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Castlepoint cave: A brief history

Some have made the trek to see Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi, and many have got wet feet in the process, as the Wairarapa Archive’s MARK PACEY recounts.

Beneath I could hear

In the cave sounding drear

The dull hollow boom of the sea

As the tide rose and fell

With gurgling swell

As a captive who chafed to be free.

This poet’s impression formed a stanza in a poem called “Castlepoint: A Picture Poetical” that was published in the local paper in 1914.

Castlepoint has long been a popular destination for tourists, and Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi was among the places it was recommended to visit. “A sandy beach, a cave embellished with stalactites, secluded nooks amongst the rocks, suitable for flirting” was how one correspondent described the settlement in 1882.

While this is one of the earliest Pākehā records of Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi, it is by no means the first.

Indeed, the cave first earned its name as part of the founding mythology of Aotearoa New Zealand. Kupe was a brilliant fisherman and would go out and gather kaimoana to help feed his settlement on Hawaiki.

Kupe always brought home a good catch, but one day there were no fish caught, and all the baits had disappeared. Kupe suspected Muturangi, a chief in a village on the other side of the island, was responsible. Muturangi had a pet wheke [octopus] and it was this creature that Kupe suspected was behind it all.

Kupe was right, and when he saw the wheke in his fishing grounds, he gave chase. Across the seas they went, out of sight of Hawaiki until they finally came across land again. Trying to escape its pursuer, Muturangi’s wheke took shelter in a cave that then became known Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi in honour of the aquatic villain.

Victorian holidaymakers were quite taken by the wheke’s hiding place and would make sure to visit when the tide and the weather were right [you didn’t want to be there when either of those weren’t cooperating].

In Edwardian times the visitors had an unfortunate need to record that they’d been there by inscribing their names on several smooth surfaces in the cave that offered a perfect place for graffiti. “Hundreds of names are written all over the smooth patches” was how the newspaper in 1906 described the scene after a visit by a correspondent. The paper even said that visitors can write their names there, encouraging this vandalism to continue.

Another visit by a correspondent two years later resulted in a column in the Daily Times of quite descriptive detail: “Just inside the caves are numerous stalactites, glittering like diamonds, attached like icicles to the roof of the cavern.

On the floor of the cave are huge water-washed stones with a peculiar surface”.

The column concluded with a rather poetic passage: “Looking through this natural window is like an apparent kaleidoscope looking out to sea and is a most beautiful sight”. It also referred to the unfortunate telltale signs that others had been there before on the surface of the rocks, noting that “the writing appears to be indelible”.

Not all the newspaper reports about visits to the cave were serious and poetic. Some correspondents had a bit of fun with their writing. In 1890 a column compared Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi to Hermit’s Cave in Wellington, with the writer opining the Wairarapa’s cave was much better than the capital’s, although as far as they could work out, there was no one living in ours except for a few crabs.

On another occasion, a tourist came running out of the cave with news there was a seal in there, but when investigated, there was no sign of any marine mammals to be found. The young man who claimed to have seen the seal was described as having been “gifted with a romantic imagination or perhaps he had been imbibing rather freely of Castlepoint ginger pop”, which was apparently pretty potent stuff.

Today Te Ana o te Wheke o Muturangi remains a fascinating place to visit, but if you do decide to go and have a look, be aware of the tides and the weather and don’t follow in the destructive footsteps of the visitors who have come before. Be respectful and help preserve the beauty of this natural wonder so future generations can enjoy it too.


  1. These days, the young man who perhaps imbibed too much ginger pop would not have been wrong in his sighting. A colony of seals does seem to have taken up residence in and around the cave. If you do visit the cave, go very respectfully, and do not get between a seal and the sea!

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