties of the exit we forgot the specimens. We saw but little variety in the general deposit of scoria beneath our feet we brought away one very curious exception in a large piece resembling white coral. There were no symptoms of animal existence either to alarm or interest our party.

Calling Card Left

At the bottom of one of the most difficult of the avenues we found a card suspended, dated 22nd January, containing the names of Henry Macfarlane, the brothers Derrom, and several others of our townsmen. Upon the whole we were much gratified, and think the place well worthy a future visit. The air was pure and free in every part. Visitors must be well provided as we were with candles or torches, be very stoutly shod, and in a condition to be careless of their apparel. We do not think that at any time we were more than from twenty to twenty five feet below the external surface.

Other Caves

We have often noticed, when walking upon the nearly level ground at the feet of Mount Hobson, Eden, &c, the hollow sound that answers to the foot-fall, and have little doubt but that these subterranean cavities are common. Upon this excursion we were confirmed in our opinion of the generally excellent quality of the valley land among these mountain ranges; but we noticed that some of the small allotments marked out were nothing better than perfectly impracticable scoria. The fern grows tall and green between the blocks, and clothes them with an appearance of luxuriance, but it is next to impossible even to walk over the land, much less to put it to any practical service. The stock we saw in the neighbourhood were in very fine condition: they feed entirely upon the spontaneous herbage”.

A Practical Prank

“Unus” writing in the New Zealander newspaper, 21 June 1845, narrates a visit to the Epsom caves that reveals a prankster. Fred was invited by a friend to visit the caves, a novelty it was thought. But Fred had been before and was not very impressed with the trip through the volcanic caverns. Nevertheless, he agreed to go with his friend Jules Wilton. But then, on the day, stood him up. In fact Fred set out for the caves ahead of Jules armed with matches, candles, a preparation of phosphorus and a stick. Once deep in the caves he lay in wait for his friend Jules, having placed the stick across the narrow entrance to the inner-most cavern. Fred takes up the story:

“Jules and his trusted friend Jem came towards the place where I was hiding, and finding the cave  widening, they lifted their heads to take observations, and as I anticipated, Jules got his feet entangled with the stick. Down he came, and extinguished the lighted taper on the wet ground. Springing out into the cave, I stood at some distance in front of him, my features quivering with flame as I had by now applied and lit the phosphorous. As he rose, muttering an exclamation of anger, his eyes appeared to detect me. There was a dead pause of some seconds.

Then he cried, “Oh! murder! Jem! Oh murder!”

As Jem approached, I circled further out into the darkness.

“What is the matter, master?” Jem asked.

“Look there!” and Jem held up the torch, and peeping over his master’s shoulder, they both, at once, sent forth a yell, that would have awakened the dead, and at the same moment, a quantity of loose earth falling upon them, knocked out the remaining torch. Nothing could exceed the confusion of their retreat; the pushing, muttering, and scrambling, was enough for twenty people, and soon left me liberty for my egress”.

“Unus” ends the yarn with the following later encounter between Fred and Jules.

“Well, have you been to the caves?” I inquired.

“Yes, I have been to the caves!”

“And, pray, what did find?”

“Why! I found the Devil”.

“Found the Devil, what was he like?”

“Come, none of your joking, Fred. For as true as I see you now, I saw the Devil, or someone, belonging to him, in the caves at Epsom!”

Old Maori Sepulchre

In June 1907 the One Tree Hill Domain Board gave newspapermen an opportunity to visit the lava caves under Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill. Accompanied by the benefactor who gave the parkland to Auckland, Sir John Logan Campbell, officials and the reporters went first to the southern (Onehunga) side of Cornwall Park reserve near where today Sorrento is situated.

Sir John Logan Campbell
James D Richardson – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-1364

The aging Sir John (97 years) thought the better of attempting the difficult access to the caves, obtainable only through narrow openings and with the aid of several ladders.  Here’s how the reporter described the descent in The Auckland Star, 4th June 1907:

“Once through the opening, the visitor finds himself in a dome-like cave, about 40ft. (12m) by 25ft. (7m) with a height in the centre of fully 20ft. (6m) In fact the place is really a cupola, with wonderfully even sides, and viewed from below the aperture in the roof looks just like a chimney. This is the first cave, and walking along to one side, the visitors found their way by means of another ladder to the cavern below, which is not so regular in shape as the upper one, being longer and narrower”.

This was the cave that contained many human bones, from the days when the volcanic cone was the palisade settlement for many Maori. Inter-tribal fighting for territory (and Maungakiekie was a prize) often left many dead… the caves are apparently their tapu resting place.

The reporter again: “The quantity is impossible to estimate, as rubbish has fallen from the roof in places and covered up the heaps near the entrance to the lower chamber. Apparently the process adopted was to lower the bones to the first floor, and then tumble them down to the lower cave, as it can be seen that the whole deposit is pyramidal in shape, the apex being under the hole by which the visitors descended to the second floor. One thing was quite evident, namely, that tons upon tons of bones must have been thrown down to consolidate into a heap, at one point, four feet in depth”

After spending considerable time in examining the bones, the visitors went along to the end of the second floor, and there saw a most peculiar formation.

“The rock presented the appearance of solidified boiling mud as if was one of the boiling mud pools at Whakarewarewa. In the centre is a circular opening about two and a-half feet across, (.76m) and this leads to a third cave of a small  size, however, the only bones discovered was the skeleton of a rabbit that must have dropped through the aperture on the surface and wandered to the bottom of the cave looking for an exit. The floor of the lower cave is all uneven, the appearance of petrified mud”.
“Access to other smaller caves near Maungakiekie was easier… and apart from some brown stalactites found in one of them, there was little of interest”.

Drilling Through the Caves for Water and …???

Captain Henry Hardington of Onehunga was determined to find water under the scoria layers in the “upper parts” of the suburb, the slopes leading to Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill. He was a businessman, a publican and who in the early 1860s began a timetabled horse-bus service between Auckland City and Onehunga which also carried the mails. Miners, and those who said they knew the look of the strata, thought there might be gold beneath the scoria.

Onehunga, 1860s, the view from Captain Hardington’s property
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-730

Hardington met several obstacles while drilling, according to the Daily Southern Cross newspaper in October 1862. First, the drill encountered several large caverns, with scoria, as it descended. These sudden punches through solid rock into large pockets of fresh air must have caused some surprises. The first miner got to 100 feet (30m) when Hardington had to let him go on account “wasting a great deal of time endeavouring to quench an insatiable thirst”.

His replacement did not fare too much better, “after several days’ work he could only effect a few cracks in the rocks and there being a stoppage of funds in consequence, he disappeared”.

“The third party on the project consisted of 6 miners from Otago, who, after about a week’s labour, bolted”.

“The fourth, and last, were Cornish miners, who evidently understood their work, and stuck to it till it was finished. During operations the workmen became seriously inconvenienced from the fouling of the air… … at some places the sulphuric fumes emitted were almost over powering.

Mr. Hardington deserves credit for the perseverance he has displayed in bringing this tedious undertaking to a successful termination. It has cost him nearly £400 but as he has got an abundant supply of superior water he does not appear to think that it has been too dearly bought”.

His 2 year investment paid off. He had tapped the source of a most plentiful supply of water, said to be the purest in Auckland. These local springs still supply the local reservoir at the rate of up to 20 million litres each day.  The possibility of finding gold remained just that… a possibility.

Scientific Excursion

In January 1869 the learned members of the Auckland Institute held a field day investigating he caves at Three Kings. Only a handful turned up, ignoring the fact that once they had entered the caves the rain outside didn’t really matter!

The Daily Southern Cross reported, “Provided with candles and chemicals the company descended and explored the different passages, carefully examining the roofs and sides of the galleries. One adventurous savan, who must have graduated as an explorer in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, crawled through a side gallery, and, pushing his head through a narrow opening, lay gazing down a dread abyss, the horrors of which he could dimly discern by the light of a single Belmont sperm (type of candle). The burning of the magnesium wire in the innermost recess of the cave had a very brilliant effect. Captain Hutton had formerly discovered two minerals in this cave, a solitary specimen of a house fly was observed, being at the farthest end of the cave, and several spiders were seen crawling on the sides of the cave, or busy spreading their webs in the corners. At different parts of the cave water was dropping from the roof, and here and there long slender filaments of roots were hanging down. From the entrance to the cave to a steep incline – some twenty feet high – the distance in a north-westerly direction is 135 feet (40m) ; one gallery then runs in the same direction for 192 feet (58m); another nearly south for 218 feet (66m); the termination of the latter has an upward tendency, for we heard the tramp of cattle overhead. The Maoris have a tradition that the other passage extends to the Whau, (Avondale) but science with her tape declares it , terminates at 327 feet (100m) from the mouth of the cave.

One of the local press hinted that the savans were about to violate the tapu, but any bones found were most religiously respected.

Another party of scientists went below in 1925, mapping the cave system and venturing as far as they could go in all directions. They found each branch ended in solid rock, ending the theory the system extended from Three Kings to Avondale, or beyond.

Before the Pakeha

With this news, a columnist in the New Zealand Herald recalled earliest use of the caves by Maori: mainly burial chambers (and some bones were seen at Three Kings, and as we know, many more under Maungakiekie – One Tree Hill) and also used for underground passage to surprise the enemy during inter-tribal fighting or to beat a retreat.

The Herald article continues… “…somewhere in the vicinity of the Zoo, there was a passage which served as a means of escape from the Owairaka pa, situated on the hill, (Mt Albert summit) a very useful thing in time of war. Its entrance was supposed to be on the south side of the hill. During the 14th Century, the story goes, a party of the Ngatiawa people were besieged at Owairaka and to avoid being vanquished, retreated through the passage. Their chief Ruarangi, as a true leader should do, brought up the rear of the retreat. Unfortunately he was a portly man and at one narrow part of the passage through which all of his warriors had managed to squeeze, he stuck and was caught and slain by his pursuers”.

This cave, although not now so extensive as to provide an “escape route” still exists. I have seen it but not ventured inside, the entrance is on private property on the south side of the summit in the vicinity of Mt Royal Avenue, Mt Albert.

Lost in the Caves

The cavernous nature of the Three Kings caves, plus their apertures and “side caves” had been a popular place for visits by social clubs, scientific entities, walking clubs… and schoolboy “explorers”… over the decades.

Casual visits to the caves came to notice in April 1936 when two boys were lost in the underground “lava labyrinth”.

The boys, locals aged 11 and 13, were missed when they did not return home as expected and a search of the caves and surrounding area was mounted. 45 residents and 3 policemen took kerosene lanterns, electric torches and ropes to search the caves, split into parties each led by residents who knew the layout. Some two and a half hours later the two were discovered deep inside the caves, almost asleep, undisturbed by their apparent plight but welcome to see their rescuers. They were about 80 feet (25 m) below the surface and it about a quarter of an hour’s walk to get back to the caves’ entrance.

The boys had gone into the caves on an “expedition”, as they had done several times before, to explore the caverns and to look for artefacts. Their kerosene lamp failed in the depths of the cave and after groping around in the dark for some time they decided not to take any side passages but to stay put. They lay down on their raincoats and in the musty, stuffy, environment became sleepy, reciting school poems to help keep awake. It was at this stage they were pleased to hear voices and see their rescuers’ torch beams.

Residents, backed by the Chairman of the Mt Roskill Road Board, Charles McCullough, favoured boarding up the entrance to the caves to prevent similar recurrences – “before there is a fatality,” he said.


Source:  Papers Past National Library of New Zealand


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